La Vino Dolce

There's No Shame in Being Sweet ™
May 11th, 2012 by Troy Stark

Midwest Sweet Wines

I was recently asked to write an article for a publication called Midwest Wine Press. The audience for that publication is primarily wine producers in the Midwest and sophisticated wine enthusiasts interested in the technical aspects of Midwest wine making. The article itself discusses using hybrid grapes to make sweet wines. As a rule of thumb, sweet wines need a little more acidity to balance out the sugar. This makes hybrid grapes, which almost always have high acidity, well suited for such wines.

As part of my research for the article, I was privileged to visit 3 of Minnesota’s best wineries: St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, and Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls. What follows are my tasting notes and recollections.



– Ice-style Wines –

Hands down the best sweet wines being made in Minnesota are ice-style wines. As I discussed in the Midwest Wine Press article, there are a few technical issues preventing Minnesota wineries from making true ice wines, but they are achieving fantastic results with cryogenic freezing. Basically, the grapes are frozen and then put into a wooden basket press where the concentrated juice is slowly extracted.

St. Croix Vineyards 2009 La Crescent “Dessert Wine”

St. Croix Vineyards La Crescent Dessert WineThis wine received multiple awards last year, including Double Gold and Dessert Wine of the Year at the 2011 Indy International Wine Competition and Bronze at the San Francisco Wine Competition. After sampling this wonderful wine, it’s easy to understand why. St. Croix’s La Crescent ice-style wine was probably one of the best ice wines I’ve tasted in recent memory, regardless of where it was made.
  • The wine has a very pale, straw yellow color, fading to clear at the rim.
  • The Muscat lineage of La Crescent really shows on the delightfully fragrant nose of this wine. I get a full shot of dried apricots and hints of other stone fruits.
  • On the palette the acidity of the La Crescent is noticeable, but balanced. The sweetness is not cloying in any way. Notes of peach and honey. Delicious.
  • Conclusion: Unfortunately, this wine is currently sold out. Watch their website, though, and buy the new vintage when it is released.

Alexis Bailly Vineyards Isis “Dessert Wine”

This ice-style wine from Alexis Bailly Vineyards is wonderful. I am told by the winemaker, Nan Bailly, that Isis is a blend of Vignoles and La Crescent. Nan is perhaps one of the most skilled blenders in Minnesota. She would rather blend her wines to deal with high acidity and other issues than process them with chemicals, which gives most of her portfolio a very old-world feel. This wine is no different.

  • The wine is very clear with a nice golden color.
  • The wonderful nose shows glimpses of honeysuckle, pear, pineapple, and peaches.
  • Slightly less acidic than the offering from St. Croix vineyards, this wine is incredibly smooth and well-balanced. It has a playfully viscous mouthfeel and a very crisp finish.
  • Conclusion: At $38.99 per 375ml bottle, the price may seem a little steep, but that’s not uncommon for ice-style wines. Buy this if you visit the vineyard or see it on the shelves somewhere.
Cannon River Winery Winter IceCannon River Winery Winter Ice “Dessert Wine”

This was the only ice-style wine I tasted made from St. Pepin, which was developed by cold-hardy grape breeding pioneer, Elmer Swenson. St. Pepin has Sauvignon Blanc in its heritage, and it really shows in this wine. Rather than the Muscat-inspired aromas and flavors present in wines made from La Crescent, sweet wines made from St. Pepin are more similar those made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

  • Very pale yellow in color with no haziness.
  • The nose is a little tight, but there are hints of grapefruit and other citrus.
  • The acidity is well balanced with the sugar. A silky-smooth mouthfeel compliments the notes of vanilla, caramel and honey.
  • Conclusion: This wine is also $39 per 375ml bottle, but worth the price.

