Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wine 101 - Frontenac

Like the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, the University of Minnesota instigated a grape breeding program to assist wine growers in their state cultivate grapes that can survive in the rugged Upper Midwest environment. One of the most successful graduates from this program is the Frontenac grape, which was introduced in 1995. It is a cross of the French hybrid Landot 4511 and Vitis Riparia (the most widely distributed of all native North American grapes). This grape combines extreme cold hardiness with a high level of disease resistance and produces wines with an attractive garnet color and a pleasant cherry aroma and taste. It quickly became the most widely planted grape in Minnesota and is becoming more popular throughout the Midwest. The grape’s major shortcoming is that its high acid content requires malolactic fermentation to achieve a drinkable wine.

One Minnesota winery that cultivates Frontenac is Falconer Vineyards and Winery. Located just 10 miles from the city of Frontenac (the grape’s namesake), this winery has operated for over 14 years. The winery grows Frontenac because of the grape’s tremendous vigor - it can grow wildly if not properly managed. In fact, according to John Falconer, wild riparia grapes near the vineyard run to the top of 40 foot oak trees and Frontenac displays some of that vigor. Thinning the fruit has the added affect of lowering the grape’s acidity to more appealing levels. In addition to its vigor, the Frontenac grape is extremely versatile. Falconer Vineyards currently makes four styles of wine from Frontenac: Frontenac Rose, Frontenac - medium bodied, Frontenac Reserve - full bodied, and Frontenac Port. The Frontenac Rose is produced from the immediate crush juice and the winery is able to elicit a long strawberry finish. For the past two years, this wine has sold out by mid-summer. The medium bodied Frontenac is made from juice with a 5-7 day skin contact during fermentation. Their signature wine is the Frontenac Reserve, which is made from juice with a 9-11 day skin contact during fermentation. This wine is then stored in Minnesota oak barrels and Mr. Falconer believes this wine has great aging potential. The Frontenac Port was created from this year’s harvest and will be available in a couple of years. The winery will age the wine in oak barrels for 2 - 3 years before release. The Minnesota wine public has quickly accepted Minnesota grown wine and Frontenac. After opening their tasting room last year, Mr. Falconer noticed that the general public did not realize that Minnesota vineyards could grow quality wine grapes. One year later he has noticed a sea change in the consumer’s knowledge. Visitation rates are much higher than the previous year as groups of consumers travel between several wineries – with many repeat customers. In fact, Mr. Falconer has heard several wineries report that this year has been the best year on record for sales a trend which should ensure that Falconer winery continues to sell out their Frontenac stock each year.

Another Minnesota winery, Fieldstone Vineyards, started cultivating Frontenac primarily because it had a steady supply of vines from neighboring growers. Fieldstone is a new winery although their vineyard is located on a 100 year old farm and their winery is situated in a 75 year old barn. The owners are pleased with their decision to cultivate Frontenac since the grape’s versatility has allowed the winery to use it in five separate offerings, ranging in styles from dry – medium bodied reds to semi-sweet rosé wines. Each style has been successfully welcomed by the Minnesota wine public and this success is demonstrated by the number of awards earned by these wines in the past two years. The Frontenac Reding Reserve (a dry-medium bodied red) has won several awards at the Minnesota State Fair Commercial Wine Competition as did the Minnesota Glacial Rock Red (100% Minnesota Frontenac). The 2003 Martell Frontenac (a vineyard specific 100% Frontenac) won gold at the 2004 American Wine Society competition and finally, their 2003 Frontenac Rosé earned 1st place at the Minnesota State Fair Commercial Wine Competition (Rosé division). The biggest difficulty the winery has encountered with Frontenac is alleviating the high acidity associates with hybridized grapes. It continues to be an ongoing educational process both in the winery to bring the acidity down and to teach wine lovers about the differences. Regardless, the winery is very pleased with the University of Minnesota’s efforts to create hybridized vines/grapes and believe that newer releases such as Frontenac Gris, LaCrescent, Prairie Star and Marquette will "allow the bar to be raised in cold climate viticulture to even higher levels".

Nearby in Illinois, Galena Cellars Winery and Vineyard produces a port-style Frontenac Port dessert wine. The wine is made from 100% Illinois grown Frontenac grapes which has a berry - chocolate complexion. The wine is very popular in the Midwest where it won multiple Double Gold medals - most recently at the 2008 Illinois State Fair.
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