When brainstorming destinations known for vineyards, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa Valley and Sonoma usually top the list. Thanks to science, the Upper Mississippi River Valley may soon be top of mind when looking for good wine. According to the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, the Upper Mississippi River Valley is now the world’s largest American Viticultural Area (AVA). The region is 50 times larger than Bordeaux allowing for higher production. In 1997, there were three wineries in Minnesota. This number increased to 37 by 2010.

Why the increase in grape growing? Science. The Minnesota Legislature has directed funding to the Univerisity of Minnesota to research grapes since the mid 1980’s. This research has resulted in the development of several varieties of cold weather grapes. Five new varieties have been released since 1996; Fontenac, Fontenac Gris, La Crescent and Marquette.  Unlike the grapes in Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa Valley, these grapes have been developed to withstand the cold temperatures without special coverage.

This grape growing phenomenon is helping to increase agrotourism in Minnesota. Although many of the wines are not seen on store shelves, wineries have been selling direct to consumer. I witnessed this first hand a few weeks ago when visiting vineyards near Stillwater. Each of us paid $5 to sample wines and most left with several bottles purchased directly from the winery.

If you have not yet explored the vineyards of Minnesota, I’d highly recommend it. Not only is it interesting to see this new industry take off in the state, you’ll get to taste some good wine and experience small town charm as you tour the rural areas of the state.