John Marshall: My Favorite Red Wine Grapes
This article is a companion to an earlier piece describing cold hardy white grapes that seem to have found their niche in a crisp, flowery and fruity style.
Cold hardy reds, on the other hand, do not seem to have found their place or their style and as yet. They do not seem to get the respect their white counterparts are beginning to enjoy.
Even so, these reds make palatable and interesting wines that are not available outside the area. While this may make them vulnerable to skepticism, these very characteristics also may make them leaders as we work to create a style of wine that personifies our great region. Please note the descriptions below as hardy grapes produce an artist’s palate of new wines with important possibilities.
Frontenac — This was the first of the University of Minnesota’s cold hardy hybrids, released in 1995 as a first generation Riparia Hybrid. It was immediately maligned as being high in acid and full of odd flavors and aromas. Despite the critics, it has won a number of very prestigious awards in blind tasting. Frontenac can be made as a port-style wine and produces a very popular (though rather dark) rose’ wine. Other favorable attributes of Frontenac are its inherent reliability in many climates and soils plus the ability to bear heavily and reliably year in and year out. Frontenac remains popular despite predictions of its demise as newer grapes are released.
While first selections were being taken, the breeders at the University of Minnesota were having a problem finding an appropriate name for MN1047, as it was first known. On a field visit they passed through the tiny village of Frontenac in the Mississippi River Valley southeast of St. Paul and decided this would make an excellent wine grape name.
Unfortunately, Frontenac is the name of the governor of Quebec when the British conquered it and he is regarded there as a traitor. This does not help its popularity in Canada. For Americans, naming a grape “Frontenac” would be a little like naming it “Benedict Arnold.”
This faux pas has not kept Frontenac from experiencing something of a rebirth in popularity in recent years for its ability to adjust to many soils and climates, flexibility in winemaking and its reliability in bearing. These things continue to fuel its on-going commercial success.
Marquette — As the most recent University of Minnesota release, this red grape has won awards far and near, often in direct competition with pure vinifera entries. It has rich, dark red color, pleasant, medium body and is blessed with good tannins. Marquette represents what many winemakers have been hoping would appear in the way of a cold hardy; a high quality red wine grape in the California style. Large plantings were made even before there was a consensus about how the public might accept it. Fortunately, the public seems as enamored of this new grape as the rest of us and it is fast becoming an asset to and a fixture of, northern grape growing.
Marechal Foch — This is the only French Hybrid that can also be truly classified as a ‘cold hardy” grape. Pronounced “mare- shawl-fosh,” it has become nearly a truism from some mainline wine people to say that they ‘do not like” Foch, usually without elaboration. Such naysayers need to go to the Wollershiem Winery in Prairie du Sac Wisconsin and experience winemaker Philippe Coquard’s work with Foch. From each vintage he produces a delightful blush, a delicious rose’, a pleasant and rich medium bodied red dinner wine and a powerful red which Philippe likes to say ‘has shoulders.”
It is both an amazing display of winemaking expertise and of Foch’s ability to produce outstanding wines in many styles. Given its hardiness, disease resistance, good bearing and ability to produce quality wines, it is a grape that is not planted nearly enough in northern regions. (In the category of obscure wine trivia, Marechal Foch was a French general who negotiated the end of World War I.)
St. Croix — This was the first true wine grape ever released by the legendary cold climate grape breeder, the late Elmer Swenson. It has a nice open growth habit and produces well. While the wine tends to be light in both color and body winemakers have found it possible through enology and blending to make use of these characteristics. In the north, where high acidity tends to be a chronic problem St. Croix remains one of the few grapes that ripens to delightfully moderate acid levels year in and year out, of enormous value in northern viticulture.
In fact, in Quebec winemakers love the French name of the grape and the low acids the vine offers. They felt should the vine should be renamed Saynt Croy, as that is the way Elmer Swenson pronounced it. He was held in such high esteem in Canada, perhaps tongue in cheek, they felt the French pronunciation (Suh Craw) was a disrespect to him.
Sabrevois — Another Elmer Swenson hybrid made of the same cross and at the same time as St. Croix. It was once known informally as ‘Norway Red.” It was not until this early hybrid traveled to Quebec, however, that it got the respect it deserves. The grape is named for the small French-speaking village where several hundred acres are planted. It is a true growers grape as it grows strongly and is almost always disease-free even when not given any spray protection. However, some winemakers hate it and have removed their vines. Others cannot get enough of it.
When allowed to become very ripe and vinted with an extended skin contact it tends to make a heavy, complex wine, filled with odd flavors and aromas. However, when picked before it reaches 20% sugar and vinted in a light style it has proven to be a commercial success. The Québécois feel it makes its best wine in cooler years and given very restricted skin time in fermentation. One way or the other it is finding a place in modern cold climate viticulture.
King of the North — This is the true ‘lost child” of modern viticulture. It is of uncertain lineage having been found growing at a farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. For years, there was little interest until variety trials carried out by the late Dr. Bob Tomesh at the University of Wisconsin revealed it was extremely cold hardy.
KON, as it is sometimes abbreviated, is not good as a dry wine. In a dry style, it is without aroma and is harsh and acidic. However, when sweetened in agreement with much of the Midwestern public’s tastes, it awakens a full grapey flavor. KON can be very rich and delicious, exuding a powerful and delightful Labrusca nose as well. Nearly everyone who has the courage to offer it (prejudice against Labrusca wines runs deep) quickly finds KON is a best seller.
These are some of the grapes that are helping move viticulture north and making it reliable in areas further south where better known grapes are unreliable. As a matter of collateral benefit, cold hardy grapes also produce wines that are in no way typical of wines so widely available in stores. They are helping us find a style and a flavor profile typical of our great region; a type of wine the public can only get from regional winemakers.
See Related Story from John Marshall: Red Storm Rising Across Northern Wineries
John is a regular columnist in Midwest Wine Press and a vineyard and winery owner in Lake City, Minnesota. See Great River Vineyard and Nursery for more information.
Homepage photo: Bauer-Kearns Winery, Platteville, WI