Hybrid Grapes Galore: 3 Midwest Wine Regions To Watch

The wine market is thriving in the Midwest. Check out the 3 states in particular that are making waves.

It was our friend’s birthday, and we celebrated with a few bottles of wine from Longshadow Ranch in Temecula, CA.

Grapes are a-growing and the wine market is thriving in an area you may not expect: the Midwest. But with harsh winters and icy lakes abound, traditional wine enthusiasts may wonder how crops are flourishing in this part of the US. 

Below will cover how this region mastered hybrid grape varieties, and 3 states in particular that are making waves in the wine industry.

The Midwest Is The “Wild West” Of Grape Growing

Wine production in the Western Hemisphere didn’t begin until the 1500s when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries brought over cuttings of Vitis vinifera. This grape species was first cultivated in western Asia thousands of years ago, and is now grown to produce 99% of the world’s wine.

But, once planted in North America, the plant yielded much less fruit and the grapes made for an unappetizing flavor in wine, which discouraged further cultivation. British colonies in the 1600s and 1700s also failed at establishing vineyards along the Atlantic Seaboard because the foreign cuttings were susceptible to American disease and insects. 

With much of North America inhospitable to Vitis vinifera, the 1740 discovery of the Alexander grape in Philadelphia is what made North American wine production actually feasible. This variety combined the hermaphroditic flowering traits of Vitis vinifera with the hardiness of a native species, making it a natural hybrid. 

This new variety ignited interest in hybridization. What if more grapes could be made capable of flourishing in unlikely regions?

Winemakers Experimenting In The 45th Parallel

Wine grapes typically grow between 30 and 50 degrees latitude in the areas of the world where it’s not too cold and not too hot. The Midwest sits nicely along the 45 degree line—as do pronounced winemaking regions like Bordeaux, Piedmont, and Willamette Valley. 

Thanks to past experimentation in America, grapes grown in the Midwest are mostly hybrids of native species like the fox grape, or Vitis labrusca. These cold climate wines have distinct, aromatic profiles

“We say that the Midwest is kind of like the Wild West of grape growing—there are no limits, there’s nothing telling us what we can and can’t do,” says Nick Smith, Enologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He goes on to say that frostier climates offer interesting quirks and unique benefits to winemakers. 

So, despite being in an ideal wine-making climate along the 45th parallel, Midwest winemakers experiment simply because they must in order to produce high quantities and quality of grapes. But their supposed kryptonite—the colder weather—may be just what gives them the advantage going forward.

Climate Change Makes It Harder To Grow Grapes Everywhere 

Midwest wines may have a “newness” edge, but there’s something else working against traditional winemakers: climate change. 

At one point, France banned American grapes because they thought the foreign fruit was negatively affecting the taste of the wines they produce. Nowadays, restrictions have been largely loosened because France has seen smaller crop yields due to climate change, and American grapes are better equipped to combat cold and disease. 

In fact, France recently lost billions after producing their smallest harvest since 1957. 60 Minutes even interviewed a vineyard owner who didn’t yield enough grapes to produce a single bottle of Champagne. As a result of similar instances like this country-wide, bottles of Bordeaux are now allowed to include non-Bordeaux grapes.

France isn’t alone in grape-growing struggles. These areas are also actively fighting climate change:

  • Napa: Since excessive heat increases the alcohol content in wine, some California wineries are actually de-alcoholizing their wine before bottling it.
  • Australia: Bush fires in 2019 and 2020 hit this wine-growing region hard.
  • Italy: After suffering hailstorms and then extreme heat waves in 2017 and 2018, Italy has been producing less viable wine grapes. 

Of course, the Midwest isn’t immune from climate change. Extreme wind and rain, as well as unpredictable winter temperatures (both warmer and cooler than usual) have affected this area of the world, too. But major wine-making regions producing less wine have opened the doors for non-traditional winemakers to take the spotlight in the industry. 

Speaking of spotlight, let’s hand the mic to the 3 Midwest states making a name for themselves in the wine industry.

1. Minnesota: Dry Climate & Expert Grape Breeding Results In Wine Expansion

2021’s drought and 2022’s dry conditions have resulted in near-perfect grape growing weather for Minnesota. The dryness actually has the state yielding more high quality grapes—it forces deeper roots to grow and brings different flavonoids to wine. 

And while traditional California vineyards owners still tend to stick their noses up at the idea of Midwest wineries, Minnesota is gaining traction and respect in the wine world: The New York Times recently recognized the hybrid Frontenac grape as one worth knowing better, and Minnesota wineries won Best of Show and several Best of Class awards at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition. 

Minnesota’s 2 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). 

But Minnesota wine’s success isn’t just a result of favorable weather. Their success—and perhaps what they’re most known for in the industry—comes from the University of Minnesota’s innovative grape breeding program that uses genetic testing. 

