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Published August 31 2012

NDSU research group working to create hardier grapes

FARGO - Good wine starts with good grapes, which are hard to come by in North Dakota because of the state’s harsh climate.

That’s where North Dakota State University assistant professor Harlene Hatterman-Valenti and her research team come in. They’re working to develop grape plants that are hardy enough for the state’s cold winter climate while producing wine-worthy fruit.

One of the grape plants the team works with is the river grape found on creek and river banks in this region. The fruit – indigenous to the area and used to make jelly – has excellent survivability traits. The problem is, they don’t have the qualities of a good wine grape, so Hatterman-Valenti’s team crosses them with traditional wine grapes.

It’s a process of trial and error. Crossing a native grape and a good wine grape can produce a winner, but that’s not typical. The mix generally yields something in the middle, a plant that isn’t quite as hardy as needed and not quite up to the required quality level, said NDSU doctoral student John Stenger. It means further hybridization work is often needed.

“So we’re going to try to cross that with another hybrid that’s on the upper end of the spectrum,” said Stenger, who is a member of Hatterman-Valenti’s team. “When we cross those two together, we hopefully get a kid that’s a little bit better than that. And we can keep selecting kids from those hybrids of hybrids to keep moving them (toward being) better in quality and better in adaptive traits at the same time.”

Team members work with other research and NDSU Extension personnel in Fargo and at other sites in the state. One of the main sites is at the research center in Williston, where 20 varieties of grapes were planted in 2004.

The work to develop grape varieties for wine-making is part of a larger NDSU research effort focused on “high-value” crops such as juneberries, raspberries and bush cherries.

The wine grape research isn’t all about genetics. Hatterman-Valenti’s team is also interested in how vineyard methods such as irrigation, fertilizing, pruning and more can be improved.

Hatterman-Valenti said she tells grape growers she’s happy to make the mistakes so it doesn’t “cost them big dollars.”

Plenty of wine grapes are already being produced in North Dakota’s estimated 40 vineyards, said Rod Ballinger, who heads the North Dakota Grape and Wine Program Committee. The committee was formed by the state Legislature with a goal of promoting the state’s grape and wine industry. It helps fund wine grape research at NDSU.

Ballinger and his wife, Sue, own Bear Creek Winery south of Fargo. He said the grapes being grown in North Dakota vineyards were designed for southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, not North Dakota. He described them as “marginal” for this area, and even less-suited to conditions farther west.

Stenger said the higher-quality wine grapes here don’t have the adaptive qualities needed.

“They have a lot of winter die-back,” he said. “You can have maybe a crop this year, but if next year’s a bad winter, we won’t have any production next year, and so it can be kind of hit or miss.”

Stenger described North Dakota as a “challenging” place for growing grapes because traditional wine grapes are not adapted to cold temperatures.

The work to develop a suitable grape can be tedious. One of Stenger’s tasks involves using tweezers to separate tiny particles of pollen from grape plants.

“I sit on that stool right there for hours,” Stenger said, referring to a stepstool sitting nearby in the greenhouse. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when it gets down to the end.”

The initial goal of the genetics work is to produce one white wine grape and one red wine grape suitable for this region, he said.

Ballinger said the grape research being done by NDSU Extension is important to the state’s wine-making industry. He believes developing cold-hardy varieties will encourage growth of the state’s wine industry, bringing with it jobs and tax revenue.

We have to have quality fruit,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter J. Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734