Grape Breeding in Minnesota

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Minnesotans are a different breed. They carry a snow shovel and windshield scraper in the trunk until mid-June, put sandbags in the back of their ’96 Corolla to facilitate the climbing of icy hills, and pass down Sorels from generation to generation.

The grapes that grow here are a similarly special breed: cold-hardy. The cold-hardy grape has become a standard for Minnesota vintners looking for a grape to endure local conditions and provide true Minnesota terroir.

In the 1880s, a German immigrant by the name of Louis Suelter developed the Beta grape. Used as a juice and jelly grape, this was one of the first cold-hardy grapes in Minnesota and the beginning of grape breeding in the state.

The evolution of the cold-hardy grape came as a necessity. Vintners working before the creation of cold-hardy grapes had to perform labor-intensive growing practices to ensure that their vines would yield fruit year after year. “You have to develop the trunks in a ‘J’ form so it loops before it goes up to the trellis,” says Matt Scott, the general manager of Saint Croix Vineyards. This is done so that at the end of the season the vines can hinge and be pulled down to rest on the ground so they are insulated through the winter months.

The creation of the cold-hardy grape allowed growers to develop vines that could sustain the winter without being pulled down every season. In 1908, decades after the Beta, the State Legislature decided to purchase the Horticulture Research Center (HRC) at the University of Minnesota. This was done to push the development of juice and jelly grapes.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

In 1944, the University held an open house that debuted four grapes including the Bluebell, a juice and jelly grape that is still grown in Minnesota vineyards. Elmer Swenson, a dairy farmer in Osceola, WI, was among the attendees at the open house. Swenson returned to his farm and began growing grapes. He returned to the University 25 years later with the results of over two decades of grape breeding. University researchers were so impressed they offered him a job.

From 1969 to 1978, Swenson worked tending vineyards and orchards at the HRC. Living in a small house on the grounds during the week and returning to his farm on the weekends, Swenson developed legendary grapes such as the Edelweiss, a table grape that has also been used for wine making, and the Swenson Red, a table grape that is not fully cold-hardy, but among the finest Minnesota grapes.

After Swenson’s retirement he continued to grow and breed grapes, but it was not until 1985 that the program took on new legs and Peter Hemstad became the grape breeder at the HRC. The previous year legislation passed more money to fund this research research and jumpstart the development of cold-hardy grapes.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Hemstad released his first grape, Frontenac, in 1996. Hemstad did not make the original cross for this grape, but noticed it growing in relative obscurity at the HRC. The Frontenac grape has become a foundational grape for the wine industry, delivering a highly versatile wine that has a “beautiful garnet red color and aromas of black cherry, berry, and plum” according to Hemstad. It is now grown in most Minnesota vineyards as well as those in Pennsylvania, New York, and other states. This grape aided in motivating the legislature to pass funding in the late ’90s for a U of M research winery. Hemstad says that the “wine side is primarily to augment the breeding work.” The facility was built in 2001 and Nick Smith now works as the wine maker, producing 140 to 150 different wines a year.

The University and Hemstad have released three grapes since Frontenac; La Crescent in 2002, Frontenac Gris in 2003, and Marquette in 2006. The Marquette is a descendant of Pinot Noir and the newest grape released by the University, but it is not the newest grape released in Minnesota.

WineHaven Winery and Vineyard in Chisago City, MN, was awarded a patent for a grape named Chisago, “a semi-sweet red that pairs well with pasta,” says Kyle Peterson. This grape has been a project of Peterson and his family in Chisago for at least 15 years. A cold-hardy grape, Chisago was previously in production under the name Deer Garden Red, named after what the Swedish pioneers called the land where the grape now grows. This is the first year that the grape will be bottled and labeled as Chisago.

One Comment

  1. Dedicated Reader

    “put sandbags in the back of their ‘96 Corolla to facilitate the climbing of icy hills”

    Sandbags in the trunk of a front-wheel drive economy car?

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