I once spent a few weeks in Portugal during the grape harvest and crush, and that experience, more or less, entirely reorganized the way I think about life.
It was the absurd rock mountains that did it: The mountains that make up the Douro Valley, where port comes from, are granite, quartz, and schist, and they look so very raw and rugged that you imagine they were thrust up from the sea perhaps late last week.
Speaking of the sea, Portugal, the whole of which is about the size of Indiana, feels like an island in the brightest, windiest possible sea. Even inland, the light is blistering; it comes from all directions, and the wind that batters these rock mountains in summer is dry and ocean-parched, and in winter is wet, cold, and ocean-sodden.
The experience of being in the rock mountains of Portugal is like being an ant skittering around beneath the coils of a broiler—it's so hot, so bright, so hot and bright that we just don't have parallels for it in Minnesota.
As someone who has spent the last ten years living in a state that constantly reinforces a local mythology insisting we live in the coldest, but also hottest, most forbidding, formidable weather in the world, it was, to say the least, eye-opening.
I saw old women walking down the side of the blisteringly hot, surface-of-the-sun road, with every inch of their bodies clad in wool, and balancing bundles of sticks the size of beer kegs on their heads, and knew that not one Minnesotan, not Paul Bunyan, not Jesse Ventura, not one of us, could do it.
So, if they live on sun-fried, wind-battered rock mountains in the sea, how do they grow all the port grapes to make their most vaunted export, port wine? (Port is short for Oporto, the foremost Portuguese port-exporting port. And yes, I tried to get "portentous" into that sentence for half an hour, and failed.)
Again, where does port wine come from, if it's so ghastly sunny and brutally rocky? For centuries, men and women have been attacking these rock mountains with chisel, shovel, and donkey, carving narrow terraces all over them until they turned rock wall into vertical farm. These enormous, enormous rock mountains now look like ziggurats, with layers of narrow, L-shaped planting areas. I tell you, the place is just stupendous. I stood on a mountainside (while praying I wouldn't get hit by passing vans of grape-harvesters) and just boggled: People did this? People, hand tools, and donkeys? It must have taken a whole day's backbreaking labor literally crushing rocks in the hot sun just to clear a placemat's worth of plantable area. The reason that seeing this more or less entirely reorganized the way I think about life was: I have never seen such palpable evidence of people doing more with less. You hear a lot about how if life gives you lemons make lemonade, but it's quite another thing to see with your own eyes: If life gives you a big rock in the hot sun, pummel bits of it into vineyard.
It also got me thinking about winemaking in our own inhospitable corner of the world. People often ask me why I don't write about Minnesota wines, but honestly, there hasn't been much to say: It's a fledgling industry in which some very wonderful people battle mightily against all odds and, more formidably, the weather. I try a lot of Minnesota and Wisconsin wines, but the only ones I've ever felt strongly enough about to endorse are the ones from Alexis Bailly Vineyards in Hastings. My trip to Portugal, however, got me wondering: What if the great northland wines are to be made through elaborate winemaking, the way they make port in Portugal, and not through perfect fruit, the way they do things in California and southern France?
Skip this paragraph if you don't want to know anything about wine chemistry, but the essential difference between ordinary wine and a fortified wine like port is this: Growing grapes on rocks in the hot sun ain't easy. Some years fruit was scant but very sweet, other years there was lots of fruit but its juice was dilute; vintages, that is, the harvest from a particular year, were far more variable than in a more temperate area. To deal with this the Portuguese developed an entirely different way of making wine. Quickly, and as simply as possible, the usual way of making wine is this: Yeasts digest the sugar in grape juice, thus making alcohol. When they stop, that's wine. You can do various things to that raw wine, of course, like aging it in barrels, or adding more sugar and having a secondary fermentation, but you essentially have a closed system: Grape Juice X in, Wine X out. This wasn't going to work for the Portuguese, so they developed a system that involved manipulating when the yeasts would stop digesting by adding concentrated grape alcohol and then blending wines from various vintages—so a little of Grape Juice X goes in, along with Grape Juices A, G, XL, wines T, S, V, and brandy Y, and so on, and port X comes out. This is a brilliant way to make a great wine in an impossible climate.
