Chisago: Minnesota’s Newest Grape

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

Growing grapes in Minnesota takes patience and persistence, but breeding grapes in Minnesota takes decades of dedication and discipline. Few have taken on the task, but we have them to thank for the burgeoning Minnesota wine industry. Peter Hemstad and Elmer Swenson are the two most prominent contributors to grape breeding in Minnesota. Swenson worked on his dairy farm in Osceola, WI, and at the Horticulture Research Center (HRC) at the University of Minnesota and Hemstad currently works at the HRC. The two are responsible for grapes including the Swenson Red, Edelweiss, Frontenac, Bluebell, Frontenac Gris, and La Crescent.

In 2006, Hemstad released the Marquette grape in conjunction with the HRC. Hemstad says the Marquette grape, a descendant of Pinot Noir, has seen great success among Minnesota vintners, but it is not the newest grape in Minnesota. On September 16, 2008 Kyle and Kevin Peterson of WineHaven Winery and Vineyard in Chisago City received a patent for Chisago (Latin Name: Vitis ssp. hybrid), the newest cold hardy grape variety in Minnesota.

Chisago has been a 15+ year project for the Peterson family who in the early 1990s started a grape breeding program to support their start-up winery. The grape has been carried under the name Deer Garden Red, winning a gold medal at the 2006 Riverside International Wine Competition in California and a gold medal in the 2007 and 2008 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York. The Chisago grape was entered this year in the Finger Lakes Competition as a red wine and an ice wine called Slippery Slope; both received a bronze medal. The Chisago red is no longer available, but the Slippery Slope ice wine can still be purchased.

Courtesy of Winehaven
Courtesy of WineHaven

The grape has low tannins with a wet and round mouth feel. It is an approachable red wine that will make the non-wine drinker want to drink wine. With cherry, plum, and vanilla characteristics and a cola-like finish, the grape is still in limited production, but has been made into red wine, ice wine, and dessert wine. The ice wine, Slippery Slope, requires leaving the grapes on the vine until they freeze and picking them in November or December. Most vines will drop their fruit at low temperatures or the fruit will split and break. The Chisago holds its shape into the winter months, making it an ideal for an ice wine.

As the Minnesota wine industry grows, the Peterson family is excited about making their mark. “The Chisago grape represents a significant addition to the portfolio of winter-hardy vines that cold climate vintners have available,” says Kyle Peterson.

This summer you can taste the Chisago grape and tour WineHaven Vineyards on July 11 and 12 at the 11th Annual Raspberry and Wine Festival.

WineHaven Winery

9757 292nd St.
Chisago City, MN 55013
Kevin and Cheri Peterson

Thu-Sat 10am-5pm
Sun Noon-5pm


  1. Anne

    What a great article! I’m very pleased to learn about this grape and WineHaven’s Chisago red. Any hope of sampling it at the MN State Fair? Seems like a perfect match…

  2. Scott McGerik

    I know a fair bit about Minnesota craft beer but I’m mostly ignorant of Minnesota’s wine industry. This article prompted my interest in Minnesota-produced wines because it makes me think I’m missing out on something good here. Is there a comprehensive resource or guide to wines produced in Minnesota?

  3. geoff

    I had a horribly astringent St. Croix Frontenac last year that scared me off of MN reds. My hope is that it was mis-stored ergo oxidized, rather than having been the vintner’s desired end product. I would try it again if they wanted to send me a sample bottle.

    Unrelated…the steak in that Winehaven photo above should have been allowed to rest longer before being sliced. It gave up all its lovely juice to the place. That cow died for the photographer’s sins.

  4. Misc

    If you go into Winehaven winery, they allow you to taste all of their wines. The Chisago is truly amazing! You should also try their red ice wine.

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