Port is the Answer?

In which Dara seeks great Minnesota wine in all the wrong places, and finds it anyway


I remembered an anecdote one wine insider told me when I was in his store hunting for any other Minnesota or Wisconsin dessert wines I might have missed. A couple came in and were planning their wedding, he told me, and they wanted it to make a low carbon imprint on the world—so all the wines had to be domestic. He asked them if they wanted Minnesota wines, and they shuddered—under no circumstances. They'd tasted Minnesota wines. I know what they mean: I had one $15 bottle in this particular go-round that tasted like sitting in front of a summer window screen when suddenly a skunk sprays, and you realize you've been sucking on a copper penny. It had the most bizarre finish that raced up on you minutes after you'd swallowed, and made your eyes tear up and sting. So that's what we're up against: an impossible climate wrapped around well-meaning drinkers who also have impossibly high standards.

At the end of the day, though, I did find four wines made with local fruit that I can wholeheartedly recommend. If you go out and buy one this year it won't exactly be like breaking rocks in the hot Portuguese sun, but it will probably get us one placemat closer to transforming an impossible place into a great wine place, if you know what I mean.

WineHaven Deer Garden White

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyards, maker of Minnesota's best wine
Bill Kelley
Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyards, maker of Minnesota's best wine

Location Info


Alexis Bailly Vineyard

18200 Kirby Ave.
Hastings, MN 55033

Category: Breweries and Wineries

Region: Outstate

If you believe, as I do, in terroir and in the importance of regional things tasting different, and that different can be good, then WineHaven's Deer Garden White is fascinating. It has a fragrance like honeysuckle, musky tea roses, milk, and leaf mulch; an intense muskmelon, chokecherry, and honey taste; and a smoky, honeyed-tea finish. It reminds me most of chokecherries, those little golden fruits that emerge from their papery envelopes late every summer and taste like nothing else on earth. While all the grapes that go into Deer Garden White are grown in Chisago City on the WineHaven properties, even the winemakers there don't really know what they all are. The grapes used for the Deer Garden White were planted by legendary local grape developer Elmer Swenson, the man responsible for La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, and others; some are known just by number, or code, like K-Gray. I think this wine would pair well with nutty cheeses, but it's practically worth a trip to Chisago City just to taste a wine that's absolutely, truly, unreproduceably unique.

(WineHaven is about 35 miles north of St. Paul. The 2006 vintages will be released during a weekend-long celebration April 21 and 22, and you're invited up to taste them! WineHaven Inc., Chisago City; winehaven.com.)

Alexis Bailly Isis Ice Wine, NV

This ice wine is inarguably the best wine produced in Minnesota. It has a beautiful golden color; a haunting, honeyed aroma with a hint of wood ash, apricot, and celery; and a weighty, silky finish that lasts forever, ending in the slightest butterscotch-almond memories. It has beautiful weight, great balance, and a sort of rosy warmth that's incredibly appealing. Bailly makes it with about half local grapes, including La Crescent and Frontenac Gris. The next vintage will be released in June, and it will henceforth be called Isis. If you want to give Isis as your corporate Christmas gift, move fast because the stuff sells out quickly; it might be the only cult wine between the Alleghenies and the Rockies.

Please note that the best wine in the state could be even better, says Bailly, if she didn't have to contend with unnecessary state regulation. Ideally she'd like to have the option of tinkering with the wine a bit more by fortifying it and thus arresting fermentation, and preserving some of the fruit character of the grape juice, the way the French do with wines such as Beaumes de Venise; however, if she did this it would necessitate redesigning and reprinting labels to indicate each year's tinkering, so she doesn't.

Alexis Bailly Vineyard Hastings Reserve Port, NV

A nicely concentrated, well balanced wine in the style of a ruby port, Alexis Bailly's port-style wine isn't just the best of the Minnesota ports I tried, it's better than any other domestic American port I've ever had, including many well regarded California Zinfandel ports. It has a subdued blueberry, raisin, and chocolate fragrance; good weight; and a lovely, long, deep raspberry finish. Nan Bailly has been making this port since 1983, and currently makes it with several grapes hybridized from a native Minnesotan wild grape, vitis riparia, including Marichal Foch and Frontenac. She leaves those grapes to ripen in the fields as long as she can, then ages the wine in whiskey barrels, and blends it for bottling.

Alexis Bailly Ratafia, NV

Ratafia is a fortified aperitif wine, in the tradition of European classics such as Lillet or Dubonnet, but to my taste far more delicious than either of those. It is flavored with orange peel, vanilla, and secret spices from the cinnamon side of the street. I hadn't had the wine in the last few years, and it's better than I remember it: remarkably focused and in balance, the density of the fruit flavors framing the lively, sensuous, fragrant bouquet of spices that leaps from the glass. The stuff works well cut with soda and served on ice; served at room temperature, it perfumes a whole room as you drink it. It's brilliant for thrifty drinkers, as it stays in good condition for a few weeks as you slowly finish the bottle.

(Alexis Bailly is located about half an hour from St. Paul in Hastings, Minnesota; the tasting room opens in May, so come on down! Alexis Bailly Vineyard, 18200 Kirby Ave., Hastings, 651.437.1413; abvwines.com)

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