October 23, 2007

New Hybrid Grapes Aid Finger Lakes Wine

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Like most Cornell students, local winemakers in the Finger Lakes region have to learn how to cope with bitter winters, sickness and fierce competition. Research on hybrid grapes done by Prof. Bruce Reisch, horticultural sciences, however, has produced new disease resistant varieties that can tolerate the icy temperatures of upstate New York and still maintain a flavor quality that some say rivals the sophistication of European wines.
“Last summer when I was doing a field demonstration, everyone out in the grape fields had the reaction ‘oh, hybrids, we’ve seen these before.’ But as soon as we went inside the winery and started tasting the wine from those grapes, it was like a conversion experience — the winemakers started furiously scribbling notes,” said Tim Martinson, senior extension associate for the Statewide Viticulture Extension Program. Martinson explained that hybrid varieties in the past have produced wines with a distinctively poor flavor.
“This is something different than we’ve had in the past. The red hybrid varieties are very successful,” Martinson said.
For the past 27 years, Reisch has carried on the research tradition in viticulture that began at the University in 1888. His work on hybrid grapes is not genetic engineering, but a more traditional procedure that involves placing the pollen of one variety onto the flowers of another.
“At any given time I’m dealing with between 8,000 and 10,000 genetically distinct seedlings, most only known by number. Every year we plant around 5,000 seedlings and make one new selection to send out for further testing. We’re trying to find the best of the best,” Reisch said. He explained that although it takes only three or four years to produce a crop of grapes from a new variety, testing of the hybrid can take as long as 20 years.
“When winemakers put a crop in the ground, they’re making a 30 to 50 year investment,” Reisch said. For that reason, researchers carefully test each new hybrid variety for flavor quality, durability and performance. Most American wineries try to imitate the taste and aroma of European wines.
“The European grape, Vitis vinifera, is very susceptible to disease, and many growers don’t want their environment affected by pesticides,” Reisch said. The new hybrids that require less pesticide and fungicide application also offer environmental benefits as well.
Researchers hope that hybrid grape varieties will spark growth in the American winemaking industry, especially in places less conducive to large grape crops.
“There are currently 220 wineries in the state, and half are less than ten years old. The industry has grown in the Finger Lakes region from around 45 wineries in the late 1990s to about 80 wineries now,” Martinson said. He attributed much of the industry’s growth to the availability of high-quality hybrids that can brave the cold. He said there are over 10,000 acres of grapes growing in the Finger Lakes region alone.
“Production-wise, this is the busiest time. We’re about 85 percent through the harvest; we’re picking the Corot Noir right now,” said Dave Peterson, general manager of the local Swedish Hill Vineyard, in operation for over 20 years.
“The hybrids are more reliably productive; you can produce wines that are less costly to make. They also extend the flavor profile rangeThey all have distinctive flavors in their own right,” Peterson said.
Aside from nine traditional European varieties of grapes, Swedish hill grows four varieties of Cornell hybrids and purchases two others grown at nearby vineyards.
Peterson said that one of his hybrid varieties, Melody, is lemony and peach-like, and has a resemblance to Reisling. Swedish Hill also grows Corot Noir, which is a lighter red wine with cherry-raspberry flavors, and Valvin Muscat, a white wine, which well-suited to growing in New York. Traminette, another hybrid grown at the vineyard, is “virtually indistinguishable from the European grape that was one of its parent varieties,” according to Peterson. He said the winery also buys Cayuga White and Noiret, two other hybrids produced by Cornell researchers.
Reisch said the reception of hybrid grapes in the winemaking industry has been very positive. One local nursery has sold over 400,000 vines of the hybrid Traminette since it was released just ten years ago, according to Reisch. He also said that Cayuga White, created in 1972 as the first Cornell hybrid, accounts for between $10-$15 million of wine production each year.
“The new varieties we’re developing are meant to help expansion of the industry and help give the best possible quality to the wine,” Reisch said.