September 21st, 2018/ BY Lisa Hoekstra

Hybrid wines are born at the University of Minnesota

Plant breeding has been around since early human farmers decided one plant tasted better than another. Or was easier to grow. Or prettier. It was only in the late 19th century that technology stepped in to help. A deeper understanding of genetics and plant hybridization gave scientists the knowledge they needed to intervene and manipulate the results on a molecular level to craft new cultivars – hybrid wines – according to their plan.

In the University of Minnesota’s Grape Breeding and Enology program, a number of people from different disciplines — arboretum and horticultural sciences, vineyard managers, oenologists, graduate students, undergraduates and seasonal staff, as well as scientists who specialize in soil, food, nutrition and entomology — work together to develop grapes that will survive in North America’s colder climates.

Hybrid wines University of Minnesota grape breeder Matt Clark
Matt Clark, University of Minnesota grape breeder.

“The overarching goal of the program is to continue to improve the disease resistance, cold hardiness and fruit quality traits of grapes through variety development,” explains Matthew Clark, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist. Clark oversees the grape-breeding project at the Horticultural Research Center in Excelsior, Minnesota. “We research the underlying genes for these traits and develop DNA marker tests to screen our seedlings … DNA tests expedite our breeding process … We collaborate with researchers from around the country and participate in a [U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture] funded project called VitisGen2, which uses the most up-to-date genomic and genetic resources to propel our project.”

Their first successful cultivar, Frontenac, was released in 1996. Since then, the program has provided five other wine grapes used by wineries in the U.S. and Canada: Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac Gris, Itasca, La Crescent and Marquette. With more than 12,000 experimental vines in cultivation on 12 acres, there are sure to be more new breeds of grape released in the future.

“Our plan is to continue to develop and evaluate the best options for vines to be grown in Minnesota,” Clark states.

According to Clark, the process from seed to fully developed wine cultivar takes about 10 years. First, they choose the parents to be part of the breeding program based on the traits they hope to develop in the final vine. “We do controlled pollination so the seeds inside are the new unique combination of genetics we want,” Clark explains. “We will do these ‘crosses’ for 30 to 100 different pairs. At the end of the season, this leaves us with thousands of new unique seeds that become our test seedlings the next year.”

These test seeds are planted in a greenhouse. They currently have 7,000 to 10,000 seeds germinating, which they screen with DNA tests for disease-resistance traits. These tests help them cull the seedlings that are disease prone. “We use our nursery to screen for other traits, including insect and disease resistance, vigour and how the vines prepare for winter,” Clark says. “Theoretically, we can move about 1,000 of these plants to a vineyard in the next year.”

Then comes patience, testing and evaluation. Of the 1,000 vines that they plant from their seedling experiments, 99.9 percent are eventually removed from the breeding program. “Anytime we see plants not performing well in the process, we cull them,” explains Clark. “This could be because [of] winter injury, disease, poor fruit flavours … Or they just aren’t anything better than their parents or other cultivars.” The top performers are vinified into wines and sampled for further evaluation. After all, a wine grape that doesn’t make a great-tasting wine isn’t right for the market.

There are several traits they look for in grapes to move them from seedling, to nursery to experimental growth and finally out into the wine world. “The berries have to have the right pH for winemaking, suitable amounts of acid (sometimes too high in the Minnesota/hybrid backgrounds), and of course good flavours and aromas in the wine,” Clark explains. “In addition to wine, we are concerned about the viticulture attributes. They need to have good growth habit, yield well and consistent results.”

Itasca is the most recent grape released from the University of Minnesota program. It was only planted in vineyards in 2017 so they have yet to really see the fruits of this vine. “We have one grower in Minnesota who has invested in 10 acres!” Clark exclaims. “We look forward to seeing how it performs at this site as well as [at] University test plots around the country, and the other growers who are testing [it] on their own properties.”


As for the grapes released prior to 2017, I reached out to growers in Vermont, Quebec and British Columbia to see how they’re faring with these lab-grown and scientifically enhanced cultivars.


La Garagista uses several University of Minnesota hybrids, namely La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc and Frontenac. Winemaker and owner Deirdre Heekin chose to plant hybrids instead of the traditional European varieties because their alpine climate is a bit too harsh for more sensitive vines.

“We did do some experimentation with vinifera, which was largely unsuccessful, and found that after we began making wine with the cold-hardy varieties that the potential was so intriguing and exciting that working with vinifera here became less compelling,” Heekin states. “We pulled out our Riesling and Blaufränkisch, and replanted to La Crescent; Marquette; Frontenac Noir, Gris and Blanc; and St. Croix.”

