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Fall at a Minnesota vineyard

 

Wine and climate are intricately linked. For anyone who has gone through any sort of wine training, you inevitably also get a lesson on macro, mezzo, and micro climates as well. Wine education doesn’t usually touch on genetics (although I feel it should), but climate is one of three factors that influence how a grape varietal expresses itself. The other two factors are soil, and how other living creatures (mainly humans) interact with it. These three factors combined are neatly summed up into the French word, Terroir. One of the fun things in wine is finding that grapes of the same genotype (what it’s born with) will produce wines with slightly different characteristics based on the terroir they exist in. One could also describe this as being a grape’s phenotype.

For a few thousand years the climate where wine grapes were developed and the soils they were developed in have remained relatively the same. The human factor though is what we consider to be the “Art” or “Science”, depending on your perspective of winemaking. The winemaking is a controllable factor. The soil, while not controllable, is a steady constant that only changes when you move the vines. The weather though (a sub-factor of climate), is the unpredictable element. This is why people lament certain vintages and praise others even though today’s winemakers have mostly figured out how to handle the ups and downs of a year’s weather variations. While the weather varies year to year, the winemaker knows the approximate parameters of what it’s going to be like because that’s what climate is.

Now, those climates are a-changing. I suppose you could choose not to believe in that sort of thing, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone in agriculture (Or, you know, Science) that isn’t at least considering how things will change for them in the future. Grape growers and wine makers are no exception. Minnesota Public Radio has recently been running a series on the effects of climate change locally and globally. One of their articles has wonderfully shown how Minnesota’s climate has been changing over the past 100+ years with some pretty specific details so I decided to use that as a jumping point into how Minnesota’s wine industry could see some changes in the future. Give the article a full read here and then come back for my grape-related thoughts below that loosely correspond with their headers.

It’s Warmer and Winters Are Warming Faster

In general, this could be good news for grape growing in Minnesota since our main antagonist is how cold it gets in the winter. Theoretically, if we could eliminate sub-zero temperatures, the number of varietals we could grow would exponentially increase. Currently, zero, that’s right, zero of the European varietals of vitis vinifera that are predominately used for wine making across the world are able to be grown in Minnesota successfully and in quantity to make commercial wine from. This is what has driven the interest and research on hybrid grapes that take the cold hardiness of native grapes (vitis riparia mostly) and the wine making qualities of the aforementioned European grapes. So, hurray if we eliminate those obscenely cold days that stay below zero during the winter.

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. What grapes generally don’t appreciate are moody temperature swings. Yes, the idea is to stress the grapes as they grow, but the idea is to do this gradually. Vines (and really all plants in general), keep to a pretty set schedule throughout the year which is dictated by what the weather is doing. When it warms for spring, the buds begin to break and things start to grow. Summer the grapes start appearing and energy production switches to them. Fall, the grapes mature and ripen. Winter, the vine goes dormant to survive the winter. When the vine incorrectly thinks the seasons are changing due to random temperature swings, bad things can happen.

North Warms Faster

There’s really a big divide between the climate of southern Minnesota and northern Minnesota. Currently, although there is certainly debate about this, I would say wines from vineyards from Central Minnesota and south are more favorably received than those of the northern part of the state. One of the major technical hurdles that MN winemakers face is that of having more than the desired amount of acid in the grapes. In general, the colder the region, the more acid will be found in the harvested grapes. There are measures that a winemaker can take to counteract this to a degree, but the more ideal the grape is, the wine will be easier to make as well as potentially better.

It Rains More

This can only be bad. We get plenty of rain in Minnesota. So much, that irrigation of vineyards in the state is rare and if used restricted to preparing vines for winter in the late fall. More water, assuming the vines don’t drown, would mean more vigorous growth of the green parts of the vine (shoots, leaves, etc.). If the vine has to put all of its energy into supporting the green parts, it will put less energy into developing the grapes which means they won’t taste very good. Vine vigor already requires a lot of human power to control, meaning people are out there trimming of excess growth constantly throughout the year. More growth would mean more labor or limiting the expansion of a vineyard…or growing poor grapes.

Intense Storms Are More Frequent

Again, more bad stuff. Intense storms bring about damage to a vineyard. Hail, is an obvious culprit that would rip through grapes, but even intense rains can damage a crop. So short of someone inventing a weather force field, there’s nothing that can be done to counteract this.

Ice Melts Earlier/Snow Season Ends Earlier/Growing Season Grows Longer

You’d think this would be a positive, and in general it is. A longer growing season gives grapes time to spend developing anthocyannins, which turn into the things we associate with flavor in the wine. However, what’s been happening the past few years is that we have a warm spell in early to mid-spring which causes the vines to get started on their bud growth and then the next week the weather plays a cruel joke by snapping the temperature back down below freezing, killing off those buds. While the vines do have a backup second bud (and third), the first is going to be the best. It’s like killing off your kitten and then replacing it with a new one. Not the same, is it? The winter of 2013/2014 was particularly harsh in Minnesota. While the vines themselves survived, most of their buds unfortunately did not. This led to crop losses of up to 90% for the 2014 harvest season.

