The U’s Itasca grape could put Minnesota wines on the map

This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Or many.

A new grape with a decidedly Minnesota name is delighting local growers and vintners and starting to grab the attention of wine enthusiasts.

Called the Itasca, it is being hailed as at least a “breakthrough” and more likely a “game changer” for the state’s still-nascent wine industry. One winemaker even likened the 2017 University of Minnesota release to what the research center achieved with Honeycrisp and Zestar apples.

“What the U did with the apples, they’re there with Itasca,” said Greg Peterson, owner and winemaker of Wild Oaks Ranch in Lakeville.

While grape growers gush, consumers are just now beginning to enjoy the fruits of the university’s labors. The first commercial vines were planted in 2017, and it takes at least three years for the grapes to be viable for winemaking. The youthful 2019 Itascas have proven hugely popular at tasting rooms.

“We sold more Itasca in three months than any other wine over a year’s time,” said Aaron Schram, owner of Schram Vineyards in Waconia.

While Schram’s tasty 2019 Itasca is available at the vineyard’s tasting room, several other local wineries have already sold out of their 2019s, including Indian Island, Rustic Roots, Round Lake and Saint Croix. Wild Oak Ranch’s version, Thin Blue Line, is on shelves at Lakeville municipal liquor stores, and a few Haskell’s locations will carry it soon. Chankaska Creek, one of the state’s best wineries, will make its rich rendition available online in November, after club members get first dibs.

Consumers have enjoyed white grapes developed by the U, such as La Crescent and Frontenac Gris, for the better part of this century. But those hybrids tend to be sweet and often overly perfumey. What makes the Itasca the game-changer? In a word, acid. Itasca’s lower natural acidity makes it more akin to European grapes like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio.

According to the U, ripe Itasca grapes come in at 8.54 grams per liter of total acidity, while Frontenac Gris averages 13.8 and La Crescent 12.6. Varieties with higher acidities require modifications after being picked and crushed.

Put simply, “When the acid is substantially lower, winemakers don’t have to fight it,” said Peter Hemstad, co-owner and winemaker at Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater.

Decade-plus in the making

If anyone should know about the Itasca, it’s Hemstad, who was there for the grape’s genesis in 2002. The U’s Horticultural Research Center in Victoria, where Hemstad worked as a grape breeder, attempted about 35 hybrid crossings a year back then (it’s closer to 100 now).

The grapes usually have in their lineage vitis vinifera, the species common in Europe, and vitis riparia, North American grapes that provide cold-hardiness but are massively acidic. (The parents of the grape that became Itasca were Frontenac Gris and MN1234, both of which have sundry vinifera varieties in their ancestries.)

When developing a new grape, the first goal is disease resistance, especially from mildew; Hemstad said at least

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