MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There’s good wine, and there’s great wine.

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On Friday, judges at the University of Minnesota were sipping their way to find the very best.

The fifth annual International Cold Climate Wine Competition is awarding top honors for the finest red, white and specialty wines made from cold-climate grapes.

Panels of 21 expert judges spent the day tasting wines grown from grapes in 12 northern states and Canada. And the wines they choose will mean huge bragging rights to the wineries and growers.

The record number of entries reflects where the industry is headed.

John Garland, a wine connoisseur, was one of the testers.

“Mostly we’re looking for same kind of things in regular wines,  just looking for a good balanced body, looking for the right amount of sugars to the right amount of acids, looking for a clean finish, you know, a  sip that begs a return,” Garland said.

In 1990, Minnesota had but two commercial wineries. Now, the number is more like 50, growing into an industry with a $59 million annual economic impact.

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But the grapes grown in Minnesota aren’t the same grown in France.

“We’re a little bit too cold for the classic European grapes like Cabernet and Chardonnay and Merlot that everybody’s familiar with,” said Katie Cook, a U of M enologist.

Cold-tolerant grapes produce higher acidity, which is a challenge for wine makers. But northern varieties now rival wines produced in better known regions.

“The [U of M]’s recent issues, especially Marquette, has made a huge difference in the capability of wineries to produce really high quality wines,” said Ron Barnes of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.

Now five years running, it’s the only competition for northern-tier vineyards.

“This competition was started to focus attention and reward quality wines made from these grapes,” said Gary Gardner, a U of M horticulture professor.

Gold, silver and bronze medals go to the best red, white and specialty wines. And one Minnesota grower will go home with the coveted Governor’s Cup.

“Now that we’ve engineered these grapes we know are good for our climate, you know, nowhere to go but up,” Garland said.

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Winners of this year’s competition will be announced on the Minnesota Grape Growers Association’s website.