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The Northern Grape Project's test vines at Coyote Moon winery, Clayton. Photo: David Sommerstein
The Northern Grape Project's test vines at Coyote Moon winery, Clayton. Photo: David Sommerstein

North Country wines survive the cold, please the palate

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The New York wine industry is booming. According to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, five million people visit New York wineries every year. The industry generates almost $4 billion.

The North Country has almost two dozen wineries. The state legislature recently designated an Adirondack Wine Coast Trail to draw attention to a pocket of vineyards near Lake Champlain.

A lot of the credit for New York wines can go to a team of researchers that's doing what you might call "extreme winemaking" - breeding grapes that survive the North Country's frigid winters and still make delicious wine.

They hope names like Frontenac and Marquette will one day be as popular as Cabernet and Merlot. David Sommerstein reports from a vineyard in the Thousand Islands.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

America's newest cold climate wine: Coyote Moon's Frontenac Blanc. Photo: David Sommerstein
America's newest cold climate wine: Coyote Moon's Frontenac Blanc. Photo: David Sommerstein
I'm in Thousand Islands vineyard Coyote Moon's wood-paneled tasting room, and the vineyard's Kristina Randazzo-Ives is telling me about her 20 wines, including a "right in your face" Frontenac and what's believed to be the first commercial Frontenac Blanc ever.

The Frontenac Blanc is a cousin of the Frontenac, the very first cold hardy wine grape in the country.

Six years ago, the Randazzo family began turning scrubby, abandoned farmland, a bit inland from the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, into a vineyard. And there was an obvious problem – the North Country's 30 below zero winters. Traditional wine grapes don't survive winters like ours.

Coyote Moon's Kristina Randazzo-Ives and Cornell University's Tim Martinson are working together to make cold climate grapes produce delicious wine. Photo: David Sommerstein
Coyote Moon's Kristina Randazzo-Ives and Cornell University's Tim Martinson are working together to make cold climate grapes produce delicious wine. Photo: David Sommerstein
Tim Martinson is a viticulturalist (that's the science of growing grapes) with Cornell University. He and a couple dozen other researchers took that as a challenge. They started the Northern Grape Project in 12 states to help cold climate wines thrive.

"You know, I had people call me from up here and say, you know, we've been thinking about grapes and I said 'are you nuts?'"

Martinson uses Coyote Moon as a test site. He manages a handful of tidy rows of grape vines, just starting to bud, and he experiments with them. Today he and Randazzo-Ives are tinkering with new ways to tie up vine branches to promote healthy grapes.

Martinson explains you have to work around cold hardy grapes' disadvantages. They tend toward acidity. They can lack body, mostly because of the short growing season.

Inside Coyote Moon's cellar. Photo: David Sommerstein
Inside Coyote Moon's cellar. Photo: David Sommerstein
And that's why the wine establishment has been skeptical. Wine Spectator magazine doesn't even review cold climate wines.

But the scientists behind all the cold-hardy grapes say they're making breakthroughs.

Peter Hemstad is the grape breeder at the University of Minnesota. It took his team almost 20 years to develop Frontenac in 1996. A decade later, they released Marquette. And they were psyched, or as psyched as Minnesotan grape breeders get.

"The flavor was excellent. The crop was good. It had some tannin, which is part of the structure that you're going to get from the European grapes."

Marquettes are starting to generate buzz as an up and coming stand-in for Pinot Noirs.

Hemstad concedes these new vineyards of the north are a long way from matching France or California's best. But he says they're reinvigorating rural economies and they mesh perfectly with "buy local" culture.

"They're not going to compete with Napa Valley, but if you think of Vermont, you've got the small-scale sugar producers, the cheese operators, and now you'll have the small-scale wineries right down the street."

Today there are hundreds of cold-hardy winemakers across the northern U.S. Nationally recognized wine columnist Dan Berger says their wines are providing an alternative in a market dominated by the big traditional, like Chardonnay and Cabernet.

"Look, the millennial drinker of today is adventuresome. These are people who want distinctive differences in their wines. I think we're looking at cold climate wines making in-roads, where previously nobody paid any attention at all. I think the Wine Spectator will eventually have to sit up and take notice."

There are more than two dozen wineries in the North Country, from the Thousand Islands winery, one of the first in the region, to Vesco Ridge in West Chazy in Clinton County.

Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota continues to develop new cold climate grapes, which brings us back to that Frontenac Blanc at Coyote Moon in Clayton. With a pop of the cork, Kristina Randazzo-Ives pours me a glass.

It's aromatic with peach and nectarine, but also caramel smooth. I didn't know what to expect – it is a totally new grape. Randazzo-Ives says that's exactly what the next generation of wine drinkers who visit her tasting room are seeking – something new and different.

"They're searching out brands and things that they like, which makes the small winery experience and going to different places that have a variety of wines so popular and successful."

Coyote Moon's won almost 500 awards in just three and a half years. That includes best of class among non-traditional reds for its Marquette from the San Francisco Chronicle, one of America's most prestigious wine competitions. Randazzo-Ives believes Frontenac Blanc may just be next.

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