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It's a Cold World: Investigating Cool Climate Viticulture at VitiNord
By Wayne Belding
Dec 29, 2022
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There are many intricacies of the wine industry that worth exploring.  Beyond the famous growing regions are many vine growers and winemakers working diligently to make the best wines they can from their particular location – often a site that is far different from the relative garden spots of Napa and Sonoma.  Those growers and vintners in the northern and central parts of the US are in cold climate country.  This broad area simply gets too cold in many winters for traditional grapes to survive.  Vintners facing these common challenges have come together since 2006 to discuss the trials of growing grapes and making wine in northern climes at VitiNord.

VitiNord is an International Viticulture & Enology conference that takes place every three years, alternating between sites in Europe and North America.  VitiNord encompasses a broad view of cool-climate winemaking and brings together grape growers and vintners from not only the USA and Canada, but also wine regions Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Northern Europe and Asia.  The most recent conference was held in Burlington, Vermont in early December.  The next meeting is planned for Lithuania in 2025.

All these growers and vintners share the challenges of growing grapes and making wine in cold and cool climates.  Not only that, they are frequently on the forefront of a new agricultural industry in their respective areas.  Winegrowing on a commercial scale is quite new in most northern climates.  VitiNord is a rare opportunity for growers and winemakers to meet each other and share ideas and solutions to the challenges of growing grapes in the North.

Much of the reason for these pioneering viticultural areas is the breeding and development of grapes that can tolerate the severity of northern winters.  The genus Vitis encompasses some 79 species of vining plants.  The Vitis vinifera species is the best known to wine lovers because vinifera varieties encompass the famous names of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and more.  Most Vitis vinifera vines, however, cannot survive temperatures lower than zero degrees Fahrenheit.  That susceptibility can result in severe vine-kill in much of the central US, where winter temperatures frequently drop well below zero.  North American vine species like Vitis rupestris, Vitis aestivalis and Vitis riparia, among others, are cold-hardy species as well as naturally resistant to phylloxera.  Hence, there has been a great deal of work done to develop cold-hardy varieties that can both produce fine wine grapes and survive a cold winter.  Grape breeding programs at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University have bred varieties in recent decades that can fulfill the need for sustainable grape varieties.  Many wines drawn from these new varieties were on display at VitiNord.

The VitiNord International Viticulture & Enology Conference is geared toward those in the business of growing grapes, making wine, and marketing their wines.  I attended the proceedings in a cool, but not yet frigid, Burlington Vermont to get a sense of where progress was being made in this part of the wine world.  Presentations included subjects like Biodynamic Viticulture, Biological Fungicides, Defining Natural Wines from a Vermont Perspective, and Evaluating Vine Balance.  Within the winery, topics like Tannin Retention, Enzyme Use in the Winery, and Tools to Decrease the Use of Sulfur Dioxide in cool-climate winemaking were on the agenda.

Beyond the technical discussions, there were broad overviews of how cool climate wines can succeed in the greater wine industry arena.  Nearly everyone involved in cool-climate wine is a pioneer in some regard, whether they are planting new grape varieties, experimenting with new vineyard trellising, or making sparkling wines for the first time.  Recognizing your advantages in the local market as well as your limitations is key.  Working with government agricultural agencies for mutually beneficial goals can help with research and support for these new grape varieties and vineyard areas.

After a couple of days of intense listening and tasting, I came away with several strong impressions:

—The quality of wines made from cold-hardy grapes has increased significantly over the past 10 years.  As new varieties are planted and vine growing and winemaking experience increases, there is better fruit expression, more depth, and fewer flaws than I observed a decade ago.  The wine pioneers are making progress!

—That said, there is still much room for improvement.  I noted that the Marquette grape, a red released by the University of Minnesota in 2006, is widely grown and vinified with some excellent results, but many Marquette wines finish with an assertive bitterness that is troubling to me.  Perhaps a look toward blending with complementary varieties could soften the bitterness and add complexity to the wines.  I tasted intriguing Marquette-based rosés and “pet-nats” as well.

—Itasca is a new white grape, released by the University of Minnesota in 2017, that is already showing promise as a variety made in several styles and by many different winemakers.  I was impressed by a 2021 Itasca from Sovereign Estate in Minnesota with purity, layers of citrus and tropical fruits plus an inviting herbal complexity.  I tasted other excellent examples of Itasca as well.  The future is bright for this variety.

—Red grapes from Tom Plocher at the Plocher Wines grape breeding facility in Minnesota show potential as well.  Petite Pearl, Crimson Pearl, and Verona are the three grapes he has released, and they frequently show a rounder, softer style on the palate than some other cold-hardy reds.

—I came away with a greater appreciation for what extended skin contact can do for white wines from the north.  A 2021 Vermont La Crescent under Shelburne Vineyard’s Iapetus label was given 42 days of skin contact plus partial aging in neutral oak and lees stirring for 3+ months before bottling.  The result was an impressive golden colored, dry wine with aromas of baked apple, honey, apricot and tropical fruits.  It’s certainly an interesting experiment in ways to enhance the depth of cool-climate white wines.

—Wines of the Solaris grape from Denmark were a pleasant surprise.  This grape is a complex hybrid bred in Baden in 1975 and authorized for planting in Germany in 2004.  The Danish examples were fresh and lively with excellent fruit expression.

—Sparkling wines from cool climates can be superb.  That’s not surprising given the high acidities of some base wines.  I tasted good bubbly samples as pet-nats, Charmat process and methode traditionelle wines.  With the right balance of residual sugar, these can be delightful, easy-to-drink wines.

Overall, it was a grand experience to be with growers and vintners ready to share their experiences—and their wines with others.  Although many of the Canadian and Scandinavian wines are not available in the US market, there may come a time when production and demand increase enough to get them across the border.  Look for new things from cool climates.  You may find some new treasures.