Why the ‘Itasca’ Grape is Important for Midwest Wine
By Matthew Clark, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Grape Breeding and Enology, University of Minnesota
In the Midwest, one can drink wines made from chokecherry, strawberry, rhubarb and blackcurrant, as well as grapes like Marechal Foch, Concord, edelweiss, frontenac, Marquette, and Petite Pearl. Many of these hybrid grapes varieties owe their cold-hardiness in part to the genetics of Vitis riparia, a native American grape species that gives the grapes a high sugar content, but also very high amounts of acid and herbaceous flavors. Thus, many Midwest winemakers make wine from these grapes that mask the high acidity by adding sugar to make sweet or off-dry wines.
Sweet wines can have a bad reputation. Maybe it’s the perceived difficulty in pairing them with foods. Maybe there is still a carryover in perception from the cloyingly sweet, low-quality wines that sold decades ago for a few bucks a bottle. However, the cold-hardy American wines being made today are changing this perception as growers and winemakers gain experience with these novel products. You can find frontenac, the most widely planted grape in the region, in wines ranging from sweet to dry, in blends, as rosé, as sparkling, in ice wine, and of course as port.
But time and time again, I hear from winemakers that want new grape varieties that better emulate the popular wines from more established wine regions. In 2017, growers will begin planting Itasca, a white grape that has shown excellent potential in our UMN trials to produce dry, European-style wine. Known as MN 1285 since its discovery in 2009 by grape breeder Peter Hemstad, Itasca has considerably lower acid (30% less) than its other cold-hardy predecessors. Not only are the juice chemistries improved, but these Itasca vines are showing even better cold-hardiness and disease resistance.
Itasca’s golden berries make a nuanced white wine. Before fermentation, the sweet berries are about 25% sugar and have enticing flavors of pear, gooseberries, honeydew melon, and starfruit. Many of these notes translate into the finished dry wine in addition to minerals, quince, and subtle honey flavors. Itasca will be a winemaker’s grape—great on its own, useful in blending, lower in acid, lacking in herbaceous off-flavors, and amenable to the winemaker’s artistry.