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Exploring the Potential for Hybrid Grapes in Cold Climates

The University of Minnesota is creating cold-hardy varieties for a small but growing northern wine scene

Marquette
Marquette. Photo courtesy of Chris Granstrom of Lincoln Peak Vineyard.

The pancake-flat terrain of southern Minnesota is not widely known for its wines. But the Grape Breeding and Enology lab at the University of Minnesota (UMN) in St. Paul is working on changing that. Thanks to UMN’s viticultural researchers and a growing number of intrepid producers, Minnesota wine country—and cold-climate wines in general—may have more potential than previously thought.

Some 10,000 planted vines are presently under evaluation as part of UMN’s grape breeding and enology project, which is supported by a full lab and research winery. Last year, the institution made roughly 75 research wines. Recognized as one of the top wine grape research programs in the U.S., UMN not only specializes in grapevine development, it devises and teaches best practices for cold-hardy grapes (varieties that can survive winter temperatures below 20℉). Since 1996, UMN has introduced six cold-hardy hybrid wine varieties, including Frontenac, Marquette, and La Crescent, to the winemaking world.

Frontenac. Photo courtesy of Chris Granstrom of Lincoln Peak Vineyard.

In 2016, UMN released the Itasca hybrid, a lower-acid white variety that boasts heightened mildew resistance. The new grape is already drawing comparisons from the greater wine community to Sauvignon Blanc—and it’s one more hybrid that’s contributing to an estimated $400 million nationwide cold-climate wine industry (Minnesota’s wine industry alone generated more than $80 million in 2016), according to analysis by UMN Extension.

“I think our project is doing some very good work with the [wine] industry,” says Matthew Clark, an assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at UMN. He points out that the breeding and enology project has been bolstered by regular winemaker roundtables, an energetic extension education staff, and collaboration with trade groups like the Southern Minnesota Wine Grower Alliance. “The UMN varieties have been very good at developing new wine-growing regions in areas typically considered unsuited for the task,” he says. “We’ve seen tremendous growth across the region.”

Though the program has been focused on wine-growing in Minnesota since its inception, Clark says it aims to provide producers worldwide with research-based tools to help aid in their winemaking decisions. “We know that these grapes perform very well in other parts of the country—[and] around the world,” he says. “We’ve [also] been working on relationships with producers in Europe and Asia.”

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyards in nearby Hastings testifies that the hybrid varieties can withstand the region’s merciless winters. But even with lab-backed fruit in the picture, there’s adversity. Some vintages, she says, there’s no crop. When there is, the high acid levels of Frontenac and Marquette call for careful blending. Bailly, who started her career making wine in the Loire Valley at age 18, says that though the learning curve is long, there’s single-varietal potential with these hybrids. “Frontenac,” she says, “is the beast that needs to be tamed.”

Chris Granstrom first planted Marquette in 2006, when it was still in its experimental infancy. A surprisingly good glass of the test wine made him commit fully to its future. His Vermont estate, Lincoln Peak Vineyard, is prone to bitter winters. Granstrom’s concern, however, is getting enough ripening days. His Frontenac and Marquette work hard to reach full maturity in the Champlain Valley, but the struggle can be good. “There’s [an] argument,” he says, “that grapes grown in marginal areas end up making the best wine.”

Granstrom believes Marquette has serious potential as a dry table wine. He praises its light tannins, deep color, and cherry and bramble flavors. “I think our model for this wine would be lighter reds from areas like Austria and the Loire Valley,” he says. “We’ve seen that its bright flavors can be hidden by too much oak, so we go easy on the percentage of new oak we use.”

In an industry that demands patience—from the vineyard to the cellar—it’s no wonder we’re just hearing about Marquette. Clark says that it takes at least 15 years to conceive and release a new variety. Extensive DNA testing, resistance research, and winemaking analysis—along with the requisite patent and licensing work—stretch things out. 

But cold-climate winemakers like Granstrom are excited to share the fruits of their labor with the wine world. “I’m sure there’s still room for fine-tuning site selection, growing techniques, and winemaking,” Granstrom says. “But we’re well on our way to making some very nice wine.”

Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon, who is now based there. He spent a decade making, selling, and cleaning up wine in the Willamette Valley in between penning stories for a host of regional and national outlets. He adores Iceland, brown trout, aquavit, and grunge rock.

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