When Acquaviva Winery in Maple Park, Illinois petitioned the Tax and Trade Bureau during 2007 to use the name Brianna for their wine labels, they found that only one other winery had petitioned for the name. From virtually anonymity just five years ago, Brianna is now growing in popularity all over the Midwest. Grape growers like this wine grape for its cold hardiness, surviving temperatures below -20F, and tolerating sweltering summer heat of up to 90F. Wine drinkers like it for its tropical aromas, notably pineapple, banana, and mango.
Brianna is a cold climate white grape variety created by the late Elmer Swenson (the Godfather of cold climate grapes) and named by Ed Swanson of Cuthills Vineyards in Pierce, Nebraska.
Contrary to the popular story, Brianna is not named after Elmer Swenson’s wife or daughter. Ed Swanson said he thought the grape would be a “strong and healthy grower” and he first considered naming it “Brian.” However, “Brian” did not seem like an appropriate name for a white wine, so Brianna entered the wine world in a more feminine form.
Technically, it is an interspecific hybrid (V. labrusca and V. riparia). According to Lisa Smiley’s 2008 profile, Brianna yields medium to large size berries, thick-skinned and greenish-gold.
Brianna can be grown in a variety of soils. Mick McDowell of Miletta Vista Winery in St. Paul, Nebraska, says that while all three of his Nebraska Brianna growers have sandy to sandy loam soils, it is a versatile variety. “It offers tremendous opportunities as a varietal,” McDowell noted. He also states that it can tolerate Nebraska’s weather extremes. His grapes are grown in zone 4, where the temperatures drop to -10F on extreme occasions.
Ed Swanson cautions against letting Brianna remain on the vine too long. “If you let it hang too long, you’ll get some of the labrusca parentage showing up in the background of the wine,” he said. “Better to pick Brianna early and make a lower alcohol wine.”
Several wineries have also told Midwest Wine Press that keeping fruit cool during the trip from the vineyard to the crush pad helps retain the subtle flavors and aromas of Brianna.
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