There is no shortage of hybrid grapes or classes of hybrid grapes these days. French hybrids, German hybrids, California hybrids, Cornell hybrids, Labrusca hybrids, Riparia hybrids; the list goes on and on. However, a new class of hybrids has emerged in the last twenty years or so, grapes we have come to call Northern hybrids. These grapes are making wine grape growing practical in cold climate regions where grape growing was previously unknown.
The origins of these grapes began back in 1943 when Elmer Swenson first stole time from his small dairy herd in Northern Wisconsin and began collecting pollen to make some crosses. He was hoping to incorporate cold hardiness into the cold tender Labrusca grapes his grandfather had been growing. He continued these crosses every spring without fail until his eyesight gave out, well into the 1990s.
During this time he developed a huge collection of “Swenson Hybrids,” cuttings of which he gave away freely to anyone interested in his work. Today his hybrids are grown world-wide. During his life, his humble farm was visited by growers, researchers and breeders from all over the U.S., Europe and even Asia. The genetics developed by Swenson have been incorporated into the University of Minnesota’s work and will thus outlive us all. Members of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association like to call Elmer the “Godfather” of northern viticulture.
The University of Minnesota has become another important source of Northern hybrids. Just as important as the hybrids developed by the University of Minnesota is their visibility. Loath as some supporters of Elmer’s work may be to admit it, the investment of a large state university in developing cold hardy hybrids has given credibility to Elmer and other grape breeders, as well as to wines and wineries around the Midwest. Previously we were oddballs working on a very strange and almost hopeless endeavor. Now we are all “pioneers” of a new industry.
The University’s grape breeding project resulted from a lobbying effort initiated by the Minnesota Grape Growers Association in 1981. Their series of cold hardy hybrids are showing the way in many cases, of what is possible when incorporating hardiness into commercial quality winegrapes. Arguments aside about acid levels and comparative qualities, any nurseryman will tell you that the Northern hybrids most in demand have all been University of Minnesota hybrids.
Interestingly, quite a number of private growers have begun hybridizing their own cold hardy cultivars. However, the size and expertise these breeders exhibit varies widely. To support them, an active and very instructive grape breeder’s internet forum is moderated by Mark Hart of Mt. Ashwabay Vineyard in Bayfield, Wisconsin which is 46.48 degrees north latitude.
The emergence of just one successful cold hardy cultivar can have value beyond reckoning. Tom Plocher’s Petite Pearl is an excellent case in point. Petite Pearl is proving to ripen and bear fruit reliably in the extreme north, even in much of North Dakota, with low acid levels and notable tannins.
See related story: Coming Soon: A New Red Wine That’s A Pearl
To be sure, we have not seen the last developments as grape growing continues to move further north. Grape growers in the North Dakota Grape Growers Association have determined that some of the varieties available to them do not perform well on the cold, arid plains of North Dakota. They are currently working to fund a hybridization program at North Dakota State University as well.
These Northern Hybrids can also be grown further south making grape growing reliable in areas where the grapes previously grown there were marginal for hardiness and ripening. This new class of grapes is surely changing the face of North American viticulture not only in a broad geographical area but in style and type as well. It is an exciting ride we are all enjoying. It will be interesting to see where it eventually will lead.