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The University of Minnesota’s grape and fruit breeding efforts date back more than a hundred years, but it’s only been in the last 25 that the university’s grape breeding program moved from a small-scale project into national prominence.
Fruit breeding began at the University of Minnesota in 1908, though grapes were only a small part of the program, said Peter Hemstad, UM grape breeder since 1985. Through the years, UM fruit breeders have worked on “every type of fruit that can grow here,” he said, including apricots, plums, strawberries, gooseberries, pears, and even hardy kiwis. Some 20 varieties of plums were released in the 1920s.
But in the last few decades, apples and grapes have been the favored UM crops. The wildly popular Honeycrisp apple came from UM, along with the newer released SweeTango apple.
Hemstad said that as a result of lobbying by the Minnesota Grape Growers Association in the early 1980s, the organization convinced state legislators to support grape breeding and research. That funding led to his hiring and a focus on developing cold hardy wine grapes, for at the time there were only two wineries in the state. The state grape grower group formed in 1976 and the state’s first winery opened in 1978. Today, there are 40 wineries in the state.
In the late 1990s, state funding was expanded to include construction of a research winery at UM, enabling wine to be made and evaluated from potential wine grape selections.
Hemstad, who’s been making thousands of grape crosses annually for the last 25 years, has a pipeline full of new grape material. Selections are at every stage in the process, from seeds not yet planted to those in the final field-testing phase of evaluation in ten states.
While he takes a very cautious approach to releasing new varieties, Hemstad said that it’s possible they could have a new release about every five years. “We are quite conservative and want to know all of the variety’s strengths and weaknesses before considering commercial release.”
Potential selections that could be released in the near future include a dry white grape variety, a “poor man’s Chardonnay,” as Hemstad calls it. Also, he has some Muscat-type selections that could be used for blending, or for sparkling or dessert wines.
In 1996, UM released its first cold hardy wine grape, Frontenac. The red variety has intense black cherry flavors and can make a “killer” port-style wine, Hemstad said. La Crescent, a white wine variety capable of producing Riesling-style wines, was released in 2002. The following year, UM’s fourth cold hardy wine grape, Frontenac Gris, a white mutation of Frontenac, was released.
Minnesota’s wine grape industry, though small on the national scale, has grown to more than 1,500 acres. At last year’s Cold Climate Conference, hosted annually by the Minnesota Grape Growers, more than 450 industry members attended.
In recent years, Hemstad has expanded the breeding focus to include table grapes. “We have no good table grapes right now, but with the locally-grown movement and so many good wine grapes, we believe we can find cold hardy and disease-resistant table grapes that will have intense fruitiness and not just be sugar water.”