The University of Minnesota's fruit breeding program is known for introducing cold-hardy apples, including such popular varieties as SweeTango, Honeycrisp and Haralson. But the program doesn't just introduce apples. In fact, some of its most notable introductions have been grapes for wine.
The grapes used in cabernet, chardonnay and many other popular wines can't live in Minnesota without help. They're just too sensitive to winter's cold. Other wine grapes, however, thrive here and the University of Minnesota has introduced some of the best.
At the International Cold Climate Wine Competition this year, many of the top awards went to wines made mostly or entirely from grapes introduced by the university. And Jim Luby, a professor in the U's Horticultural Science Department and leader of the fruit breeding program, said the university is trying to develop more wine-worthy grapes, including "a neutral, food-friendly white wine like chardonnay, an herbaceous but fruity white like sauvignon blanc, and a more robust, tannic red wine."
If you'd like to try winemaking yourself, or if you just want some grapes in the back yard, here are some cold-hardy grapes to consider.
Wine grapes tend to be sweeter than table grapes. However, they're also smaller, heavily seeded and thick-skinned. You may want to taste a few from the vine, but they don't make good eating. If you don't want to go to the bother of growing your own, wines from these University of Minnesota grapes can be found at small wineries statewide.
Frontenac: This red grape, first introduced in 1996, produces a light and dry table wine, a very nice rosé and an excellent port.
Frontenac Gris: This white grape, introduced in 2003, is very similar to the Frontenac. It makes a semi-sweet wine with notes of peach and apricot. It can also be used to make an excellent dessert wine called a "faux" ice wine.
LaCrescent: An aromatic white grape, introduced in 2002, that makes sweet and semi-sweet wines, similar to a riesling or muscat.
Marquette: This purplish grape, introduced in 2006, makes a good-quality, fruity, slightly tannic red wine. Because wines from this grape have been available only about two years, winemakers haven't had much opportunity to work with it.
These grapes are meant to be eaten, but there is currently no seedless variety that is reliably hardy throughout Minnesota.
Somerset Seedless: This reddish seedless grape isn't hardy enough to be grown statewide, although it does well in the far southeastern portion of Minnesota.
Edelweiss: This university introduction is one of the more popular seeded grapes in Minnesota. It's sometimes used for wine, but it's at its best growing along a back fence, where you can pick the berries and eat them fresh.
Swenson Red: The color of this reddish grape varies somewhat depending on the climate. In colder areas this grape will be bluer, in warmer climates greener.
Jeff Gillman, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota, has written several gardening books.