One of the most exciting winery finds for me this year has been Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery. Located in southwestern Minnesota near Mankato in the Southern Minnesota River Valley, this winery produces not just award-winning wines, but also spirits and dessert wines from both local grapes as well as sourced-in grapes from Napa and Washington.
Chankaska is majority-owned by husband and wife team Kent and Jane Schwickert as well as Kim Schwickert (Kent’s brother) and his wife Sue and their family. Kent was, and still is, the visionary behind the winery and all the multiple facets it has become. Kent and Jane lead the management team with Kim being a heavy investor and serving on the Board and Finance committees offering his operations expertise when needed.
The two brothers have fascinating stories apart from the winery with their third-generation leadership of Schwickert Companies (now owned by TECTA America) but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say there are a lot of brains, prior business successes, and impeccable attention to detail between them which the winery clearly reflects with its high-quality products.
Always striving to improve their products and processes, I met Kim and his family on a recent trip to Napa where they were visiting wineries and, of course, tasting wines. I was immediately intrigued when he told me about their winery.
Chankaska, whose name is native Dakota Indian meaning “enclosed by forest”, was established in 2008 and currently spans 25 acres just outside Kasota, Minnesota. It is currently the second largest winery in Minnesota (producing 15,000 cases of wine) and the only winery in Minnesota to hold a distilled spirits license. As hospitality and creating a memorable experience were always core ideals for the winery, an expanded events center was recently opened in June 2018 to better accommodate their rapidly growing destination wedding and corporate event clientele.
Chankaska is highly unique in its diversity of products as well as the quality among all of them. Head winemaker Mike Drash leads the charge along with assistant winemaker, Josie Boyle. Mike relocated from Napa to work for Chankaska five years ago after stints at J. Wine Company, Far Niente, and Luna Vineyards. He brings a wealth of experience in both European and American grape wine-making which adds to the special nature of this winery.
I recently had a chance to taste some of their sparkling (all traditionally-made), white, red, and Krem wines. Most of the wines I tried were made from American grapes versus the more commonly known European varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc).
I started with the premiere release of Equinoce Reserve Brut ($38). This excellent sparkling wine was made from 90% Frontenac Gris and 10% Chardonnay and tasted of tart apple, lemon, and toasty stone fruit. Medium-bodied with refreshing acidity and persistent mousse, this wine finished on a crisp mineral note. Frontenac Gris is a hybrid grape from the Midwest with notably high acidity (always a key component of sparkling wines).
Next, I tried the Dew Drop Brut Rose ($32), which was a blend of 64% Marquette and 36% Frontenac Gris and whole-cluster pressed with portions fermenting in both barrel and stainless steel (the Marquette was in barrel with Frontenac Gris in stainless). This wine-making technique preserves primary fruit aromas (from stainless) and adds complexity and texture (from barrel). This wine had wild strawberry, red cherry, and savory spice notes with a long zesty finish. Lively acidity and a textured palate harmonized very well in this snappy wine, which took Bronze in the 2017 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition for Minnesota.
Moving on to the white wines, I started with the 2015 Petite Colline ($25) which was a Minnesota blend of 8 different grape varieties: 31% Frontenac Gris, 20% Brianna, 16% Saint Pepin, 11% Prairie Star, 8% Edelweiss, 7% Petite Amie, 5% Frontenac Blanc, 2% La Crescent.
This wine was off-dry in style and highly appealing. Lemon gold in color with waxy lanolin and tropical fruit aromas, the palate positively burst with pineapple, yellow apple, and rose flavors. Vibrant acidity, medium alcohol, and medium in body, this was a versatile wine that would pair with a variety of foods. Sauvignon Blanc and unoaked Chardonnay lovers would also find this wine right up their alley as it possessed the citrus and tropical notes of the former with the more substantial body and complexity of the latter. Incidentally, the added complexity in this wine comes from the Prairie Star component being fermented and aged in older Puncheons (double-sized barrels). This wine won Silver in the 2016 International Cold Climate Wine Competition for Minnesota.
The next white was the 2017 La Crescent ($22) which was sweeter in style (with 5% residual sugar) and one of Chankaska’s best-selling wines. Even if you’re not a sweet wine lover, it’s hard not to be infatuated with this one’s exuberant floral nature. La Crescent is a cold-hardy, white grape developed by the University of Minnesota’s Grape Breeding and Enology program. This program is doing all kinds of exciting things with grapes but more on that in a separate entry.
This wine is made from 82% La Crescent (from Minnesota) and 18% Riesling (from Washington) and has been described as “green apple Jolly Rancher” in a glass; a claim that’s entirely accurate as the wine managed to combine both sweet and tart notes in the same sip. However, it also had juicy peach, apple, and pineapple flavors with an almost effervescent cleansing feel on the palate. Once again, the high acidity kept it from being too sweet and kept all the fruit elements beautifully framed through the sustained finish.
The last white wine I tried was the 2016 Four Oak White ($32) which was slightly off-dry in style and made from 46% St Pepin, 27% Prairie Star, 15% La Crescent and 9% Chardonnay. This is the first vintage of this wine and it was both barrel fermented and barrel aged (9 months in 30% new French oak) which created a fuller-bodied wine with additional nuances of complexity. Made with estate-grown fruit, this wine was lemon gold in color and had layered flavors of fresh lemon, grapefruit, ripe peach, and toast. There was a pleasant creaminess on the palate and higher alcohol of 14.1% contributed to a lingering spicy finish.
