Northern Grapes Project Completes First Year

Researchers at several universities working to improve cold-climate wine

by Andrew Adams
northern grape program
Chris Gerling, (front) and Dr. David Manns check to ensure a deacidification addition dissolves into wines being studied at the University of Cornell Enology Extension Lab as part of the Northern Grapes Project. Source: Anna Katharine Mansfield
San Rafael, Calif.—The upper Midwest and northeastern United States are home to more than 300 wineries and an ongoing research project aims to bolster this fast-growing segment of the American wine industry.

Last year, Cornell University announced it had received more than $4 million in grant funding for two projects focused on the cold-climate grape industry.  Dr. Bruce Reisch received $2 million to continue his work in grape breeding and genetic marking research, and Dr. Timothy Martinson received $2.3 million to study improving grape cultivation and winemaking for commercial success.

The grants were funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Speciality Crops Research Initiative and matched with funds from the private sector and participating universities for an initial two years of research. Future funding is dependent on a new Farm Bill, which may be passed by the current lame duck Congress.

If the bill passes, Martinson said the Northern Grapes Project would have to submit another grant application for three more years of funding. He said the ultimate goal for the five-year project is to produce a manual for producing the best quality grapes and wines with the cold-hardy cultivars developed at the University of Minnesota.

He noted the university just released Marquette in 2006, and growers have already planted more than 800 acres of the grapevine. In light of the strong growth and demand, Martinson said research is needed to determine the best methods for growing cold-climate grapes and making wine. The project, however, is not only aiming to improve the overall quality of the wines and grapes but to find the best ways to sell and market the wine.

An initial survey of growers in the project area conducted between 2009 and 2010, found more than 3,300 acres of cold climate grapes with Frontenac and Marquette accounting for nearly half that total.

Vineyard research
Martinson recently released a report on the efforts of research and extension staff at 12 universities and 19 regional or state winery and grower associations in the first year of the project.

According to that report by Martinson and Chrislyn Particka, an extension support specialist with the Cornell University Department of Horticulture, researchers are evaluating the performance of vines at 15 locations in 12 states, including 13 variety trials from a USDA study that began in 2007.  

A team from Iowa State University, South Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota is working on a “detailed characterization” of how northern grapes ripen. “The aim is to understand ripening dynamics and to use this information to develop novel maturity indices that guide cultural practices and harvest timing.”

Researchers also are evaluating single-curtain bi-lateral cordon, Geneva double curtain, umbrella kniffen, mid-wire cordon with shoot positioning and two divided canopy catch-wire systems. The systems will be evaluated for labor costs, light distribution within the canopy, yield and fruit quality. A study also is taking a look at the soil characteristics that best support Frontenac, La Crescent and Marquette at 16 study sites in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and New York.

Another component of the project will analyze integrated plans for disease pressure, which is often significant in the Midwest and East from bud break through harvest. The study will use new vineyards in Wisconsin and established vines in New York and Vermont to evaluate fungicide applications as well as to see if some of the cold climate cultivars respond well to copper and sulfur fungicides.

In the winery
Winemaking projects are focused on finding the best yeast strains as well as deacidification. Katie Cook, enology project leader for the University of Minnesota, and Anna Katharine Mansfield, assistant professor of food science at Cornell, made 24 different batches of wine using Frontenac, Marquette, La Crescent and Frontenac Gris with different yeast strains to enhance varietal aroma. In another project, the two researchers made 28 different wines to assess methods for reducing tartaric and malic acids with malo-ethanolic fermentation, full and partial malolactic fermentation, amelioration, blending and chemical deacifidication.

Martinson said it’s not uncommon for a grape like Frontenac to ripen to 26° Brix in a warm summer but still register 14-15 grams of acid. “That’s one of the things we hope to make some quick advances on with our enological research,” he said. “Figure out how to make wines that really express the varieties.” It’s the potential quality of the wines that got Martinson excited about the project in the first place.

Enologists at Iowa State University are working with Iowan winemakers to study tannin additions on wines made with Frontenac and Marquette grapes. Murli Dharmadhikari, director and extension enologist of the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, reported they made six different tannin treatments, replicated three times and will evaluate the wines this year.

Economic element
Part of the project includes a survey of winery tasting rooms to gauge what visitors look for while visiting a winery and what makes for a satisfied customer. Miguel Gomez, an assistant economics professor with Cornell, coordinated surveys in Iowa and New York of consumers visiting tasting rooms. Gomez expects to collect 600 surveys of people describing 25 “consumer satisfaction attributes” of their tasting room visits.

A team at Michigan State University also is surveying tasting room visitors and has collected 930 surveys. The study will look for the best practices of managing a tasting room but also will evaluate how to foster collaboration among wineries, trade groups and other stakeholders in developing wine regions.
Martinson said the economic analysis would help answer the questions of how to overcome some of the marketing challenges for wines that are made with grapes with names that may be unfamiliar to consumers. He said the initial focus has to be on local tasting room sales because the wholesale market is just too challenging to crack and the margins too slim.

The project will be the focus of the Northern Grapes Symposium, which is part of the upcoming Viticulture 2013 Conference, and Trade Show scheduled Feb. 6-8 in Rochester, N.Y. A copy of the first year progress report can be found on the Northern Grapes Project website.

In addition to the research, Martinson said he hopes the project would serve as the foundation for years of collaborative study into quality winemaking and grape growing. He said growing the new cultivars is not that far out of the mainstream but the winemaking does present some new challenges. The research being done now could hopefully lead to a continued effort across the region’s universities and wineries. “I hope that it might lead to some longtime collaboration among some different institutions,” he said.

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