When people think of wine country, they’re more likely to think of warm and sunny rolling hills of California, France or New Zealand than the snow-covered fields of Minnesota. And yet, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes is also home to dozens of wineries scattered across the state.
These wineries are more than Napa Valley wannabes. Ever since the University of Minnesota began developing its cold-hardy grape research program in the 1970s, Minnesota wines have taken on a flavor and personality of their own. Minnesota now boasts seven of its own wine grape varieties, bred to withstand the harsh winters.
The newest is the Itasca grape, released in 2017. It’s a little too soon to find Itasca wine in wineries or stores, but in a few years, it will result in dry white wine. Other Minnesota-bred white wine grapes include Frontenac blanc, Frontenac gris, La Crescent and Edelweiss. Reds include Frontenac and Marquette.
Many Minnesota wineries also produce and sell ice wine, which is made largely like the name suggests: growers leave grapes on the vine until the temperature drops below freezing for a certain period of time, then harvest and press the grapes while still frozen. The result is a sweet, rich dessert wine made from real winter cold — not a California freezer.
Southern Minnesota claims its fair share of Minnesota wineries, from Painted Prairie near Sioux Falls to Garvin Heights near the Wisconsin border. These wineries cover all varieties of wine, from the driest reds to the sweetest whites, and since some also double as wedding destinations, cideries, dairy farms and jazz venues, there’s bound to be something for every taste.
The following is a selection of Southern Minnesota vineyards and wineries, listed alphabetically:
Alexis Bailly Vineyard – Hastings
This family-owned vineyard was the first in Minnesota when it was planted in 1973. The tasting room has been open since 1978, and features the Voyageur red wine, which was voted best wine in Minnesota by Minnesota Monthly magazine and best American-made wine at the Atlanta International wine competition. More unique offerings include a chocolate-infused red wine and a brandy-infused white wine. Visitors can step outside the tasting room and stroll through the sculpture garden, or enjoy live jazz music every Sunday afternoon in July and August. abvwines.com
Aspelund Winery – Kenyon
Aspelund’s owners are peony-growers turned winemakers who now grow elderberry bushes and apple trees along with grapevines. Its tasting room offers some unusual selections: tomato wine, licorice wine, pumpkin wine, caramel apple wine, elderberry wine and a wide range of apple wines perfect for autumn tastings. The room itself is built right onto the owners’ home, overlooking the gardens. If you go, be sure to look for peacock roosting inside. aspelundwinery.com
Cannon River Winery – Cannon Falls
One of Minnesota’s oldest wineries, Cannon River Winery is home to a 20-acre vineyard in Minnesota’s picturesque Sogn Valley in addition to a winery in downtown Cannon Falls. Stop by any time of year to taste wines ranging from balanced dry whites to full-bodied reds – or sign up to join the Harvest Crew, where you can pick grapes by hand, dine in the vineyard and watch experienced winemakers at work while sipping wine made from the vineyard where you just worked. cannonriverwinery.com
Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery – Kasota
Chankaska Creek’s namesake is the creek running through the vineyard, taking its name from the Dakota word for “forest enclosed.” Named best winery by the Star Tribune, it’s the second-largest winery in the state. In June 2018, the winery opened its brand-new event center, which includes an indoor reception area, outdoor patio, private fire area, exclusive lounge and bride/groom suites. Chankaska’s extensive wine list includes nearly 30 red, white and sparkling varieties, as well as dessert “krem” varieties made from apple wine and/or brandy. The winery also doubles as a distillery, producing a variety of brandy, whiskey and gin. chankaskawines.com
Falconer Vineyards – Red Wing
Falconer is celebrate its 15-year anniversary this year. Located conveniently close to Red Wing, this winery is known for both wine and pizza, including the “Grapes of Wrath” signature pizza with red grapes. The pizzas pair with a variety of wines made from Minnesota- and northern-grown grapes. Sweet whites are a focus on the menu (great with seafood, pizza and more), but Falconer also offers a variety of reds, dessert and port wines. falconervineyards.com
