Judging at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition

A Marquette hybrid grapevine. Looks like a normal wine grapevine, but it lives through Minnesota winters without fail.

International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC)
The ICCWC is an annual wine competition for wineries working in climates too cold for traditional vitis vinifera, “normal” wine grapes. Cold winters in the northern states often produce temperatures below -25 F for extended periods. These temperatures reliably kill grapevines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and all the other familiar grapes. Native American vines survive in these conditions, but the wines they produce have unusual or “off” flavors. Fruit breeders work for years to cross-breed vitis vinifera wine grapes with American varieties over multiple generations to produce hybrid grapevines with the desired characteristics. The most popular of these hybrid varieties are grown commercially in northern climates. The ICCWC is an annual competition and celebration of these hybrid wines with the intent of highlighting the best and expanding interest in these northern varieties. Details on the competition can be found here, plus links to prior winners.

(click on any photo to view a full size slide show)

2022 Competition
The competition was held at Sovereign Estate winery on the northern shore of Lake Waconia, just west of the Twin Cities. I was among 21 judges charged with evaluating over 300 wines.

Getting to Work
Drinking wine all day, sounds like fun, right? Keep in mind that we spit everything! The biggest challenge is to keep one’s palate fresh, given all those aromas and flavors. Our group of 3 judges made it through 4 flights of 9-10 wines in each flight before lunch. All the wines were evaluated blind, all we knew was the label of the flight. The flight might be all wines from the same grape, or simply “white blend” or “rosé >1% rs (residual sugar)”. We rated each wine individually, then jointly sorted the wines into categories of gold, silver, bronze or no rating according to our scoring criteria. A wine which received a gold rating from each of the three judges is awarded a double gold medal.

Drew Horton, lead enologist at the University of Minnesota, unveils the top wines

Tallying the Results
After all the individual flights had been evaluated, a second round was held to find the best of the major groupings – white, red, rosé, sparkling, fruit wine. Finally a final taste-off to choose the best of the best from Minnesota which was crowned with the Governor’s cup!

I’ve highlighted a few of the winners from my judging group in the photos below. Hybrid wines have come a long way over the last few years as winemakers are discovering the best winemaking choices for each of these new grapes. On your next trip to a wine shop in the midwest, take a look and give a local wine a try!

One Response to “Judging at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition”
  1. How interesting Jeff! To sample all of these unusual wines and to learn who is doing what with these grapes and where!

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