Speaking of impossible climates—here we are! So I got to wondering whether the way to make great wine north of Iowa would be by borrowing a page from the Portuguese, and exerting mind over matter—or, as they demonstrated, pummeling matter into something worth minding. I spent the last year collecting all of the ports and dessert wines I could find in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and when I finally amassed an even dozen I conducted a tasting. I had fear in my heart when I began, but knew I had at least one ringer—Alexis Bailly's Ice Wine is fantastic stuff, and if worse came to worse I'd just write about that. However, the tasting went very well, and I found half a dozen local ports and dessert wines to recommend; I was beside myself with glee. The path to Midwestern glory was indeed through Portugal! I prepared myself and my heirs for a golden future in which Minnesota and Wisconsin would join the first rank of happy, wine-producing lands.
Then, I came crashing back to reality. Only after doing the tasting and organizing my notes did I start calling wineries to find out more about the wines, whereupon I learned that all the Wisconsin ones were made with coastal fruit: Wollersheim Winery's round and supple 2004 American port is made with grapes trucked in from New York; Chateau St. Croix's honeyed American Golden Port, Jaune d'Or, is made with fruit brought in from California. Wisconsin's Cedar Creek Winery, now part of Wollersheim, makes their Cedarburg Spice wine with grapes from the land of Schwarzenegger. Even Carlos Creek Winery, in Alexandria, which makes an American port that's expensive ($36), exceedingly difficult to find (your best bet is to drive up to the winery, as I think I got the last bottle in town), and not that great, makes that particular wine with California grapes. In sum: I spent a year hunting down ports and dessert wines from Minnesota and Wisconsin, found a dozen, narrowed it down to seven wines I could honestly recommend, and discovered that only four of them were made even partially with local fruit: WineHaven's Deer Garden White ($14.95 for a 375 ml bottle), and Alexis Bailly's Ratafia ($18 for a 500 ml bottle), Hastings Reserve Port ($18), and Isis Ice Wine ($28 for a 375 ml bottle). Who knew it could be so dismaying to have a ringer in the fight?
So I called up Nan Bailly, the owner and winemaker at Alexis Bailly, and we ended up neck-deep in a spirited discussion I never expected to have, to wit: What's wrong with importing grapes?
"You cannot grow grapes in the Midwest—you can't," Bailly told me. "Fortunately, there are sane people in Wisconsin who recognize this, and make allowances for small businesses." That is, Wisconsin law allows winemakers to import as many grapes as they wish, but in Minnesota, state law requires any winemaker to use at least 51 percent local fruit in their output. "You would not believe what I'm doing today," said Bailly. "I'm pruning dead grape vines. Or, almost dead. I'll find out. I've got at least three acres of grape vines that didn't make it through the winter. Last year we had that terrible drought, followed by fairly low temperatures with no snow cover, so I knew it would be bad, but it's bad. I'm in Minnesota, and this is what happens: Every year I have to expect to have devastating losses in 25 percent of my fields. But I can't have a winery if I can't grow grapes. What do you think the people at 3M would do if the state told them they had to grow 51 percent of the ingredients they needed to make Post-Its? If Summit Brewery gets barley from North Dakota, does that make them any less of a Minnesota company?"
I explained that my hope would be that a Minnesota wine would be like morels from Afton, apples from Lake Pepin, something that tasted like here. She told me this was as silly as discounting the work of a Minneapolis painter because she used French paint. I told her that if a particular wine doesn't have the selling point of having a terroir—a taste of place—that I'm interested in, namely a terroir of here, then it has to compete on taste and value alone, and in that case there are an awful lot of good, $20 Portuguese ports that blow many pricier local offerings out of the water.
"You can't put the cart before the horse," said Bailly. "Wineries come first, then vineyards. Why would grape growers plant grapes if there's no market for them?" I conceded that this is a very good point: Most wine regions have a few hundred or at least a few dozen grape growers for every winery, and winemaking is certainly an art, and a different art than grape growing. Do we make bakers raise their own wheat? Furthermore, said Bailly, what if a winery just wants to be a tourist destination, a place where city daytrippers head to enjoy a nice day in the country, and deposit some dollars in rural coffers? Is that so wrong? Did I insist that people who drive to Stillwater or Lake Pepin for a nice lunch on the river consume no Spanish olive oil or French Champagne once they got there? Well, truthfully I would prefer that local restaurants cooked with fresh, local, pasture-raised butter, and served local wine that was as good as French Champagne. She pointed out that I live in a fantasy world.
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
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)