“It was really important to us to work as naturally as possible,” she explains. “We wanted to have vines that we could work with like any other winegrower and not have to resort to logistically and financially challenging methods in order to care for our vineyards properly.” The logistically and financially challenging methods she refers to are the need to bury vines and protect them with geotextiles, methods commonly used in Quebec to help vinifera vines survive harsh winters.

Working with hybrids came with its own challenges. However, overall, Heekin has found them to be hardier and easier to maintain. “Despite the natural resistance of these vines, we do have to manage and monitor disease and pest pressures,” she explains. “I imagine we have similar issues that any grower might have, but I don’t feel that there have been any real obstacles to our farming here. And, in fact, these varieties have advantages.”

“In many ways, it is less stressful to grow wine here,” Heekin continues. “Granted, we deal with cold temperatures during pruning, but our plants go into full dormancy.  Harvest is typically much saner here. We don’t have to worry about extreme heat where we have to pick at nighttime or chill our fruit down. While we did have heat spikes this past harvest, we were still able to use cooler evening temperatures to protect the fruit before processing.”

Heekin has had a lot of success with these hybrids. Her 2013 vintage of Damejeanne, made from Marquette, made the New York Times’ Top 10 Bottles of 2015, the first hybrid to ever be included on that list. She credits her serious approach to winemaking as the root of her success with these hybrids. “No one had really grown hybrid wine like this before or worked in a low-interventionist way in the cellar,” she explains. “Producers who work with hybrids always seem to be apologetic about growing hybrids. We strive to grow the most honest and transparent wine that we can that speaks of our landscape and terroir. We are thankful that we have wine grapes that we can grow, and we respect how much heart they have.”

Deirdre Heekin, winemaker and owner of La Garagista




France Cliche and her husband own La Mas des Patriotes in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. The cold climate in Quebec prompted them to plant Frontenac Blanc and Gris, as well as St. Croix, instead of vinifera. “In 2003, we tried a few Vandal-Cliche to observe if it will survive to the next winter,” Cliche explains. The Vandal-Cliche is a Quebec white grape cultivar from the grape parents Chancellor and Vitis Ripario developed in 1989 by Joseph-O. Vandal and Mario Cliche.

Since then, Cliche has worked with the University of Minnesota grapes to create wines that hit the mark in Quebec. “It took 10 years to have a mature fruit,” Cliche says. “Now our wine is well respected, and we are selling our wine at the liquor board, restaurants and fine grocery stores.”

The challenges of vinifying these hybrids and marketing them are similar to the challenges faced by the other winemakers. “Acidity level in hybrids is not easy to control,” she mentions. But they’re able to produce “very aromatic local wines with less sulphite. And they are unique.”

British Columbia

Winemaker Galen Barnhardt works with Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, Marquette and La Crescent at Monte Creek Ranch Winery. The choice to use these grapes came largely from the climate in Monte Creek. “Our wintertime lows are two to three degrees colder than the Okanagan, which doesn’t sound like much, but can be significant,” Barnhardt explains. “If there is an exceptionally cold winter and we have a reduced crop in the European varieties, then we still know that the hybrid varieties should produce like normal.”

As with any variety, there have been challenges associated with transforming these hybrids into quality wines. “After a bit of trial and error, we have five of the University of Minnesota varieties in our program. We tried a few others but ultimately pulled them out,” Barnhardt states. “The hybrid varieties tend to have a fair bit of acidity, so we have certainly had to dial in our viticulture to ensure that we manage that acid throughout the growing season. In my opinion, a lot of the success has to do with determining what each grape excels at and how they fit into a portfolio. For instance, Marquette makes fantastic rosé, La Crescent is a superb grape for sparkling and Frontenac Blanc makes a great base for blending purposes. Once we had figured out the strengths of each variety, then it was just a matter of fine-tuning the viticulture and winemaking in order to maximize those strengths.”

The market for hybrid grapes grows every day, and winemakers like Barnhardt help to create the demand by producing quality wines. “Some hybrid varieties, such as Foch, have a bit of a cult following. These varieties were relative unknowns to consumers when we started producing them. However, at the end of the day, they produce aromatic and easy-drinking wines so it’s not that hard to convince people,” he explains. “They all have a unique character. Even the three Frontenac varieties are incredibly different. Consumers become very normalized to drinking the same dozen or so varietals, so I think when new flavour and aroma profiles come along people are genuinely intrigued.”



Comments are closed.