University of Arkansas Debuts New Winegrape Varieties

University of Arkansas Debuts New Winegrape Varieties

Twenty years in the making, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has released two new winegrapes – ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Enchantment.’

Initial evaluations on what would become ‘Opportunity,’ a white grape, began in 1991, with the red grape ‘Enchantment’ beginning two years later in the hands of John R. Clark, Distinguished Professor of horticulture and fruit breeder for the Division of Agriculture and James N. Moore, distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Arkansas fruit breeding program.

Both Clark and Moore knew that breeding winegrapes that could be grown in Arkansas and similar climates was a long game. Grapevines can take three years to mature and produce a substantial crop.

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“Compared to table grapes, breeding a winegrape is slow,” said Clark. “With a table grape, you look at it and say ‘this is firm, or this tastes good, and it’s seedless,’ and you can usually quickly judge fresh produce.”

Through the decades, both Moore and Clark would breed world-class peaches, blackberries and table grapes for the fresh market. In the background, the dream of a winegrape that could withstand Arkansas’ disease-coddling humidity, fruit-cracking rains, brix-robbing heat, and the ravages of its oft-icy winters, remained.

“We had more than 100 selections at one time,” Clark said. “We whittled them down to three or four” that showed potential to thrive in Arkansas and similar climates.

Helping in the selection was a handful of vineyards willing to give the experimental varieties a try. In 2002, some of the vines fell to the weather. Others simply never grew.

However, one grower, Thomas Post, of Post Familie Vineyards in Altus, AR, nurtured the vines and among the selections, saw promise in one white and one red grape.

“It takes a long time to go from one vine to having enough grapes to evaluate,” Clark said. “It takes a long time to get industry input, and then, in the last couple of years, we arrived at a decision point and said, ‘let’s do this,” which meant naming the selections and having them patented as varieties.

Small Batches, Big Challenges

Opportunity is a white wine grape from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller)

Opportunity is a white wine grape from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller)

Threlfall said one of the biggest challenges to evaluating the selections was the small volume of grapes available each harvest season.

“We never had a great quantity – maybe 30 pounds to a max of 100 pounds is all we’d ever get,” she said. “It’s a very small scale for wine production, but not uncommon for research evaluations.”

Having only small or single-batches put severe limits on testing grapes for their wine potential, since many decisions can be made on styles during the winemaking process.

“When making wine from many different selections – sometimes more than 60 selections – we have to produce the wines all the same” in order to have comparable winemaking and tasting notes from one variety to the next; from one season to the next. Research demanded consistency.

The long haul has only made Threlfall more excited about the results. Of ‘Enchantment’s’ wine, she says, “it has very ‘Syrah’-like qualities with low hybrid-like qualities. It can taste very much like a vinifera and can be very versatile.”

Vinifera is the species from which most modern grape wines are based.

As for Opportunity, Threlfall describes its wine as fruit-forward, flowing with floral and honey notes that could be made into a sweet or dry wine.

Enchantment is a teinturier grape, with an intense pigmentation and can be a standalone grape in a wine or blended with others.

Typically, red winegrapes get their color from anthocyanin pigments extracted from their crushed skins during fermentation. Teinturier grapes have anthocyanin pigments in their flesh and pulp, Threlfall said, allowing wine makers to extract rich, dark colors.

“Enchantment is a very versatile red wine grape,” Threlfall said. “The wine can be made into a rosé or a blush or it can be dry with variations in extended skin contact to extract more tannins. Its flavor can be fruity to earthy, with the potential to handle contact with oak.”

With both varieties, “it’s the balance of the flavors. It’s not lingering, but it’s just right. You want to go back for a second sip.”

Enchantment is a red wine grape from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller)

Enchantment is a red wine grape from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller)

Persistence Of Vision

Clark said that for these first selections, he wanted names that reflected Arkansas and reflected on the product.

“’Opportunity’ came from ‘The Land of Opportunity,’ the state motto until 21 years ago,” Clark said. “I came here 36 years ago and it was the Land of Opportunity for me. I couldn’t ask for a better place to work or better place to have a career.”

For Clark, his persistence of vision to work toward the release of ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Enchantment’ traced a nearly four-decade-long full circle. “I didn’t want to let it drop,” he said, after all, “I started with wine and grapes as a graduate student at Mississippi State.”

He named the red grape ‘Enchantment’ “because it had a nice feel to it. ‘Enchantment’ is an experience I associate with a red wine,” he said.

The Grapes

‘Opportunity’ originated from a cross of ‘Cayuga,’ a New York variety, and a selection from ‘Semillion’ and ‘Rkatsiteli,’ Clark said. This combination gives the white winegrape good adaptation to Arkansas growing conditions and results in a high-quality grape.

‘Opportunity’ matures around the fourth week of August, Clark said. In 20 years of close observation, downy mildew was rarely seen and powdery mildew appeared only twice, suggesting some resistance to these two diseases.

‘Enchantment’ has a unique combination of genetics from multiple species, Clark said. The female parent was a cross of ‘Petit Syrah’ and ‘Alicante Bouschet,’ and the male parent was a cross of ‘Bouschet Petit’ and ‘Salvador.’ ‘Salvador,’ he said, includes the grape species Vitis lincecumii and Vitis rupestris.

‘Enchantment’ matures around the third week of August. Like ‘Opportunity,’ it seems to have some disease resistance, with only a light downy mildew infection in one year out of 18 and powdery mildew appearing only twice.

Clark said fungicide sprays should still be used because of other potential diseases and because of typically rainy weather during the growing season in Arkansas.

‘Enchantment’ and ‘Opportunity’ are patented and will be licensed to domestic nurseries, Clark said. Vines should be available in a limited number beginning this winter from Post Familie Vineyards in Altus and Double A Vineyards Inc. in Fredonia, NY.

These grapes will be plant patented and licensing and propagation opportunities are available to nurseries through Cheryl Nimmo, [email protected], or 497-575-3953.