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Grape breeder Peter Hemstad is also co-owner of Minnesota's St. Croix Vineyards. His winery won the 2010 Governor's Cup (top prize) with a 2009 La Crescent dessert wine entered in the International Cold Climate Wine Competition.

Grape breeder Peter Hemstad is also co-owner of Minnesota’s St. Croix Vineyards. His winery won the 2010 Governor’s Cup (top prize) with a 2009 La Crescent dessert wine entered in the International Cold Climate Wine Competition.

FELIX NORMAN

If a wine grape cultivar can survive the harsh winters of Minnesota, it likely can survive just about anywhere. But for the variety to have commercial potential, it has to make good quality wine. Disease resistance would be a bonus.

Cold hardiness, disease resistance, and excellent wine quality is how grape breeder Peter Hemstad describes Marquette, a red wine grape with French Hybrid and Pinot Noir parentage that was developed at the University of Minnesota’s fruit breeding program. With such attributes, it’s no wonder interest in the red grape has spread across the nation, as well as to other countries.

Marquette originated from a cross made in 1989 by Hemstad and was publicly released in 2006. In the last few years, bearing vineyards are now being turned into wine, and the UM variety has been winning wine awards bestowed at international wine competitions.

Cold hardiness

Hemstad, who also is co-owner of Minnesota’s St. Croix Vineyards, said in a phone interview with the Good Fruit Grower that Marquette is rated for Zone 4 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hardiness zones. “It’s tricky to put a number on the cold hardiness of a plant because there are so many variables that influence cold hardiness,” he said, adding that time of year, temperatures during acclimation, whether plants have been under drought, and other issues can impact cold hardiness.

“But if Marquette vines have been well acclimated, the vines have tolerated minus 30°F and still had a crop the following season,” Hemstad said. “They (four varieties recently released by UM) are some of the most cold hardy, commercially available wine grapes in the world. And certainly, if you talk in combination of excellent cold hardiness and decent wine quality, they have those two things together.”

Marquette joins three other cold-hardy varieties recently released by UM—Frontenac (red), Frontenac Gris (a white mutation), and La Crescent (white). Of the four, Marquette has the brightest future outside the ­Minnesota area, he said. However, the other three are being widely planted in the Midwest.
“That’s the thing about being tested in Minnesota,” he said. “If it survives under our conditions, then you know for a fact that it will survive in Washington,” he said, adding that Marquette also ripens well in cool locations because it’s an early ripening grape.

Disease resistant

Hemstad explained that to find cold hardy genetics, they had to go back to the wild, native grape lineage of Vitis riparia. “That gave us access to a lot of disease resistance, so in addition to cold hardiness, the varieties are resistant to powdery mildew, downy mildew, and to some degree, Botrytis bunch rot.”
Minnesota typically has few problems with Botrytis, so the varieties had to be tested in East Coast vineyards for Botrytis resistance, he said, adding that both Frontenac and Frontenac Gris are very resistant to Botrytis.

Hemstad is not aiming for disease immunity but rather a level of resistance that requires only minimal spraying of fungicides. “The resistance to powdery and downy mildews is at a level where the grapes could be grown organically, or certainly with reduced inputs.”

He added that European growers have been interested in the four varieties—not for their cold hardiness, but for their wine quality and disease resistance.

Wine quality

A critical component of the grape breeding program is wine evaluation, Hemstad said. A university research winery completed in 2000 is now making about 150 wines from experimental selections. Wine evaluation is an important part of the selection process, he said, adding that they don’t want to release something if it won’t make good wine.

Katie Cook, UM research enologist, said that ­Marquette is characterized as having moderate tannins, while still having high acidity. “But higher acidity is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. Juice titratable acidity averages from eight to ten grams per liter, hitting seven to eight grams in a good year and 11 to 12 grams in a poor year.

Marquette has the option of being a great blending variety, and even though it ripens early, she said it tends to have high sugars. “In areas where we struggle to get 20 to 21° Brix in Cabernet Franc, in the same year we’ll get 24 to 25° Brix in Marquette. In Minnesota, we have no problem reaching 25° Brix, even last summer that was a super short growing season.”

Cook shared that when working with Marquette grape juice she uses classic red winemaking techniques of malo­lactic fermentation for both acid reduction and increased wine complexity and mouth feel.

“Marquette wines can have a nice black pepper aroma that isn’t overpowering,” she said, adding that low tannin and higher acidity wines are more food friendly. ­Marquette goes well with poultry food dishes.

Hemstad said that those who are making wine with Marquette are very excited and the variety is making itself known with medals and awards won at major wine ­competitions.

“I’m actually surprised at how good the wines are,” he said. “Most people assume that because the variety is cold hardy, it would be lacking in quality. But I’ve tried a lot of Marquette wines, and the variety just seems to be picking up steam. It does have a place in the world, for the Pacific Northwest and certain areas. It’s a good insurance variety.”

Several California nurseries are now licensed to propagate the patented variety. Washington’s Inland Desert Nursery in Benton City is also licensed and has certified plant material available.

Inland Desert Nursery representative Jeff Sample said that Inland Desert has received lots of inquiries about Marquette from within and outside the state, and a few acres have been planted in Washington.