Get to Know a Minnesota Wine Grape: La Crescent

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Have you found it difficult to get into Minnesota wine? You’re certainly not alone and your skepticism is warranted. It’s often hard enough to determine if a certain California Cabernet will be any good, much less to figure out what Marechal Foch is. You’re content to pick up a bottle you’re familiar with, rather than spending $15 on some unknown grape from Minnesota and crossing your fingers that it doesn’t taste like drain cleaner.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

But if “try new things” is found anywhere on your 2011 resolutions list, Minnesota wines are a great place to start. If the Minneapolis microbrew renaissance has taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of innovative and talented individuals making booze in our state, and it’s no different with wine. Our university is the preeminent research facility for the development of grapes bred to thrive in cold climates. These grapes have jumpstarted wine industries across America and one of these grapes holds what this author believes is the gateway for broader acceptance of local vino — La Crescent. It’s a grape that is painfully easy to enjoy and makes wines of a consistently high quality.

A quick primer on cold climate grapes: For the most part, they tend to have a more fruit-forward flavor profile, higher levels of acidity and, for reds, a smaller amount of noticeable tannin than European grape varieties. This is extremely beneficial for white grapes like La Crescent, the paragon of cold-climate breeding. “It’s an extremely cold-hardy grape,” says Peter Hemstad, U of M Horticultural Scientist, owner of St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, and original breeder of the grape. “If one were to graph the 100 top grape varieties for quality vs. cold hardiness, La Crescent would be the outlier — the greatest combination of both.”

La Crescent has very high levels of natural sugars and acidity, and therefore lends itself to be finished as an off-dry or semi-sweet wine. The aromatic structure of the grape is delightful — apricot is most noticeable in the field. Tangerine, lime, and other citrus are common flavors in the finished wine, while tropical fruits like pineapple and even herbal notes sometimes enter the fold. It’s fruity and crisp while not being overwhelming. “The fact that it is very aromatic and often sweet makes it a wine that’s easy for people to drink,” says Katie Cook, U of M Enology Project Leader. “It works well for those who don’t consider themselves wine drinkers, as well as those who appreciate a good sweet white wine paired with dessert.” La Crescent’s acidity, flavors, and stylistic profile draw striking comparisons to Riesling (and you’ll often find it in the same skinny, Mosel-style bottle).

La Crescent is gaining traction all over the Northern US, with great examples coming from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Vermont, among others. Hemstad is even in the process of introducing the grape overseas, most recently in China. “Wine snobs can’t look down their noses at [La Crescent],” he says. “They can’t say it’s a poor quality wine. If it’s properly grown and made, it’s irrefutably good. It really reflects the potential that Minnesota wine grapes have.”  Select from the following list to decide for yourself.

John Garland / Heavy Table

Five nice La Crescents to get you started:

Saint Croix Vineyards La Crescent, Stillwater, MN. [list of retailers]  As you might expect the original breeder of the grape to do, Hemstad makes a spectacular La Crescent. It’s full of orange citrus and an almost tropical sweetness nicely balanced by biting acidity throughout the sip.  A very refreshing, crisp, and structured wine. His dessert-style La Crescent is also worth a try, having won the Minnesota Governor’s Cup at the 2010 International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC).

Fieldstone Vineyards La Crescent, Redwood Falls, MN. [list of retailers] This gold medal winner at the 2010 ICCWC is quite similar to Saint Croix’s. It has a brilliant citrus nose and a sip full of apricot in a pleasantly sweet body with a tangy finish. It’s not sweet enough to be a dessert wine, but would be perfectly interchangeable with Riesling at the dinner table (think Thai dishes, baked ham, and seafood).

Northern Vineyards “White,” Stillwater, MN. [website]  Northern Vineyards also bottles a 100% La Crescent called Yellow Moccasin. It’s a fine effort, but not as good as their most popular bottle, simply termed “White.” It’s La Crescent with other blending grapes made into a barely-there, clean and fruity style much reminiscent of the Symphony grape from California or Ugni Blanc-Colombard blends from Southwestern France.

John Garland / Heavy Table

Morgan Creek Vineyards “Zeitgeist,” New Ulm, MN. [list of retailers] It’s unfortunate that it’s not marketed by its varietal name, but Zeitgeist is a fine La Crescent. The nose is lightly perfumed with apricot / tangerine flavors while the sip tends more towards apples, with a sweetness that slowly builds to a nice off-dry finish.

Crofut Family Winery La Crescent, Jordan, MN. [list of retailers] A slightly sweeter tasting offering, Crofut’s 2008 La Crescent (they actually vintage-date some wines) is a lot like a late harvest-style Riesling. The sweetness is more pronounced, the acidity more of a supporting player. It’s full of sweet apricot and orange fruit, drying off a bit to a more acidic finish. It may taste cloying to fans of dry wines, but would be a fine choice with an apple tart for dessert.

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