Learning to Drink Local

Photo Credit: Univerity of MinnesotaPhoto Credit: Univerity of MinnesotaWith the last of the mild fall weather eeking its way out, my friend and I decided to make the annual pilgrimage to the apple orchard and winery last weekend. Aamodt’s Apple Farm and the St. Croix Vineyards – conveniently located together just west of Stillwater – make the short journey too easy to pass up. If you’ve ever spent an afternoon on this idyllic little bit of land, you know how nice it is to escape the city, watch the kids jump around on hay bales, taste some lovely wines, and go home dreaming of what to do with your big bag of apples.

There are tons of wineries in the local area and all have their personalities in terms of location, quaintness of their tasting rooms, onsite events, sophistication of their retail shops, and – most importantly – how they handle the grapes. The result: there’s literally something for everyone!

Most Minnesota wineries feature several grape varietals that have been bred to survive our harsh winters. Instead of burying the vines to winter over (much like you would with roses), these are hearty enough to remain uncovered and still churn out wonderful grapes year after year. These vines are predominantly French hybrids created by the smart people at the University of Minnesota. Yep, Minnesota wine to go with my Minnesota apples – delish!

Most local wineries also get into blending their wines by layering in grapes grown in California, Washington and New York. While these produce delicious wines, I am more interested in the wines that are made of 100% pure Minnesotan stock. In the case of St. Croix Vineyards, they do Minnesotan wines and they do non-Minnesotan wines; they just don’t blend them together. So it was a great place to compare and contrast. (Side note, I’m no sommelier, so please forgive the pedestrian descriptions to follow.)

The whites were dominated by the fruity Riesling-like Vignoles (from New York) and the award-winning local Seyval, one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the season, but I was also really excited to try the newer La Crescent (I understand this one to be more recently released by the U of M, and this is the first bottling). This is a really balanced and lovely wine, aged just 10 months, with lots of fruity and floral going on. I could see enjoying this for Thanksgiving, perhaps a lot of it. And the surprise of the bunch was the apple wine, Orchard Reserve. Made from U of M brainchild Honeycrisp apples (grown by Pepin Heights), this wine tasted like a less-perky version of my favorite traditional European ciders, Strongbow, K and even Crispin. The wine had the apple flavor but wasn’t at all sweet. Dry, crisp, and I could even see throwing it over ice or mixing it with a little soda for a cider-like effect. Two bottles came home for Thanksgiving.

Summer Red (made from the Marechal Foch grape, in the white wine style) wasn’t being tasted any longer, but we snagged one of the last bottles in the shop and brought it home anyway. There's just something lovely about a slightly chilled, light, fruity red wine - almost like Beaujolais Nouveau. The Marechal Foch Reserve itself was perfect for a basic fall wine. Just 7 months aged in American oak, this had lots of fruity flavor and was easy to sip. And yep, Marechal Foch is another classic Minnesotan grape.

The gem of the day, however, was the Frontenac. Actually, the 2007 Frontenac (also Minnesotan) is sold out already. But, according to our savvy wine tasting guide, Amy, the good folks at St. Croix Vineyards unearthed a couple of cases of the 2006 vintage in the cellar recently. Hidden treasure! This one is a fabulous, big and bold, and really appealed to me. They aren’t technically tasting it but if you ask nicely, they may let you in on a sip if they have one open. Several bottles of Frontenac filled out our full case quite nicely. Amy opened one of our bottles to enjoy on the premises - with added cheese and peppery crackers, we had a leisurely snack on the grounds and enjoyed the last few hours of warm sunlight. Perfect.

(A few things to know: St. Croix Vineyard’s tasting room is open 7 days a week through December 31st. A half-case will get you 5% off. A case purchase will get you 10% off, membership in their Case Club and an invite to the upcoming Case Club annual party. Tasting is $5, but there’s also a refund of that fee if you purchase 2 or more bottles of wine.)

Tracy Morgan is a Twin Cities foodie and the owner of Segnavia Creative, a marketing services consulting company located in St. Paul, MN.