Growing & Winemaking


Evolving Styles for Marquette Wines

September 2017
by Bill Ward

To oak or not to oak? That is the question facing many Marquette producers as the promising cold-climate grape comes of age. While vintners initially relied heavily on traditional oak treatments for red wine in general and hybrids in particular, many of them have found that less is more. Hybrid barrels, oak staves and oak spirals have become much more widely utilized.

With few exceptions, winemakers across the northern tier of states have moved toward letting the grape, first released in 2006, express its own particular style and attributes. Even one of the grape’s progenitors has curbed his oak program for Marquette.

“We have been evolving at Saint Croix (Vineyards in Stillwater, Minn.),” said Peter Hemstad, who helped develop the grape at the University of Minnesota and has been making Marquette longer than anyone. “We traditionally have made it in a heavy style, pretty extracted and pretty heavily oaked in barrels for more than a year. In recent years, we decided to dial it back a little.

“Even if you make it with no oak, it’s an appealing wine with complexity. I think oak complements it, and I also think the marketplace now appreciates a little less oak than we made it with originally,” he added.

After using American oak for years, Hemstad and his winemaker, Martin Polognioli, now use a mix of new, one-year-old and two-year-old hybrid barrels with French heads and American staves. They’re sourced from two Napa-based outfits—primarily World Cooperage with a few from Seguin Moreau.

At Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven, Vt., Chris Granstrom has followed a similar path but moved even further away from new oak. He started off using new American oak barrels. “If you’re a new winery, you get a lot of new barrels,” he said with a chuckle. He now employs mostly “a French-American hybrid barrel with a few years on it,” with about 15% new hybrid barrels from World Cooperage.

At February’s Cold Climate Grape Conference, Granstrom told a gathering, “I’m not sure that the right amount of oak for Marquette is zero, but it’s pretty close to zero.” In a recent phone interview, he elaborated: “The only reason I can say that is that I’ve tasted a lot of Marquette, and a lot of it is over-oaked.

“Marquette has a lot of flavor, and a spicy thing going on. But for whatever reason, all that uniqueness gets squelched (by new oak), and it tastes like just another oaky red wine,” he said. “I think it’s especially prone to too much American oak, because the vanilla really dominates Marquette.”

Whatever Granstrom is doing is working: Lincoln Peak’s Marquettes have won a raft of gold medals at competitions as well as a Best in Show for Red Wines award for its 2013 Marquette at the 2015 International Cold Climate Wine Competition.

Other oak sources
Many other wineries are using barrels sparingly, if at all, instead opting for oak barrel alternatives—but not chips, although Leigh Schmidt of Leigh’s Garden Winery in Escanaba, Mich., adopted them seven years ago with his first Marquettes

“We started with oak chips in the tank right after fermentation, and then we advanced to oak spirals,” he said. “We generally use French medium-toast from the Barrel Mill in Minnesota. After the first year I had an idea of how many spirals to use. We like just a hint of oak.”

“It brings out some toastiness. We haven’t been able to get caramel, but have been able to get vanilla.”

Schmidt said his customers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula enjoy Marquettes of varying sweetness—with no oak on the semi-sweet and sweet versions. He also eschews oak when he’s blending Marquette with other varieties such as Maréchal Foch.

Since he’s making several versions of Marquette, Schmidt said he decided to produce one batch of the 2016 in a Russian oak barrel with a medium toast, purchased from importer Brick Packaging in Traverse City, Mich.

“In December, we’ll take the wine out of there and make a decision on the next barrels,” he said, “and we’ll use that barrel for our Frontenac next year.”

Oak staves are the order of the day at Parallel 44 in Kewaunee, Wis., with some neutral barrels mixed in, owner Steve Johnson said.

“In my corner of the world, we do not reach the same level of Brix as Minnesota or Iowa,” he said. “So we’re a little more light-handed with the oak. I would be afraid of using too much brand-new oak on Marquette.”

Johnson added that he utilizes oak “not for structure but for accent or flavor,” and that the staves from ?vOAK in Napa, Calif., only stay in the tanks “six or eight weeks max.” So far, he has made one exception: For his Vintner’s Reserve blend (with Petite Pearl), “We did leave the Marquette in oak longer.” The intent, he added: “Pie in the sky; we want to make an upper Midwest version of Bordeaux.”

Mike Drash also is trying to push the envelope at Chankaska Creek in Kasota, Minn., and already has garnered some Best in Show awards at competitions. He uses a combination of 100% French oak puncheons from Taransaud and the regular-size barrels with Minnesota staves and French oak heads from Radoux.

He’s also mixing it up with the winery’s three Marquettes, and even letting the source influence his approach. At the estate vineyard, “We’re on a hillside with really sandy soils,” he said, while Lone Oak Tree Vineyard in Amboy, Minn., “is completely flat with black soil. The Marquette from there has more of a Syrah-like feel: a meatiness, smokiness. So I did almost all American oak (for 16 months on the 2015) on that. The two vineyards are farmed very similarly and picked the same day but are very different.”

Drash uses all French oak, about 70% new, on the Estate Marquette. “With American oak, traditionally the term dill comes up a lot. With Marquette, French oak gives it more earth tones: mushroom, truffles.” He use s only 20% new oak for nine months on his Minnesota blend, “a fresher, more youthful wine.”

Chankaska Creek’s Marquette Rosé spends six months in a 50-50 mix of neutral French and American barrels, and the sparkling Marquette gets about six months in older French oak.

Drash came to the winery in 2014 after working in Sonoma and Napa for 17 years, so he has had a lot of experience with oak—enough to know how much he doesn’t know.

“My first year here, everybody said Marquette can’t take new oak” he said, “and I thought, ‘It’s only been around four or five years.’ In Napa they’ve been doing it 60 years, and they’re still trying to figure out the oak.”

Bill Ward has been covering wine for the better part of a century (the 21st). He retired as the wine columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2014 and now devotes his time to freelance wine and food enterprises from blogs and books to hosting wine dinners and providing customized wine country itineraries. He lives in Hopkins, Minn., and has a wine website:

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