At the University of Minnesota, we’re known worldwide for expertise in developing cold-hardy cultivars. Development of grape varieties for northern climates began as early as 1908. The grape-breeding program was revitalized in the 1970’s when dairy farmer Elmer Swenson began working for the University. Already an established private grape breeder, Swenson began using some of the old breeding-stock that the University had acquired and developed and crossed them with some of the varieties he developed on his farm in Osceola, Wisconsin. Two grape cultivars were co-realeased by Swenson and the University of Minnesota in 1978: Swenson Red, and Edelweiss.
After more than a century of breeding grapes, the University of Minnesota formally initiated a breeding program for wine grapes in the mid-1980’s. Evaluation of the viticultural and enological potential of each grape variety is carefully monitored over many growing seasons before a variety is considered suitable for release. After nearly 20 years of development, our first cold-hardy wine grape, Frontenac, was released to the public in 1996. The completion of a state-of-the-art winemaking facility was completed in 2000 to aid in the development and evaluation of new wine-grape varieties. Since then, two more cultivars have been developed: La Crescent, and Marquette. A gray mutation of Frontenac was also discovered and released by the University of Minnesota – Frontenac gris. Since then, discoveries of a white version of Frontenac have been discovered at various sites in the U.S. and Canada.
Our program encompasses over 10 acres of research vineyards with approximately 10,000 experimental vines. Seedlings are produced each year using a diverse genetic base that includes classic Vitis vinifera cultivars, quality French hybrids, and cold-hardy, disease resistant selections based V. riparia, Minnesota’s native grape. Over 1,000 seedlings are planted each year and subjected to high standards of evaluation.
While development of cold-hardy wine grapes continues to be the focus of the grape-breeding program, we are also working on the development of a seedless table grape suitable for northern growers and even ornamental grapevines.