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Di-Vine providence

October 11, 2010


White grapes in a vineyard.

Grapes from the University's Horticultural Research Center are the mainstay of vineyards and wineries across Minnesota and several other northern states.

Photo by David Hansen

Cold-hardy U of M-bred grapes support a burgeoning industry

By Deane Morrison

On a crisp September morning, James Luby ushers visitors into a vineyard hung with plump, ripe grapes and takes a cluster of mouth-watering dark fruit into his hand.

"We have about eleven acres of grapes here at the HRC," he says, referring to the University of Minnesota's Horticultural Research Center.

For more than 30 years, the HRC and its rustic vineyards have been home to research on producing cold-hardy grapes and making the best wines from them. Luby, a professor of horticultural science who has been with the University since 1982, is in charge of the breeding program along with Peter Hemstad, who joined in 1985.

How it's done

To breed cold-hardy grapes, James Luby and his colleagues cross a native Minnesota grape—Vitis riparia, the "river grape"—with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, or other varieties. Besides cold hardiness, the native grape carries "a lot of disease resistance" and makes the clusters grow little side clusters, a characteristic trait.

Grapes bred at the HRC have helped vineyards and wineries flourish across the state and the northern tier of the country.

"Four varieties of grapes form the backbone of winemaking in this region," says Luby. "Frontenac and Marquette for red wines, La Crescent and Frontenac gris for white wines. There has been an explosion of wineries throughout the Midwest, and we've been adding three to five wineries a year over the past decade." 

All this was estimated to contribute about $36 million annually to the state's economy, he adds.

"The U of M has done a great job developing grapes that can withstand extreme heat and cold and our springs," says Michael Dickerman, co-owner of Woodland Hill Winery in Delano, Minn. "In spring we can have high temperatures followed by a cold snap as late as May. [The vines] don't start to break buds till about May 1, and are done by the first frost."

Luby and his HRC colleagues are now testing a third variety of Frontenac, Frontenac blanc, to see how the vines grow, when to harvest, and how best to make wine from the grapes.

Taste of success

Here are profiles of wines from the four U of M-bred grapes.

Frontenac: Red table wine, rosé, and a port with notes of blackberry, cherry, and chocolate.

Frontenac gris: White table, dessert, and ice wines with aromas of peach and apricot.

La Crescent: Off-dry and sweet, Riesling-style white wines with an intense nose of apricot, peach, and citrus.

Marquette: Complex red wines with notes of cherry, berry, black pepper, and spice.

The HRC also includes an Enology Laboratory, where researchers test grapes, make wines from new selections (varieties not yet introduced to growers) and evaluate the wine quality.  

Pioneers all pulling together

 But the HRC goes beyond breeding and testing to help local growers and winemakers. Some examples:

• Staff work closely with the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, staging an annual, mid-February Cold Climate Grape and Wine Conference that usually draws people from 15 to 20 states to the Twin Cities.

• Every September the HRC hosts a fall Open House that draws 100 to 150 people interested in the latest research. 

• Enologists from the HRC hold an annual Winemaker Roundtable.

"We have open discussions about what works and what doesn't," says Dickerman, a regular roundtable attendee. "Our passion is to make the best wine we can. Everybody in the Minnesota wine industry is in the same boat. We're all pioneers. We share. We look to the U of M to be the catalyst for that."

Also, he says, "HRC people usually come out once a year to assess our vineyard and viticultural practices and critique our wines." 

For Luby, this is the most exciting part of the year.

"Each fall we harvest new breeding lines that are yielding their first fruit," he says. "It's like a kid's first music recital. As the grapes grow over three to four year years, we're like parents wondering how they'll turn out."

At this year's annual conference, a man from a wine-related industrial firm opined to Dickerman about how he thinks the local grape and wine businesses will turn out.

"He said, 'I feel what's going on here is what happened in Napa Valley in the 1970s,'" Dickerman recalls.

Published in 2010

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

videoCold Hardy Grapes 

Cold Hardy Grapes

Get all the details on U of M grape varieties, including where to buy young plants.

Learn more about local vineyards growing U of M grapes.