All Hail Hybrids: Minnesota’s Grape Breeding Is No Small Feat

U of M is 1 of only 3 universities in the US with grape breeding programs of their size. And despite years of traditionalists in Europe and California shunning hybrid grapes, the work these researchers are doing may help worldwide winemaking survive climate change

The program began in the 1970s when Minnesota only had 2 wineries. Nowadays, the state has more than 80 wineries, and the university has released 12 “keeper” grapes, with a 13th awaiting patent. 

Here’s a peek at what university researchers do when identifying new varietals:

  • DNA testing: Researchers can pinpoint grapes that are resistant to disease and carry certain flavor characteristics that’s favorable in wine. 
  • Trial and error: Researchers test grapes to find the best candidates for cold hardiness. There’s no DNA testing for this: The one way to see if a grape can withstand the cold is to plant it and see. 
  • Fine-tune: A grape and vine’s architecture play a big part in how its fruit can withstand extreme weather conditions. Loose clusters and thick skin lets air flow through the bunches, which reduces the chance of mold, rot, and invasive insects ruining the crops. 

Clearly, this work is extremely labor intensive. In fact, at any given time at the University’s Landscape Arboretum, there are 10,000 unique grape plants growing. On average, only 1 has a possibility of becoming an official new variety. 

Minnesota has a reputation for sweet wine because most of the grapes grown there tend to have high acidity. This acid entices winemakers to add sugar to balance it out. So, reducing a grape’s natural acidity as well as optimal cold hardiness is top of mind for U of M researchers.

Is Minnesota The Next Napa?

There’s no doubt that Minnesota is making impressive strides in wine-making. But with a shorter grapevine lifespan than its warmer counterpart—grapevines grow for 80 years in California versus 20 years in Minnesota—and a shorter growing season, the process is much more expensive in the Midwest. 

So, no, Minnesota isn’t a threat to California’s vineyard crown. But, the quality of Minnesota wine is continuing to expand and innovate, making it a worthwhile region to watch. 

2. Michigan: Topping Charts In Wine Production & Tourism

Grape juice giant Welch’s was actually the first to plant vineyards in Michigan. Now, the state has more than 13,000 vineyard acres, with 4,000 acres dedicated to both vinifera and hybrid grapes. It also ranked in the top 10 for US wine production in 2018. 

In a state known for its lakes, the freshwater and glacial soils actually contribute positively to agricultural production. In fact, most of Michigan’s wine grapes grow within 25 miles of Lake Michigan because the giant lake:

  • Tempers air along shoreline regions
  • Protects fall crops from harsh frosts
  • Prevents spring crops from blooming too early
  • Insulates vines from extreme cold temperatures with lake effect snow
The 5 AVAs of Michigan.

Tourism Highlights: Traverse City & Ice Wine

The most popular resort town in Michigan is Traverse City, inviting thousands to wine tasting rooms in the summer and fall. The tourist boom began with fruit wines, but it continues with innovative favorites like Ice Wine

To get this one-of-a-kind beverage just right, grapes must be picked when the water is frozen but the sugar isn’t—usually between 17 and 19 degrees Fahrenheit. That often requires harvest to happen in the middle of the night! The result? Honey-like nectar that you quite literally can’t get anywhere else: Michigan is one of the only places in the world that makes Ice Wine.

3. Wisconsin: Delivering Rural Jobs & Dessert Wines

Just like its Midwest neighbors, Wisconsin soil is ideal for hybrid, cold-hardy grapes. An area of note is the Niagara Escarpment: It’s a region known for shallow soil, porous rock, and stretches along eastern Wisconsin through the upper peninsula of Michigan and east to New York. With perfect drainage and ideal wine-growing weather rolling off Lake Michigan, the Niagara Escarpment was designated as part of an American Viticultural Area in 2012. 

Wisconsin’s 3 AVAs.

Wine’s Economic Impact On Wisconsin

Tourism is also a dominating driving factor on the economy in Wisconsin. With relatively new interest in Wisconsin wine, grape growing has had a multi-million dollar economic impact on the state. Wisconsin vintners are acclaimed for delicious sparkling wines, ports, and dessert wines.

The rising demand in these wine experiences has also provided job opportunities for rural residents according to a Michigan State University study. In these areas, manufacturing and other industries have shut down, leaving many unemployed. 

But in places like Ripon, Wisconsin, where the population sits just below 8,000, spots like Vines & Rushes Winery invites out-of-town visitors and employs its small town residents. Vines & Rushes now produces over 70,000 bottles of wine every year on the family-owned farm.  

So next time you’re planning a vineyard visit, consider the Midwest. Maybe you can get a trip in before it becomes too mainstream and you have to throw elbows with a bachelorette party.

Click here to learn more about sustainability in wineries and how the industry is responding to climate change.

    Spotlight photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash

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