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Wine grapes taking off in Vermont's cold climate

Think of wines and grapes and most think of Mediterranean climates such as France, Italy, or California. In the last couple of decades an increasing number of wineries and vineyards have emerged in cold climate states, in part from the development of newer, cold-hardy varieties that one can grow at home as well.

It may surprise you that grapes already are the largest fruit crop in the U.S., larger even than citrus and apples. The U.S. is the fourth largest producer of grapes in the world, with over half (55 percent) used for wine.

Some grapes are cultivars (cultivated varieties) of species, often just called varieties. Popular European varieties come from one species (Vitis vinifera) and include Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling. For the most part, these are not suited to northern climates. The American varieties Catawba, Concord and Niagara come from one species, the fox grape (V. labrusca), and Norton from another species (V. aestivalis). Other more rare American varieties include Delaware, Elvira, and Isabella. American grapes tend to be more cold-hardy, rugged, and are looked on by traditionalists as having a foxy or wild flavor.

Then there are the French-American hybrid varieties including Baco Noir, Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, and Vignoles. It is interesting that what began the development of these was the introduction to Europe in the mid-1800's of devastating American pests and diseases. The European varieties of the time were not resistant to these, so breeding began with resistant American species.

Releases of new varieties by the Geneva Experiment Station of Cornell University in the latter decades of the 1900s helped expand the New York state wine industry. These include the white varieties Cayuga White (1972), Chardonel (1990), Horizon (1982), Melody (1985), and Traminette (1996).

What has made many wineries possible in colder climates recently are the varieties developed by Minnesota breeder Elmer Swenson, and released by the University of Minnesota. For red grapes these include Marquette, Frontenac, and St. Croix, and for white grapes LaCrescent, Swenson White, and Prairie Star. Most of these Minnesota varieties are hardy to -30 degrees (F). These were developed beginning in 1943, and are the result of crossing French hybrids with selections of an American species, the frost grape (V. riparia).

Then there are grapes best suited for eating, usually called "table grapes". With potential for growing in cold climates are Concord, Mars, Reliance, Somerset Seedless, Swenson Red, and Vanessa. Increasingly there are specialty nurseries for obtaining these cold-hardy grapes, both for table and wine, as well as some vineyards such as Lincoln Peak and Shelburne vineyards. There are also reports of commercial wine-grape plantings planned for this summer in Rutland County.

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