Moving on to the red wines, I started with the 2016 Marquette ($24). Marquette is another cold-hardy American hybrid with a unique flair of its own. This wine, made from 18 different Marquette vineyards as well as 16% Pinot Noir and 6% Frontenac, had translucent purple ruby hues with a fresh fruity nose of black plum, blueberry, white pepper, and herbs with a tingly citric backbone. This wine had the same vivacious freshness one finds with some wines that are made with carbonic maceration although that technique wasn’t used here. It also had a well-rounded finish from 8 months in French and Minnesota oak barrels. This was a crowd-pleaser red wine that would be perfect with pork, game, or burgers.
Next up was the 2016 Reserve Marquette ($36) which was notably darker in color with cranberry, black pepper, tobacco, and potpourri notes. Electric acidity and resolved tannins melded well in this medium-bodied wine with 14.1 alcohol. The energetic finish was laced with cherries and smoke from 18 months in French oak barrels (30% new and 70% used). Made from 83% Chankaska Vineyard grapes in Kasota, Minnesota and 17% Lone Oak Tree Vineyard grapes.
The last Marquette I tried was the 2016 Lone Oak Tree Vineyard Marquette Reserve ($36). The Lone Oak Tree Vineyard is an impeccable vineyard in Amboy, Minnesota owned and managed by Les and Twyla Curry. Mostly opaque in ruby color with a nose of black cherry, orange zest, blackberry, and cedar, this wine had tangy acidity with an alluring zesty citrus thread that ran all the way through its plummy smoke finish. Aged in Minnesota and neutral French oak for 18 months and new Puncheon barrel.
The last red I tried was the 2015 Frontenac ($24). This was the first ever Frontenac for Chankaska and most of the grapes came from a plot near Montevideo (owned by John Roisin). This wine was a deep garnet in color with wild briary blackberry, plum and herbaceous garrigue aromas. Scintillating acidity raced through this wine with tart cranberry, fresh earth, and spicy black pepper flavors. There was a wildness to this wine that was seductive yet won’t be for everyone.
Mike used extended maceration on this wine to get as much grape extraction as possible. This process included a 5-day cold soak prior to a 3-week fermentation and then sealing the tank and infusing the head space with Carbon Dioxide. The wine was then aged for 9 months in 20% New Minnesota Oak Barrels and while it was a powerful wine in nature, the alcohol was relatively low at 13.6%. This wine won Silver at the 2016 International Cold Climate Wine Competition for Minnesota.
Mike says that Frontenac reminds him of the California grape Petit Sirah which is a great description as they both share a massive presence and robust quality. It was fascinating to try these reds side by side and see how the differences between varieties and vineyards manifested themselves.
I concluded with the Krems and a dessert wine. The Krems, translated as “creams” in Scandinavian, are cream liqueurs made with grape brandy. I found the Krems to be truly remarkable for their purity in flavor and ability to be both sweet and clean (not cloying) at the same time.
The North Forest Peppermynte Krem ($24) was made with apple wine, brandy, non-dairy cream, and natural flavors. At 12.5 alcohol, this was a smooth cordial that will have you wrapped around its peppermint stick from your first sip. The crisp flavors were pristine and perfectly balanced with a soft purring finish. I’m not a huge peppermint fan but I loved this liqueur. Combined with coffee or chocolate, this is a knockout libation which won Gold at the 2017 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition for Minnesota.
The North Forest Krem Valnot ($24) was also exceptional with a walnut base (Valnot is Scandanavian for walnut). This one was made from locally-sourced Mankato maple syrup, black walnuts, apple brandy, and cream. At 12.5% alcohol and 10% residual sugar, this drink went down way too easily and brought steaming buttered pancakes with syrup to mind. This cordial won the Riverside International Wine Competition, California 2015 Chairman's Award (Unanimous Gold) and Best of Class as well as the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, New York 2015 Double Gold.
Chankaska also came out with a new flavor this past year called the North Forest Pumpa Krem ($19) which I haven’t tried yet but will definitely be looking for it as well as their spirits.
Lastly, I tried the 2017 Ratafia ($24) dessert wine which is a new style for Chankaska and traditionally made in France’s Champagne region by fortifying freshly pressed grape juice with brandy. “Ratafia” is another term used for fortified wines.
This wine was made from Estate-grown Edelweiss which was pressed and then fortified with Chankaska’s own grape brandy before barrel aging (6 months in French oak). Similar to Port, the brandy fortification arrests fermentation and leaves behind the remaining sweetness in the wine.
This wine was like an elegant party on the palate. Its 16.7% alcohol was discernible but well balanced in this honey-fruited beauty lush with dried apricot, spiced peaches, marmalade, and almond pastry flavors. Although it was a sweet wine, its vibrant acidity perfectly complemented the 11.1% residual sugar cascading to a bright spicy finish that lasted several minutes. This was an intriguing dessert wine that will throw your guests for a loop as they won’t quite be able to figure out what it is (but they’ll know they like it).
As you can see, Chankaska offers a tremendous wealth in diversity, quality, and experiences through its wines, tranquil vineyards, and unique location in southern Minnesota. If you’re looking for a terrific weekend getaway or a fantastic place to host an event, consider visiting Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery.
All of the above wines can be purchased online at Chankaska’s website and shipped to Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Montana, and California (residents only). Or you can find them if you go to a Timberwolves or Wild game in their respective locations. Stay tuned for a future blog on Chankaska’s spirits and California-sourced wines.