FARGO — Hot and dry conditions made for brown lawns across the region this past summer, but for vineyards, the summer of 2021 was in many ways worthy of a toast.
The summer saw the best growing-degree days possible for growing grapes in North Dakota, according to Harlene Hatterman-Valenti, a professor of plant sciences at North Dakota State University.
"Most of these grapes need about 2,400 growing-degree days, and we're pretty darn close to that right now," Hatterman-Valenti said, adding that while the hot and dry conditions resulted in good sugar content and other things that make for flavorful wine, the grapes themselves might be on the small side, which can mean a smaller harvest.
"For a grower that doesn't have supplemental water, that generally means the berries are going to be smaller and so probably (produce) a lower yield in comparison to if there was adequate rainfall," Hatterman-Valenti added.
At 4E Winery near Casselton, North Dakota, however, you won't hear many gripes about this year's grapes.
"The sunny days and the warm weather really helped the ripening and the quality of the grapes," said Greg Cook, who operates the winery with his wife, Lisa.
The couple already wrapped up their harvest for this year, which was about two or three weeks earlier than what is typical, and Greg Cook said they were in the process of receiving additional grapes from a partner vineyard near Erskine, Minnesota.
"They're a pretty northern vineyard, and I just received some grapes from them that were really ripe, more than normal, because they usually have a hard time ripening up there," Cook said.
The bountiful 2021 crop comes at a good time for 4E Winery, as Cook said they didn't really have a crop at all last fall due to damage the vines suffered the winter before.
The issue of cold-hardiness is a major one for grape growers in the region, as even the native river grape, the most common grape grown in North Dakota, can have trouble surviving a bad winter.
That's where NDSU and its germplasm enhancement project come in.
Hatterman-Valenti said the project involves trying to come up with more cold-hardy grapes for growers in the region, which for the most part are using human-developed varieties — known as cultivars — created by the University of Minnesota that are based on the river grape, a grape native to this region and the type most commonly grown in North Dakota.
She said while the cultivars developed by the University of Minnesota can do well in North Dakota, they were actually designed for growers in southern Minnesota.
Hatterman-Valenti said the ultimate goal is to come up with grape cultivars that have a better chance of surviving North Dakota winters and have lower acidity compared to grapes currently grown here.
According to Hatterman-Valenti, even though the native river grapes grown in North Dakota may be turned into wine, they are typically viewed as more of a jam or jelly grape as opposed to the true wine grape, which grows in places like California.
She said research being conducted with grapevines at NDSU aims to improve qualities of the river grape to help it better compete with true wine grapes.
And they're on the right track, according to Greg Cook.
"I've tasted some of those experimental grapes made into wine, and there are some very promising cultivars they have. The flavors are going to be better than anything we have now," he said.
When new and improved cultivars will become available for growers in the region isn't known for certain.
Part of the grape research at NDSU is being done by Venkateswara Rao Kadium, a graduate student who has been working to connect specific grape characteristics to specific genes.
He expects that work to conclude by the end of the year.
Hatterman-Valenti said it is difficult to say when the patenting of new grape cultivars will be completed and marketing can begin, but she hopes it will be soon.
In the early 2000s, she said, North Dakota was one of the last states to pass legislation allowing farm wineries, so growers in the region are starting behind the rest of the country when it comes to establishing vineyards and wineries.
But, she added, the number of wineries is steadily increasing, and the work being done at NDSU may one day help fortify the grape-growing industry in the state.
"If we can come up with a cold-hardy cultivar, or more than one, that can provide growers with consistent fruit and (ease) the problem of winter injury or late-spring frost, I think the number of growers will also increase," Hatterman-Valenti said.