Renovation & Design
The idea that Manitoba wine and grape production might someday match that of the two primary cold climate wine regions in Canada — the Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia and the Niagara region in southern Ontario — may seem like a fantasy to some. Now, with the grape research and development that is taking place in North Dakota, Anthony Mintenko — provincial crops specialist, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development — says wine production in Manitoba could rapidly accelerate in the foreseeable future.
Stevan Sagaser is the extension agent for agriculture and natural resources at North Dakota State University, where the next generation of cold climate grapes are being produced at NDSU test vineyards.
"We’re on the cutting edge," Sagaser said in a recent phone interview. "It is a whole new frontier for wine production that is taking place."
Vitis riparia, also known as riverbank grape, is being used as a parent in the breeding process at NDSU. A climbing or trailing vine, it can be found widely distributed across Manitoba and North Dakota. "Most varieties, if not all, have Vitis riparia as part of their parentage," Sagaser says, adding that the primary reason is hardiness which is the number one selection criteria.
Seedlings are also selected for vigor. In addition, Sagaser says NDSU selects for varieties that are sensitive to day length. This contrasts with European grape hybrids, some of which are more sensitized to temperature determining their dormancy.
Varieties are also selected for flavour, with the goal of rivalling the flavours produced by European and California wine producers and, in so doing, NDSU hopes to create a new wine country.
Grape varieties already familiar to local growers include Frontenac grape and Minnesota 78 grape, both introduced by the University of Minnesota, which has been a leader for years in developing cold-climate grape cultivars. Brianna grape and Louise Swenson grape, two other varieties that are grown locally, were introduced by Elmer Swenson, a legendary Norwegian farmer from Wisconsin who is called the godfather of all grape growing in the upper Midwest of the United States. Swenson developed more than 200 grape varieties, Sagaser says, of which 40 to 50 are still planted and grown today for winemaking or eating fresh.
"If not for his research," Sagaser says, "we wouldn’t be where we are today."
Some of the varieties used in the NDSU grape breeding program have been crossed with Swenson’s varieties and one or two are crossed with University of Minnesota varieties. As well, says Sagaser, a number of European varieties — Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir — are involved with the crosses resulting in grape varieties with multiple parentages.
Sagaser says NDSU’s grape enhancement breeding program, which began in 2009, is on a fast track to bring innovative new varieties to market. Approximately 14,000 and 16,000 different seedlings have been planted in four locations across the state. "The whole idea is to expose these numbered but not yet named seedlings," Sagaser says, "to as many adverse and changing climates and soil types as possible."
As the process moves forward, crosses that have been approved for further evaluation are grafted onto Prairie Star, another hardy Elmer Swenson grape variety, in the hope of getting more fruit production. "As it stands," Sagaser says, "we are not able to get enough fruit to produce enough wine for a complete evaluation." The biggest challenge, or opportunity, as it were, is encouraging more growers to enter the grape market so that more fruit is produced in order to keep wineries supplied. Thus far there are 15 wineries in North Dakota, but theoretically, Sagaser says, there is room for 23 to 25 viable wineries.
Soil is a challenge. Wine grape production is influenced by terroir, which encompasses all aspects of the complete natural environment including soil, topography and climate conditions. The fertile Red River Valley clay soils of Manitoba and North Dakota are not ideal for growing grapes which prefer a lighter, sandier soil. In fact, Sagaser says, you get a better quality fruit and juice when the soils aren’t quite as nutrient rich as the Red River Valley soils.
In Sagaser’s own vineyard, rampant vegetative growth, which wouldn’t result in sandier soils, must continually be kept under control. By way of a solution, Sagaser concentrates on proper row spacing and plant spacing. "We recommend about 1.8 to 2.4 metres of spacing between plants in a row and a minimum of 2.4 metres between rows."
As much as you might think that summer’s heat and dryness and winter’s extreme temperatures pose one of the biggest challenges to grape growers, what wreaks even more havoc, Sagaser says, is warmth that continues right through fall followed by rapidly plummeting temperatures. In that scenario, the development of cold hardiness or hardening off is adversely affected and grape tissue does not have an opportunity to prepare for winter and become dormant before temperatures go below freezing.
Another obstacle, says Sagaser, is when there is an early spring with warm temperatures in March and April which encourage grape tissue to come out of dormancy, soften and begin breaking bud. A sudden flash frost can destroy all of the developing blossoms or tissue. "That happened on May 13, 2016," Sagaser says, "and about 50 percent of grape crops were lost all across the upper tier of states." In winter it is key, Sagaser says, that no matter what type of fruit you are growing, plants are kept dormant and protected with adequate snow cover. Yet, despite extreme cold temperatures, the greatest risk to grapes occurs in spring and fall.
Major grape diseases include downy mildew, powdery mildew, anthracnose and black rot. A preventative plan of disease and insect control is an essential part of every grower’s toolkit in the battle against pests and disease. Wine grapes are smaller and have a thicker skin than table grapes. Wine grapes are grown for their flavour profile, acid content and sugar level — not for their physical appearance on the vine.
"We are looking for clusters that have a certain amount of breathability," Sagaser says, "so that air movement can get through and the crop will be less prone to disease development."
All it takes is a single multi-coloured Asian lady beetle per 45 kilograms of fruit to taint its flavour. The beetle, distinguished by an "M" or "W" shaped marking behind its head, emits a foul odor when touched. "The beetle works its way into clusters of grapes and feeds on the fruit," Sagaser says. Wineries must take care when the fruit is crushed and destemmed.
A clear and present danger comes in the form of the Japanese beetle which feeds on 300 host plants of which grapes, roses and basswood or linden trees rank as its favourites. This past June it was discovered that the Japanese beetle had been introduced into North Dakota by a wholesale nursery in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. The larva arrived in containerized nursery stock in March — 95 per cent of the plants have already been sold.
"We have set out traps across the state," Sagaser says, "and are monitoring for the beetle. Our hope is to prevent it from becoming established."
Manitobans share that hope as well as for a future, thriving wine industry.