ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 8 - There was a whole lot of sipping going on at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. Also sniffing, swirling, slurping, spitting and scribbling. But not much swallowing.
The occasion was the third annual International Cold Climate Wine Competition, an oenophilic showdown sponsored by the university and the Minnesota Grape Growers Association. It brought together 21 judges, 800 wineglasses and more than 250 bottles of wine made from grapes hardy enough to survive an Upper Midwest winter. More than 50 commercial wineries from 12 states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Wyoming, Michigan, Connecticut, Maine, Nebraska and the Dakotas, sent their best bottles.
The event is intended to elevate the standards of winemaking in the region and to help educate con-sumers that good wine actually can be made in climates far harsher than sunny Sonoma or the mild Mediterranean.
The judges -- wine writers, wine scientists, wine-makers, wine consultants, wine buyers, wine sellers, chefs and sommeliers -- sat at tables covered with wineglasses labeled with only a computer-generated identity number. The wine bottles were kept in a separate room, and volunteers shuttled back and forth bringing in fresh flights of glasses for tasting and hauling out all the spit-out wine headed for the drain.
"Our permit requires us not to have a lot of consumption," says Gordon Rouse, an
amateur winemaker from Arden Hills who runs the competition.
The judges swirled, sipped and swished before making pronouncements like:
"This one I get petroleum, like gas in the nose."
"Like a watered-down vodka."
Then, they filled out forms rating the wines on a 20-point scale for appearance, aroma, bouquet, taste, texture and finish. The best were given bronze, silver, gold and double gold medals. Only six wines got a double gold award this year. But there were also some bottom-of-the-barrel efforts.
One judge, giving a wine a total of only two points, described it as simply "salad dressing."
"It gets fatiguing by the end of the day," says Nicholas Smith, a judge and a research winemaker at the University of Minnesota.
There was a lot to taste because there has been a big jump in snowbelt winemaking in recent years. There were only two commercial wineries in Minnesota in 1990, says Katie Cook, a University of Minnesota wine scientist. Now, there are about three dozen.
Part of the growth, Cook says, has been driven by farmers seeking to diversify their business beyond corn and soybeans. Also jumping into the Midwest winemaking game are professionals from other fields looking for a romantic-sounding second career.
The university has played a role in making it possible to make wine here, collaborating with the late Elmer Swenson, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who spent 60 years pioneering grape-growing efforts in the Upper Midwest. The university has developed four cold- hardy wine grape varieties, including the veteran grower-friendly Frontenac, released in 1996, and the newcomer Marquette, introduced in 2006.
University officials think the Marquette, described by some as the "great red hope," may be to cold-region wines what the Honeycrisp is to apples.
"It's kind of the up-and-coming big thing," Cook said.
AND THE WINNERS ARE ...
Top winners in the International Cold Climate Wine Competition:
Minnesota Governor's Cup for top Minnesota wine: 2010 Frontenac Rose, Indian Island Winery, Janesville, Minn.
Best white wine: 2010 La Crescent Late Harvest, Lincoln Peak Vineyard, New Haven, Vt.
Best red wine: 2010 Marquette, Shelburne Vineyard, Shelburne, Vt.
Best specialty/fortified wine: Non-vintage Stereo blend, Illinois Sparkling Co., Peru, Ill.
Minnesota double gold medals: Frontenac Gris, Parley Lake Winery, Waconia; and Frontenac, Warehouse Winery, St. Louis Park.