Since my move to Minnesota, almost four years ago now, I am constantly hit with the question, “So what do you think of the MN wines?” It is in all truth that I am asked the question almost every single nite that I am out. Because I am with the public daily sharing, drinking and educating the world on wine – it is the one question inquiring minds (of MN) want to know. My excuse has been that I have not visited many MN wineries since my move here and that I truthfully, have not taken the time to sit, smell, and sip my way through any one of the MN wineries. After last weekend, and with the help of a couple of friends, I can now no longer say ‘I haven’t been to a MN winery.’
Last Saturday, part of one of Minnesota’s last ‘great weather’ weekends, was just my beginning to exploring MN Wine Country ~ and for Baxter, our new miniature Dachshund puppy. Alexis Bailey Vineyards, south of the Twin Cities and just outside the city of Hastings, held its (I think) annual Harvest Tasting for the public. Celebrating the release of their most ‘early released’ fall wines, Foch Nouveau, a wine meant to mimic the tradition of Beaujolais Nouveau, the winery was packed wall to wall and from front yard to back yard with folks clamoring to get their hands on more Alexis Bailey. Our friends had arrived early, so we had a our seats reserved in the ‘cellar’ of the winery, equipped with fancy picnic table goods and more. The only thing we had to do was make the drive and buy our $10 per person tasting (which, incidentally, led you through 11 wines and a glass to take home). Not too bad of a deal. I can’t remember the last time I went to a winery and paid $10 for anything, so that was pretty cool. In general, you can’t even get through most winery gates from Oregon to California for under $20 anymore. (Yes, I know they’re out there, but it’s rare!)
Keep in mind, that I had ZERO expectations for my visit. I had never had any of Alexis Bailey Wines and the MN wines that I’d had in the past, were all quite sweet and on the ‘foxier’ side of the fence with their unusual profiles. However, the friends that we tasted with HAD experienced all of the wines in the past from AB and did have their favorites of the portfolio.
Here’s the thing…when tasting wines that come from native MN grape species like: Frontenac, St Croix and beyond, you MUST keep your head out of comparing these varietals to the hierarchy of species like: Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and more. If you walk in the with expectations that the MN wines that you are about to experience will taste like the Sterling Cab you had the nite before, you will be in for one heck of a disappointment. (By the way, you might just find a better MN wine out there than Sterling Cabernet – Sorry, poor example!) The point is, don’t compare these wines to what you already know of European Grapes.
With eleven wines to taste and the day open to explore these new characters from head to toe, I really did spend the time analyzing, writing and sipping everything we drank. Talking through the wines with friends and even trying several foods on the table against them for ‘pairing’ was another part of our experience.
Starting from the top, the first wine poured was the Seyval Blanc. The nose was rich with honey, yet the palate surprisingly crisp. While the vineyard notes compared it to a French Sauvignon Blanc, I wouldn’t go as far to say so, but would say – I really enjoyed this wine from that sort of Sauvignon Blanc- like mouth-feel. Probably great with a goat cheese and quite nice with a lite summer appetizer. Next came the Country White. A wine, the vineyard named after the Vin du Pays Dept wines of France, ‘country wine’. Again, not even remotely close to a French wine and the disappointing experience I had with this wine and quickly became the theme of the day, was that my tasting note sheet did not tell me what grapes were used in the blend, nor did the tasting room asst that poured the wine for me. I asked and she said, “I don’t know”. Bummer. If you don’t know, why don’t you ask? I guess they were too busy. This wine, however, was a disappointment. It was flabby (meaning ‘without structure’ – not a lot of acid to support it), over the top with sugar and left my mouth feeling like I had just eaten 17 Jolly Ranchers.
Moving on…The Golden Gris. With this wine, I was happy to see the tasting notes clearly explain the two grapes used: La Crescent and Frontenac Gris – both of which were developed at the U of M. With a sort of Riesling-like character, the wine was a nice pairing to the almonds on our lunch table AND a fabulous pairing with the…Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos we had!! A quintessential pairing tip for all things spicy? Pair spicy to sweet – these two attributes of both the wine and chips, made the combo perfect! Next came the Rosé Noir. A rosé of what, however? Not any kind of rosé that I have ever drank. When I stuck my nose to the wine, it had a familiar smell of under-ripe Oregon Pinot Noir. Green stemmed, tobacco and cedar with notes of yellow cherries. But when I stuck it to my palate, hmmmm…not as I expected. And truthfully, one of my least favorite wines of the day.