– Port-style Wines –

There is a prevailing belief in the Midwest that hybrid grapes make good port-style wines, but I disagree. I think the culprit is Frontenac. Frontenac is a very cold-hardy grape released by the University of Minnesota in 1996. It is a vigorous producer, very resistant to mildew and other diseases, and bears a healthy crop most years. Basically, it’s a dream to grow in Minnesota. The wines it makes are not – at least in my opinion. Rather, they are distinctly vegetal, which is not a flavor I want in my port. I want something rich and luscious, not something green and reminiscent of under-ripe grapes. Perhaps there are other hybrid grapes that make good port-style wines, but Frontenac does not. I did try two port-style wines worth mentioning:

Alexis Bailly Vineyards “Hastings Reserve”

hastings_labelI think the reason I like this “port” is because it’s a blend of different grape varieties, rather than 100% Frontenac. In addition to Frontenac, it also contains wine from Nan’s estate grown Marechal Foch and Leon Millot. The blend comes from several vintages, which I’m sure helps cover up any flaws. Each wine is barrel aged a minimum of 2 years, with some getting up to 8 years in neutral oak. Alexis Bailly Vineyards has been making port-style wine in Minnesota since 1985, so they have a lot of experience, which definitely shows.
  • Brick red with some orange on the rim. This wine looks like a tawny port, which I’m sure is a result of the barrel aging.
  • The nose is typical of a tawny port – a touch of oxidation, tobacco and booze.
  • This wine exhibits a super smooth and silky mouthfeel. The sugar and the alcohol are well balanced. I was afraid it would be too boozy based on the nose, but this is very enjoyable. No green or herbaceous off-notes.
  • Conclusion: As I said, this was the best Minnesota port-style wine I tried. At $18.99 per bottle, it’s comparable in price to entry-level Port from Portugal. If you’re curious about hybrid ports, give this a try.

Cannon River Winery “Bootlegger’s Red”

Like the Hastings Reserve, this wine is a blend of wines. In fact, it could be called a “kitchen sink” style port. Cannon River’s wine maker, Vincent Negret, tells me this has Frontenac, Cabernet, Syrah and whatever else he feels like throwing into the mix. He has a mini-solera system going where he reserves about 10% of his port each year to blend with the next year’s wine. Again, the blending probably masks the problems with the Frontenac, but that’s fine with me.
  • This wine looks more like a ruby port than a tawny. Deep red in color without much bricking.
  • The nose is fragrant and fruity, but the spirits are noticeable.
  • I enjoyed drinking this wine very much. It was very smooth and the alcohol did not overwhelm me like it does on some ports. Cherries with hints of chocolate. I sensed a little bit of tea, as well.
  • Conclusion: Unfortunately, the current bottling is sold out, but you should buy the next bottling. $29/bottle.

 – Unique Wines –

Alexis Bailly RatafiaThere are a number of other interesting sweet wines being made in Minnesota. Some are very quaffable off-dry table wines like the Summer Red from St. Croix Vineyards and the Go-Go Red from Cannon River Winery. Katie Cook, the Enology Project Leader at the University of Minnesota, recently experimented with a passito-style wine made from Frontenac Gris that I really hope someone starts making commercially.

The winery that has embraced unique sweet wines more than any other, however, is Alexis Bailly Vineyards. Nan Bailly’s Pineau-style Solaris is refreshingly different, but the real star of her lineup is the Ratafia, which is a citrus- and herb-infused concoction popular in Mediterranean communities:

  • The color is very reminiscent of a tawny-style port, though it is not made like a tawny. Nan tells me the oranges used in the wine cause some browning to occur.
  • This wine is unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. Every time you put your nose in the glass, you will smell something different. Easy to spot are anise, cloves, cinnamon, honey, and a massive dose of orange. Nan refuses to tell anyone what’s in her secret recipe, so let your imagination run wild.
  • Just as the aromas of this wine exploded out of the glass, the number of complex flavors almost overwhelms your taste buds. Good luck identifying all tastes you’re encountering, but it should be fun trying. Very smooth and balanced. A delightful wine that deserves to be produced and consumed in much larger quantities than it is.
  • Conclusion: Some people may not like this, but I loved it. So much so that I bought a bottle and will likely buy more in the future. $19.99 per 500ml bottle.


4 Responses to “Midwest Sweet Wines”
  1. lunette soldes says

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  2. Daniel Beaulieu says

    “wow, awesome post.Much many thanks. Awesome.”

  3. Daniel Beaulieu says

    Really informative blog. Much obliged.

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