Creating a Regional Flavor
Last fall, I was having a discussion with one of my volunteer pickers about tasting local wines. He had recently visited some local wineries and mentioned one in particular. “It didn’t feel right. It didn’t have a northern winery flavor. All of their wines were the same old California styles,” he said. We went on to discuss the differences between vinifera and hybrid wine styles and flavors and the fact that he was looking for something that represented the region.
This discussion got me thinking about the idea of what does it take to create a regional wine flavor? I’ve read numerous books on wine and viticulture and they all discuss the same element, terroir. Terroir is a French term that essentially highlights an area’s climate, soils and the viticultural practices used to create quality fruit and wine that distinguishes that region. Wikipedia describes it as “a sense of place”.
When I think of terroir, I think of some of the world’s great winemaking regions such as Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa Valley. But how did these places create a regional flavor for which they are now so famous? I quickly noticed they highlighted their differences in climate and grape varieties. In reading about the history of these regions I found many of them have hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years of trial and error before they came into their own and found the key to making a stand out region.
One of the great stories of establishing terroir is the story of France’s Champagne region. As Karen MacNeil tells it in her book “The Wine Bible,” the Champenois worked to no avail for years to produce wines that would be as good as their Burgundy neighbors to the south. The Champenois wines would halt fermentation in the cold winter and restart again in the warming spring. The Northern French were frustrated with their tart and fizzy wines. After many years, however, wine producers like Dom Perignon embraced what they had and created specialized techniques that have since made the region one of world’s most recognized and respected.
Other regions have done the same thing by finding that special grape variety that fit perfectly with their unique climate such as Germany’s Mosel River Valley and Riesling, Italy’s Piedmont Region with Barbera and Nebbiolo, Argentina with Malbec and Oregon with Pinot Noir. This list goes on and on. Closer to home I see regions such as Ontario, Missouri, New York, Michigan, Texas and Oregon. All of these regions have focused on the same idea of terroir and finding that specific grape variety, or varieties, that allow them to make the best wine their region will allow. In looking at the success of these regions I have then come to ask myself what will it take for us to create a unique regional flavor profile here in Minnesota and the entire upper Midwest for that matter?
In looking into this concept more closely, I have spoken to a number of local growers and winery owners. Some are actively working to attain this regionality. Others are intrigued by the concept. Still others believe developing a regional identity cannot be accomplished here. Nevertheless, regardless of their point of view all expressed concerns.
Concern number one:
We don’t have the quantity of grapes needed to keep up with the growing number of wineries in the upper Midwest. I believe this to be a real concern, but one that can be overcome. We don’t have to look very far to the east to Michigan where as recently as the 1970s there were few wine grape vineyards. Today, we see large commercial vineyards that are very successful and profitable. I believe that if we are to create a region based on our terroir and our cold hardy vines we will need to see an investment by growers to move to these larger vineyard models. Likewise, it would then take a commitment from our wineries to buy the fruit that these growers produced. Many of our wineries are currently buying fruit from east and west coast vineyards, who then ship the grapes across the county. If they can make it work why can’t we grow the same quantity here?
Concern number two:
We don’t have quality fruit. As a grower of ten years I understand the struggles of growing grapes in the upper Midwest. As a winemaker however, I fully understand the need for good fruit to make good wine. I have spoken to wine makers who have reported local fruit coming in that was under ripe, full of rot, full of bird damage or worse full of multi colored Asian beetles. If we are to ever make this region recognized throughout the world we must start by growing quality fruit. This does not mean we need to grow vinifera. This means we need fully ripe, disease and insect free cold hardy grapes that can make cold hardy wines that best represent our region and our terroir. Can it be done? Absolutely. As a grower I always take pride in the fruit I deliver and want to see it made into quality award-winning wine. It can be done, but then we, as growers need to think about this as a profession and not a hobby.
Concern number three:
Our customers ask for vinifera wines so that is what we have to sell. In as much as this may be true there is a recent trend to “Buy Local” and local wineries are benefiting from this movement dramatically. I am continuously amazed at the interest people have in the concept of locally grown and locally made wines. So how do we do this? We need to create a marketing strategy that highlights our local terroir and wines. Such marketing efforts seem to be working well elsewhere. Take for example Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission and VQA in Nova Scotia. Another excellent current example is the “Uncork New York” campaign which is proving to be successful in promoting New York wine. And most recently, the “Go Texan” campaign promoting Texas wines. If we can generate promotional and educational tools similar to some of these I believe we can see our market share increase dramatically as people are interested in new wine regions and new wine styles. Wine Business Monthly continually promotes the millennials as our new wine drinking generation and the fact that they are looking for something different from what their parents drank. Focusing on them may be our opportunity to create our region that is brand new.
We are doing well right now, why change? Indeed we are doing well. We have seen a staggering growth in upper Midwest wineries. Nonetheless, if we insist on importing Merlot from out-of-state there is nothing to set us apart from what our customers can get at any local liquor store. We do have something unique, we just need to celebrate, promote and market it. Moreover, the millennials are looking for something new and we need to address them with wines that highlight our terroir. Further, we need to promote our regional flavor as something people can’t get from other regions. We have white wines that rival some of the best white wines made anywhere in the U.S. We currently produce a port style Frontenac that can compete with California ports and we could become a powerhouse of ice wine production if we work on it in a unified effort.
I have read the economic impact study of the Minnesota wine industry and it is impressive. As of 2007 the industry has contributed approximately $36 million to the Minnesota economy. As impressive as this may be other growing regions, such as Texas, the local wine industry is currently contributing $1.7 billion to their local economy and Missouri is at $1.6 billion. Looking at these numbers we can begin to see the potential a local wine industry may have to offer the State of Minnesota. However, to do this we need to develop a regional flavor and strive to see our economic impact in the billions.
In looking at this concept of developing a new regional flavor, it is likely that we are on the brink of developing something huge. However, we need to develop commercial growers capable of producing many more tons of quality fruit. Likewise, we need commitment from wineries to purchase that fruit to make high quality, cold climate wines that represent our terroir.
We need to celebrate our unique terror as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the country. Yes, we are doing well; but let us start a discussion about what it will take to put us on the wine-drinking map, nation wide, with a brand new regional flavor from a brand new wine producing region focused on our unique vines, our climate and our terroir.
The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil
This story first appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association Newsletter, “Notes from the North” and is reprinted with permission.
Irv Geary is the Wine Maker at Wild Mountain Winery in Taylor’s Falls, Minnesota. Wild Mountain makes wine from locally grown grapes. Please visit the winery’s website at: http://www.wildmountainwinery.com/index.html