A team of Cornell researchers recieved two grants, totaling $4.5 million, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Institute in September to study grape breeding in the New York region.
The two grants fund similar projects led by Prof. Bruce Reisch, horticulture, and senior extension associate Tim Martinson, respectively. Both projects aim to make grape breeding more efficient, as new grape varieties can sometimes take more than 20 years to breed.
Reisch’s $2 million project aims to develop new types of grapes that will have better disease resistance, improved adaptation to the cold and overall quality. These improvements will result in less pesticide use and allow people to grow grapes in more climates, according to Reisch.
Reisch said that to achieve their goals, the team of 25 principal investigators set up breeding programs in California, New York, Florida, Minnesota and Missouri to research the DNA sequences of the grape vine genomes and determine which seedlings carry the desired traits. The seedlings will be selected at an early stage in the breeding process and developed to produce new varieties for the grape and wine industry.
“We’re hoping to improve the economic success of the industry, promote the growth of the industry and make it less limited by the current varieties that really need a lot of improvement,” Reisch said. “We would like to develop grapes that farmers find easier to grow and the public would find even more acceptable knowing that fewer chemical inputs are needed to control pests and diseases.”
Regarding fruit quality and flavor, Prof. Gavin Sacks, food science, said that certain native grape varieties are unpalatable when the fruit emits a musty aroma or contains excessive acidity. His portion of the project will focus on identifying which genes control the production of these undesirable traits and informing breeders so they can immediately reject seedlings that carry those genes.
“You can tell a consumer all you want about how a grape variety might be more sustainable,” Sacks said. “But if the flavor’s bad, you might get some sympathetic looks, but no one’s going to want to buy that.”
Meanwhile, Martinson is leading a $2.5 million project that focuses on the commercialization of grape varieties developed by the University of Minnesota in the late 1990s. According to Martinson, because they were developed recently and for colder climates, the grapes are grown in areas previously unsuitable for grape production and by people with less experience in the industry.
For this project, Martinson said that he hopes to set up winemaking trials in Cornell, Iowa State and Minnesota to understand which grape characteristics will allow the new varieties to sell profitably.
Prof. Anna Katharine Mansfield, food science, said that the new grape variety must improve its flavor if it is to become a popular commodity.
By improving several characteristics of the grapes through methods such as enology additives, she said, the new wineries will be able to enhance their businesses and accelerate the process of grape commercialization.
“It’s the beginning of a process that’s going to develop and blossom over the next five to 10 years, so that’s part of what got me interested in it,” Martinson said. “I like working with [these growers] because they’re new, they’re enthusiastic and I want to see them succeed as growers in their businesses."