Grape growing is expanding in non-traditional regions where winter low temperatures would be lethal to vinifera and most hybrid varieties. These are relatively new frontiers for grape growing and winemaking that have been developing slowly over the past few decades in places like northern New York, Vermont, Minnesota, Nebraska, Quebec, and many others.
These regions have relied on varieties developed by both public and private breeding programs over the years — Marechal Foch, Edelweiss, St. Pepin, and many others. Starting in the 1990s, the development and release of new varieties like Frontenac, La Crescent, and Marquette has sparked a new surge in the development of vineyards and wineries in these regions. These varieties are able to survive extreme winter temperatures of -30°F or colder and have good disease resistance, and are generally considered to have some improved fruit and wine characteristics compared to many of the older cold hardy varieties that have historically been used in these areas.
In 2011, USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative (funded by the 2008 Farm Bill) awarded funding for two projects that address grapes and cold hardiness from two different directions. I will highlight one of them in this month’s article, and discuss the second one in a future issue.
Northern Grapes Project: Research
The Northern Grapes Project, led by Tim Martinson with Cornell University, is focused on communicating with industry in these cold-climate regions about how to improve growing, winemaking, and marketing practices with these newer, less well-known varieties. The project team includes viticulturists, geneticists, statisticians, enologists, economists, and others from places like Cornell, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State, and Iowa State, just to name a few.
As part of this project, research is being conducted to find the best production practices for these varieties, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Vineyard trials are underway to determine what kind of training systems to use, how to manage pests and nutrients, and if practices like cluster thinning and leaf pulling impact fruit quality and sensory characteristics. In the cellar, scientists are working to find the best yeasts to use with these varieties, to determine the potential for tannin additions to influence the structure of red wines from these grapes, and to reduce the unusually high acidity that is often present in these varieties at harvest.
While producing better grapes and wine are important goals, they don’t mean much if they don’t help these emerging businesses to sustain themselves and grow. A team of scientists on the project is focused on conducting market and consumer research to help improve the sale of wines made from lesser-known varieties, as well as measuring the economic impact the vineyards and wineries using these cold hardy varieties have on the rural communities in which they are often located.
Northern Grapes Project: Outreach
The leaders of the Northern Grapes Project have also developed a significant outreach component for the project. In addition to newsletters and many presentations at Northern Grapes enterprise workshops and other industry meetings, project members and other experts have hosted a series of webinars covering a variety of subjects associated with the project’s goals, including managing acidity in the winery, canopy and disease management, stabilizing sweet wines for bottling, vineyard floor management, and more. These webinars have proven to be extremely popular, with more than 500 people from 37 states and Canada “attending” them in the project’s first year. The webinars are also recorded and archived on the project‘s website.
The recorded webinars, copies of presentations, newsletters, the Year 1 Progress Report, and more background on the work being done in the Northern Grapes Project are available on the website, http://northerngrapesproject.org.
The following universities are participating in the Northern Grapes Project:
University of Connecticut
Iowa State University
Michigan State University
Mississippi State University
North Dakota State University
South Dakota State University
University of Illinois
University of Massachusetts
University of Minnesota
University of Nebraska
University of Vermont
University of Wisconsin