The Country White’s counterpart, The Country Red, was next. The nose had an appeal of very ripe red fruit, yet the palate came across much drier than expected. A fairly nice, easy drinking (as the name implies) red wine. On our lunch table was a cheese that I have absolutely been in love with for some time called: Chabrin. A mild French goat’s milk cheese. Soft, a bit creamy and absolutely delicious. When paired with the Country Red, the entire palate took on a creamy hazelnut, Amaretto taste. Pretty good. Again, the person pouring and the tasting notes, were no help to giving me any idea as to ‘what’ grapes were used in this wine. The following wine was the wine that was winery’s feature – for the day. The Foch Nouveau. The grape I assume, Foch. A grape that some say carry Burgundian qualities. And while I am one of the biggest lovers of French Burgundians, this wine did not come even close to mimicking its French cousin, Gamay Noir that makes the famous early November drinking wine: Beaujolais Nouveau. Unfortunately, this wine fell into the same category for me as the Rosé Noir – thumbs down. Again, I realize that with a ‘Nouveau’ wine that you are celebrating an early wine, one of the first from its harvest, but to have the tasting room attendant tell my friend to drink it within the month…I’m not sure I want anything that Nouveau.
Highlighting the wine of the day, for me, next was the Voyageur. The Voyageur is the wine that almost everyone had told me time after time again, that I would enjoy from this MN portfolio, the best. They were right, and rightfully so, Alexis Bailey’s Flagship Wine. Clearly given description in the way of grapes from its tasting notes, the wine is a blend of: Foch, Millot and Frontenac. Hands down, the best Minnesota wine I’ve had to date! (Yes, you heard me say it.) Really a very well made wine. The wine made me think of eating BBQ’d ribs, coleslaw and honey grilled BBQ’d chicken. When wine makes me think of food, I’m happy. A nice wine and one that truly made my new MN cheeks smile.
The last of the wines that were tasted were all from the ‘sweet’ category. The Hastings Reserve, which did a pretty good job dressing itself to taste like a younger styled Ruby Port, The Chocolate Reserve Port (which I over heard almost every woman in the room oogle over) was not my favorite (but then again, I don’t like any wine that tastes like anything else outside of “wine” – IE: artificial flavorings), the Ratafia, which was a ‘no bueno’ concoction gone wrong with fortified grape spirit, orange essence and herbs, and the last wine tasted, the Isis Ice Wine. The Isis, a wine made from frozen grapes, but NOT of the traditional way – IE: conditions used in the most natural way without the help of ‘man’ freezing the grapes. Traditional ice wines from Canada and Germany have very strict laws that encompass certain temperatures at which the grapes can be harvested, brought into the winery and set into fermentation with. This, as I was told, was not of a natural way, but made by man to be frozen, not nature. The wine, as it was the last of the set, left me feeling heavy. The Isis was almost completely void of structure, feeling that the acid is certainly something that needs to be worked on with this wine.
I know as you read this, you may think…geesh, this girl is hard on these peeps!
But, you must keep in mind that I’m looking at all of these wines from a clear perspective of all things that makes wine ‘balanced’: Acid, Tannin, Sugar, Grape and most of all, Experience.
Was my experience mind-blowing? No, but then again…the place was too darn busy to get any sort of customer service. It would have been nice to have a tasting room attendant that actually knew something about the wine, because I do feel like I was ‘shorted’ with a few newbies. Coming from a winery background myself, I know what busy weekends look like, and I do remember spending weeks training our ‘fill in staff’ on the wines so that questions were NEVER left with an “I don’t know” answer.
What was most important about my visit to Alexis Bailey, however, is that it was spent with friends enjoying the day, sharing fun conversations and just enjoying being a Minnesotan in the crisp, sunshiny fall autumn air. The wines were a bonus and what was even more of a bonus, was the fact that I really did enjoy a few of them. And after walking away with a purchased bottle of my new Alexis Bailey Voyageur, I must say…I can’t wait to try it against the BBQ grilled food I envisioned while tasting it.
Cheers to you, Alexis Bailey! I salut you for making these wines, sharing them proudly with your community, putting all of your effort into producing them and throwing such a well-received Minnesotan party! You will go down in my book with one of the best MN Wines I’ve had, to date!