When Acquaviva Winery in Maple Park, Illinois petitioned the Tax and Trade Bureau during 2007 to use the name Brianna for their wine labels, they found that only one other winery had petitioned for the name. From virtually anonymity just five years ago, Brianna is now growing in popularity all over the Midwest. Grape growers like this wine grape for its cold hardiness, surviving temperatures below -20F, and tolerating sweltering summer heat of up to 90F. Wine drinkers like it for its tropical aromas, notably pineapple, banana, and mango.
Brianna is a cold climate white grape variety created by the late Elmer Swenson (the Godfather of cold climate grapes) and named by Ed Swanson of Cuthills Vineyards in Pierce, Nebraska.
Contrary to the popular story, Brianna is not named after Elmer Swenson’s wife or daughter. Ed Swanson said he thought the grape would be a “strong and healthy grower” and he first considered naming it “Brian.” However, “Brian” did not seem like an appropriate name for a white wine, so Brianna entered the wine world in a more feminine form.
Technically, it is an interspecific hybrid (V. labrusca and V. riparia). According to Lisa Smiley’s 2008 profile, Brianna yields medium to large size berries, thick-skinned and greenish-gold.
Brianna can be grown in a variety of soils. Mick McDowell of Miletta Vista Winery in St. Paul, Nebraska, says that while all three of his Nebraska Brianna growers have sandy to sandy loam soils, it is a versatile variety. “It offers tremendous opportunities as a varietal,” McDowell noted. He also states that it can tolerate Nebraska’s weather extremes. His grapes are grown in zone 4, where the temperatures drop to -10F on extreme occasions.
Ed Swanson cautions against letting Brianna remain on the vine too long. “If you let it hang too long, you’ll get some of the labrusca parentage showing up in the background of the wine,” he said. “Better to pick Brianna early and make a lower alcohol wine.”
Several wineries have also told Midwest Wine Press that keeping fruit cool during the trip from the vineyard to the crush pad helps retain the subtle flavors and aromas of Brianna.
McDowell reports that the fruit tones can be powerful, even when Brianna is fermented to .5% residual sugar. Brianna is also a good blender. That’s because it can add balance and fruitiness as a blender without being overpowering. One of Miletta Vista’s top-selling wines, known as Cougarliscious, is a blend of Brianna and LaCrosse. McDowell said this popular Miletta Vista wine pairs the pineapple tones of the Brianna with the grapefruit tones of the LaCrosse.
Brianna is normally picked in August when the pH levels are around 3.2-3.4. This varietal is often fermented cool at around 55-60F to preserve the fruit aromas. McDowell said that the temperature he chooses is dependent on the yeast selection.
Brad Johnson of Fireside Winery in Marengo, Iowa, confirmed that Brianna appeals to a wide demographic. To gauge consumer reactions and preferences, Fireside Winery conducted a taste trial with 75 people to test their Brianna wine. Fireside found that their Brianna sells best in a semi-sweet style. “The pineapple and banana aromas win consumers over,” Johnson said. “It makes a really beautiful wine.”
Joe Brandonisio, General Manager of Acquaviva Winery in Batavia, Illinois, says that Brianna is the sweetest wine in their portfolio and is ideal as a dessert wine. He said that there is no particular age group that Brianna appeals to, but women seem to favor this wine more than men. “It appeals to women because of the bright characteristics it displays,” Brandonisio said. Brianna’s crisp, sweet, floral characteristics are pleasing to wine drinkers of all ages, and the wine has been a good seller for Acquaviva also.
McDowell said that his Brianna sales are increasing. Perhaps that’s because the Miletta Vista 2011 Brianna won a gold medal for Best of Show White Wine at the 2012 U.S. National Wine Competition in Sonoma, CA. “The subtleness of the tropical tones of our 2011 wine is mystically powerful,” McDowell said. He adds that the blend of flavors and aromas combined with the refreshing acid levels are the key to the wines popularity. (McDowell likes a pH of 3.2 at harvest.)
Brianna wine is now available at many regional wineries including Acquaviva Winery, Fireside Winery, and Miletta Vista Winery.