Four Daughters Vineyard – Rochester
In addition to a selection of Minnesota-grown and made wines, Four Daughters is also home to an event center and restaurant, as well as a cidery for those who would prefer a “Loon Juice” hard cider to a glass of wine. The restaurant came in 3rd in USA Today’s Readers Choice competition in 2017 for best winery restaurant, with a menu that changes based on availability of locally-sourced ingredients. In 2014, the winery released its Sunflake Wines line, featuring up-and-coming Minnesota grapes sold on a national scale. fourdaughtersvineyard.com
Garvin Heights Vineyards – Winona
Garvin Heights is owned by the Seppanen family, who visit wineries from the Midwest to Europe to New Zealand in order to bring back tidbits of knowledge to their Winona winery. In 2015, the winery purchased a still from Hungary and will soon begin producing Hungarian-style “Palinka,” or fruit brandy. Its cold-climate grape blends are named for St. Urho, the patron saint of Finnish vineyards; the winery celebrates his feast day every year on March 16. ghvwine.com
Morgan Creek Vineyards – New Ulm
Morgan Creek, Minnesota’s only underground winery, stores not only its wine cellars, but also its tasting room and gift shop beneath the earth, providing an ideal climate for wine production and aging. Owner Georg Marti is the great-great grandson of the founder of August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, now the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the United States. Morgan Creek hit its 20th anniversary this year. It offered the first commercial wine releases in the world of Frontenac Gris and La Crescent grapes developed by the University of Minnesota. Stop by for a range of both European and American-style wines, or for one of the winery’s many seasonal events, including a winter candlelight wine tasting, Oktoberfest brunch and “Wine Diva Days.” morgancreekvineyards.com
Next Chapter Winery – New Prague
Next Chapter’s wines are made from both California grapes and Minnesota hybrid grapes grown onsite. The tasting room is inside a classic red barn, but if you’d prefer not to travel, Next Chapter will bring the wines to you and your group (minimum 10 people) for a private tasting event. The barn and vineyard are a popular wedding destination, and the wines reflect this with names like “Wedded Bliss” (cabernet sauvignon), “MN Dashing Groom” (sweet red) and “MN Blushing Bride” (sweet blush). There’s also a pizzeria five minutes away, serving up the perfect wine and pizza pairings. nextchapterwinery.com
Painted Prairie – Currie
Located in the southwestern corner of the state, Painted Prairie is surrounded by the open fields of its namesake, making its patio a prime spot for sipping wine and viewing the landscape. Its latest batch of wines includes six cold-hardy blends, plus an apple wine and a cider. Before your tasting, stop by Lake Shetek State Park or Walnut Grove, childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, both within easy reach. paintedprairiewine.com
Salem Glen Winery – Rochester
Salem Glen is an old dairy farm turned winery in the Zumbro River valley, growing only Minnesota cold-hardy grapes bred to withstand temperatures of -30 degrees F. Along with a variety of whites, reds and ports, the tasting room serves wine made from cranberries and locally-grown rhubarb. The vineyard is in the process of building an observatory – because who wouldn’t want to gaze at the stars with a glass of wine in hand? salemglenvineyard.com
Vintage Escapes – Kilkenny
Vintage Escapes is an honorary mention, since the vineyard and tasting room are currently under construction. There’s no set opening date yet, but owners are hoping for something in the spring of 2019. Check their Facebook page for updates: facebook.com/vintageescapeswinery
Whitewater Wines – Plainview
What was once a small piece of land surrounded by corn fields is now six acres of vineyards, ponds, flower gardens and prairies, as well as the winery itself. Many of the tables and chairs were made by local high school students from wood harvested on the property. The wine list includes “233 K” in reference to the -40 F (233 Kelvin) temperature at which these grapes still survive, as well as other European and Minnesotan grape varieties. whitewaterwines.com
By Anne Kopas