Hardiness Zones Move North/Species Migrate

I think this factor has the most potential for unknown effects on grape growing. On one hand, moving down hardiness zones into ones that are more common to grape growing is beneficial. However, this also means that the ecosystem that has developed in that hardiness zone is going to migrate north as well. Birds, trees, shrubs, insects: All of these can effect the nutrients in the soil, what pests are going to be found in the vineyard, and how the grapes will express themselves (genetically speaking). The sheer number of factors that go into this is mind-boggling and I don’t believe anyone has been able to come up with a computer model to mimic how this can play out.

In Conclusion…

Outside of climate change, the Minnesota grape growing and winemaking industry really had to conquer one hurdle: How to get grape growing vines that produce tasty wines to survive the winter. This is a really difficult problem to solve, but certainly not unsolvable. In fact, with the recent advances made by the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding project, a lot of progress has been made. With climate change, the hurdles faced by the industry become a moving target. The very problem being worked on today could no longer be a problem in 20 years, but a new one or more likely, multiple problems will have filled its place.

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FourDaughters

Despite the blustery snow of the Tuesday before the extended New Year’s holiday weekend, people still steadily streamed in to the Four Daughter’s Winery in Spring Valley, MN.  A mother and her son, diverted from reaching Rochester to do their holiday shopping appeared to be successfully accomplishing their mission between the wine-related trinkets in the gift shop and the quickly disappearing bottles of wine lining the western wall.  An elderly couple seemed slightly overwhelmed but curious about the menu items from the chef and a delivery driver deliberated whether to hold tight or press on as he acquired a bottle of wine for his wife.  Yet, it was noticeable each time the staff patiently went through the wine offerings; no one was there specifically for the wine.  Perhaps that crowd would roll in after noon.

The wine from Four Daughters, however, is what has recently been making a name for itself.   At the International Cold Climate Wine Competition this past August, five of the winery’s seven entries received a medal.  Their La Crescent took home the top honor of best wine at the competition.  Not bad for an operation that recently celebrated their first anniversary.  Much of this success is owed to their winemaker, Justin Osborne, whose winemaking history spans only as long as the winery’s.    Justin, a Twin Cities native, was asked by his wife, Kristin’s family to be the wine maker of their future dream and fortunately for the Minnesota wine community, he accepted.

The question is: How did someone with little experience end up besting some with 10+ years of hard work and dedication?    “I’m not the smartest winemaker in the world,”  Justin modestly declares as he struggles to illuminate his process. “You do these four things well, and stay within the lines…you’ll have a good end product.”  His goal is not to reinvent the wine making world, but to entrust solid wine making practices that have been proven to work.  Yet, instead of taking large leaps and just hoping things work out, he takes small, measured steps at each point along the way. The content sigh of someone fully dedicated to their craft comes out as he points back to a little room off of the production that he has no doubt spent countless hours in. “I do a lot of testing.”  The lab room at Four Daughters may be his second home or first depending on whom you ask.

So what are those four things needed to make good wine?

  1. Grow good grapes
  2. Get good juice out of those grapes
  3. Have a healthy fermentation
  4. Have a deft hand when refining (finishing the wine)

Simple, right?  OK, there may be a few other factors going into the success.  Being able to start off with some good equipment certainly helped.  Additionally, Justin’s wife, Kristen is part of how the winery got their namesake.  She’s one of the eponymous four daughters and her family’s agricultural background has certainly served them well in pursuing their dream to have a winery and vineyard not to mention the aid of Kristen’s marketing skills.  The family and their expert staff didn’t walk into this venture unprepared.  It also helps that the vast majority of the grapes they are purchasing are grown within 50 miles of their location.  Their location also just happens to be within the largest wine region in the world: The Upper Mississippi Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA).  See Justin’s number 1 rule.

Those visiting the winery may spot a life-sized cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe in a glimmering pink ball gown leaning on a wall of oak barrels.  Is it inspiration for his Frontenac Rose? He shakes his head and begins, “My mother-in-law collects them…”.  And really, that’s the only explanation a married man needs to give sometimes.  He then relates the story of how the local police department, responding to a security alarm breach on the premises almost shot the cardboard version of John Wayne hanging out near the bathrooms.  Clearly, it’s not just the customers who are pleasantly surprised by what they find what the find at this winery.

For the full audio interview check out the podcast below.  Justin spills all of his secrets…well, almost.  Regardless, if you make wine in the Midwest or just like drinking it you’ll enjoy the whole thing.

Download the podcast from iTunes

Links:

Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery

Minnesota Grape Growers Association

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