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New generation of cold-hardy grapes and wines in the works at Cornell

Submitted By: Lewis Perdue, October 14, 2011
Contact: Joe Schwartz
Phone: (607) 254-6235

ITHACA, N.Y. — Got Concord in the refrigerator, Pinot in the wine rack, or Thompson Seedless in the fruit bowl? These familiar grape varieties will be making room for the next generation of improved, cold-hardy grapes, with a boost from two grants totaling $4.5 million, led by Cornell University grape breeder Bruce Reisch and senior extension associate Tim Martinson.

The projects take complementary approaches to a common problem: New grape varieties can take more than 20 years to breed and evaluate – and much longer to reach commercial success.

“Our project will bring better science and efficiency to grape breeding,” said Reisch, professor of horticulture. “We are focusing on developing wine, juice, table and raisin grapes with three attributes: fruit quality, cold hardiness, and resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal pathogen that is costly to control in vineyards across the United States.”

Reisch is working with 24 scientists on a $2 million project to streamline genome-wide DNA analysis and trait-screening methods to more efficiently identify promising progeny in this ambitious alliance of all six publicly funded grape breeding programs across the United States.

The linking of DNA markers to specific traits – such as an undesirable grassy aroma or a highly desirable disease resistance – will make breeding for complex traits more efficient. It will also allow breeders to develop varieties with enhanced disease resistance based on multiple resistance genes, which Reisch hopes will satisfy consumers and growers interested in organic or sustainable production.

Martinson’s $2.5 million project will determine how to successfully commercialize new varieties once they leave a breeder’s vineyard. His team will be working with a set of extremely cold-hardy wine grape varieties new to both growers and consumers, which have spawned new small-winery industries in the upper Midwest and Northeast over the past decade.

“These varieties are unique. Practices that producers use to grow and make Riesling and Merlot won't work for these varieties, due to differences in their genetic background and fruit chemistry,” said Martinson. “Producers of less familiar varietals like Marquette, Frontenac and Brianna also face additional challenges in establishing markets to promote and sell these wines. Our goal is to provide producers with research-based tools and practices to help them grow, vinify, and sell quality wines to local and regional markets.”

Both grants were funded by the by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which supports multi-institution, interdisciplinary research on crops including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and ornamentals.