Cold-hardy grapes thrive at U, in Minnesota

Groups join to host the first-ever international competition for cold-climate wines.

Every year, horticultural and agricultural sciences professor Jim Luby and scientists Peter Hemstad and Nick Smith cross more than 3,000 wine grape seeds at the University of MinnesotaâÄôs research vineyards in the hope of finding a new wine grape that can survive MinnesotaâÄôs cold winters. The research theyâÄôve been doing goes back to the late âÄò70s, Luby said, and an official breeding program was created at the University in 1982. This year, some of the grapes, including a brand new Marquette wine that Luby said may eventually be on par with the UniversityâÄôs famed Honeycrisp apple, plus others from around the state, will be in the spotlight. The University announced Thursday that theyâÄôll team up with the Minnesota Grape Growers Association and the Minnesota State Fair to host an International Cold Climate Wine Competition for cold-hardy wines in August âÄî the first of its kind in the country. Minnesota Grape Grower Association President Tom Martell, a wine grape grower himself, said the growth of the industry has been âÄúamazing,âÄù and Minnesotans are embracing local wines more than ever. In 1997, he said, the state had six wineries. This year, there are 26 âÄî and he had just received verification for three more on Friday. University applied economics professor William Gartner said wine producers in the state contributed $36.2 million back into the stateâÄôs economy and provided 324 jobs in 2007, according to his recent economic impact study on the industry. âÄúItâÄôs a very young industry that is getting larger at a rapid rate,âÄù Gartner said. âÄúIt has the potential to be a significant industry in this state.âÄù Luby said the process of choosing a new grape variety is very selective, taking at least three years to find one that could eventually get produced. Of the 3,000 to 5,000 seeds that are crossed on a yearly basis, 20 to 30 are good enough to make a prototype wine, Luby said. In all, about one in every 10,000 to 15,000 crosses will get marketed as a new wine variety. Luby and other researchers taste-test the possibilities, and ensure their ability to survive in the Minnesota climate. âÄúSome might taste sour, some taste like tomato,âÄù Luby said of the different varieties heâÄôs tried. âÄúOthers taste like bad asparagus.âÄù While dozens of wine competitions exist around the United States, including amateur competitions at the State Fair, there are no competitions devoted to wines made from cold-hardy grapes âÄî until now. Martell said contests such as the State FairâÄôs international wine competition will raise the bar to produce higher quality cold-climate wines. The competition, which will be limited to 40 cold-hardy varieties, will be open to both national and international wineries, Martell said. State Fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette called MinnesotaâÄôs wine industry âÄúa perfect fitâÄù for the FairâÄôs agricultural roots. âÄîAssociate Editor Courtney Sinner contributed to this report.