This January, when the mercury dips below zero and the snow is blowing across windswept fields in Minnesota, take a moment to consider—in spring, the grape vines at the state’s 60-plus wineries and even more vineyards will begin to bloom again. This fact is due in large part to the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding and enology program.
The wine grape breeding program began in the mid-1970s and has since built itself into one of the top wine grape research programs in the country. With the goal of developing high-quality, cold-hardy, and disease-resistant wine grape cultivars, the program has yielded wine grape varieties such as Marquette, Frontenac gris, and Le Crescent, which have proven critical to establishing a wine industry in Minnesota.
At the Horticulture Research Center in Excelsior, more than 12,000 experimental vines are cultivated on 12 acres. In 2000, an enology lab and research winery opened at the center to test how these grape varieties are best utilized in winemaking.
The cold climate grape growing and winery industry is estimated to have a $401 million economic impact nationwide, a 2014 university study found. Since Frontenac was released in 1996, producers in 12 states have planted an estimated 5,400 acres of cold-hardy grapes, including 3,260 acres of the U of M varieties.
But the program’s crowning achievement may be the white wine grape released in 2017: Itasca. The grape has considerably lower acid (30 percent less) than its other cold-hardy predecessors, and its vines have shown better cold-hardiness and disease resistance. Best of all, the grape lends itself well to dry white wines that have thus far eluded Minnesota winemakers.
“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,” says Matthew Clark, assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at the University of Minnesota.
With developments like Itasca, the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding program is redefining the boundaries of wine growing in the North.
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