Middlebury You may not know it yet, but the Lake Champlain Valley region of New York and Vermont is North America’s newest, fastest growing artisan grape-growing and wine-making region.
While the wide, hilly terrain of the Lake Champlain basin isn’t much like California’s better known and milder Sonoma Valley wine country, it does more closely resemble New York’s famous Finger Lakes wine region located over 300 miles to the west—but with unique differences which set it apart.
The Champlain Valley may be colder than the Finger Lakes, but it’s decidely international in character. The big valley straddles two U.S. states and the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec (with its own wine-grape heritage dating to the 17th century).
The Champlain Valley certainly has the right stuff: a beautiful, historic, long lake and mountain scenery near both shores, and in addition, a young “collective” of award-winning wine producers. The valley is an emerging destination for wine tourism of possibly major proportions.
So, how did such a cold place, with an all too short agricultural growing season, luck out with such excellent grapes and wines?
Well, you can thank Wisconsin farmer Elmer Swenson and the University of Minnesota for the Champlain Valley’s grape-wine boomlet.
Back in the 1960s, Swenson developed several hybrid varieties of rugged American-French grapes which shrug off cold temperatures. Later, he was hired by the University of Minnesota to develop more of the new grapes with the institution’s imprimatur—and the rest is wine-making history.
Although Swenson died in 2004 and never set foot in the Champlain Valley, he’s being hailed as the local wine-grape equivalent of Johnny Appleseed. For wherever Swenson grapes are planted in the North Country’s cold places, delicious grapes ripen and lots of very tasty wines are bottled and consumed.
Here are a few examples of Swenson’s grape varieties—to name the best known—which make super wines for our cold climate: Marquette, Frontenac, St. Croix, LaCrescent, St. Pepin and LaCrosse.