U researchers boost winemaking’s popularity

Joanna Dornfeld

Vincent Negret said he can still hardly believe he found a winemaking job in Minnesota. The political strife in his homeland of Colombia forced him to sell his family vineyard and pack his bags for the United States.

Negret, like many others from traditional winemaking regions, doubted the North Star State could make good wine. But at the University, grape breeding and wine research continue to foster a growing Minnesota wine industry.

“I believe that the varieties of grapes that can be grown in Minnesota provide new flavors and aromas not found anywhere else in the world,” Negret said.

In 1982, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated funds for grape research at the Chanhassen Horticulture Research Center. The wine research laboratory opened in 2000, and the research center hired an enologist – a scientist who studies wine and winemaking – last August.

The University is one of the few places in the country breeding grapes and the only one in the Midwest.

“The University of Minnesota obviously has the best equipped laboratory to do it,” said Mary Neils of Northern Vineyards. “If the University didn’t do it, I don’t know who would.”

The University has released two grape varieties since Peter Hemstad, research scientist and viticulturist, began breeding grapes – the Frontenac and the Edelweiss. He is currently in the process of releasing a third.

Hemstad’s goal is to make growing grapes and winemaking a more profitable industry. Many Minnesota vineyard owners have other jobs because the profit is so small.

Traditional winemaking grapes grow in a temperate climate and die during their first Minnesota winter. To preserve these plants, they must be removed from the trellis and buried each fall. The process is then reversed in the spring.

Many farmers burn out because it is so labor intensive, Hemstad said.

Hemstad breeds wild Minnesota grapes with traditional winemaking grapes to produce a flavorful and aromatic fruit that can withstand cold winters and disease.

“It’s impossible to get everything perfect,” Hemstad said. “But if we get most of these things into one grape, it will give something to work with.”

Hemstad grows approximately 10,000 vines each year.

“We plant out thousands, and we only really need one good one out of thousands,” he said.

Anna Katharine Mansfield, University enologist and senior research fellow, has been pressing grapes since August to begin her first batches of wine.

“She will be analyzing ways we were never able to before,” Hemstad said.

She tests the acidity, pH levels, sugar levels and alcohol percentage of the wines as well as flavor, aroma and color.

In addition to researching wines in the laboratory, Mansfield will be working with the local wine industry through the University’s Extension Service.

The Minnesota wine industry began in the late 1960s with one winery. It has grown to 10, and 17 more licenses have been approved, Negret said.

More people will feel confident opening vineyards because it is backed by scientific research, he said.

“Tourism is one of the largest industries in Minnesota,” Hemstad said. “Wineries fit in perfectly with that.”

The growing wine industry draws tourists to Southern Minnesota to taste-test some of the rare wine flavors.

“I think people are becoming aware that Minnesota grows grapes and makes pretty darn good wine,” Neils said.

 

Joanna Dornfeld covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes
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