Aconventional grain farm on the harsh Canadian Prairies, where temperatures readily plunge to -40C, isn’t exactly ideal for grape production. Unless, of course, it’s in your blood.
“Grapes have been part of the family for the last 500 years or so. So, yes, you could say it’s in our blood,” Tom Menold told visiting farm journalists to his vineyard near here recently.
Tom and his brother Ulrich, who emigrated to Canada from Germany in their late teens, started asking about local grape varieties in the 1980s.
They were told the only varieties that would survive here were Beta and Valiant. But he ordered some cold-hardy and semi-hardy varieties available elsewhere in Canada anyway – just to see.
Today, surrounded by a high fence to keep out nibbling deer and coons, stand about 700 plants representing a collection of approximately 60 varieties including semi-hardy, fully hardy and even a few so-called tender varieties.
His vineyards contain all manner of grapes, including some that are extraordinarily challenging to grow in a colder climate.
Even a hobby vineyard is no small undertaking. The Menolds bury a cane from their less hardy varieties under flax straw shives each fall to help them survive the winter.
“The biggest challenge we have is the amount of frost-free days,” says Tom. “If your fruiting buds have not matured in fall
time you get nothing the next year. I’ve definitely had some loss.”
But also many gains. A good plant produces about two litres of juice, and in some years he’s harvested as much as 500 litres off his vineyard.
Their enthusiasm for grape growing is spreading.
Near Winkler, Jeff Engel has just planted around 800 vines on his own acreage, having sought Tom’s advice on production and vineyard management. “He knows what he’s doing, whereas I don’t have a clue,” says Engel.
Engel has also taken a new approach to trellising grapes. Engel has cordoned his grapevines close to the ground, to replicate a low-trellising system used at Cypress Hills Winery near Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. His vines are planted farther apart, but cordoned mere inches off the ground. This system allows Engel to take full advantage of winter snow cover and eliminates the need to take canes down in fall, even if it will mean kneeling to pick the grapes later on.
Murray Dudgeon of Carman has also sought grape-growing advice from the Menolds. Over the past three years Dudgeon has planted over 100 vines on his family’s home farm near Darlingford, including many cuttings from Tom’s vines, plus varieties Dudgeon purchased during a visit paid to Okanagan wine country in 2007. “I’ve got quite a variety,” says Dudgeon. “At least 40 vines are Valiant which are the hardiest ones and suitable for Manitoba. But I also have most of the other ones that are considered hardy for this area.”
He, like Jeff and Tom, also wonders if there might be demand at some point for locally grown grapes. “Maybe someday this might be a sideline but I don’t know yet,” says Tom. “I’ve been thinking if I had a big crop, I’d sell some grapes to home winemakers. ”
Regulation and red tape to pursue any further processing venture, particularly a winery, makes that idea a little daunting.
Meanwhile, cold-hardy grape production has brought vineyards and wineries to new locales elsewhere in Canada too. Hardy hybrid grapes now flourish in extensive vineyards in Quebec. About 50 new wineries have been established. The largest concentration of these is found in the Eastern Townships and the Monteregie tourist regions. That industry has been developing over the last 20 years.
Cold-hardy grape production is also expanding wine and grape production across the American corn belt. Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota all now boast wineries. State fairs now feature events showcasing best of the best wines these regions produce.
Last year a report done by the University of Minnesota reported a total economic impact of the grape and winery industry in that state at $36.2 million in 2007. The University of Minnesota has an extensive grape-breeding program. Many of the newer cold-hardy hybrids have been a result of research done at this university, especially the work of Elmer Swenson. Swenson, who died in 2004, was a pioneering grape breeder who introduced a number of new cultivars.
Manitoba Agriculture’s web-site now includes a link on grape production and lists varieties that can be grown here both for eating fresh and winemaking. White wine varieties such as Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, and La Crescent are all good to between -35 to -38C. Red wine varieties equally able to withstand a nasty Manitoba winter include Marquette, St. Croix, Troubadour and Sabrevois.
Varieties good for eating fresh include Bluebell, Edelweiss and Swenson Red. Interlaken, Concord and Himrod are also recommended as table grape varieties.
But if your favourite wine is, say, a Pinot Gris, forget trying to grow it. Tom’s tried.
“Most of them are coming out,” he says. “I’m going to leave five or six just to have, but every year I get so little out of them. There’s a number of varieties I’m going to reduce or completely take out.”
Minnesota Grape Growers
Associationwww.mngrapes.orgManitoba Agriculture Food
and Rural Initiatives http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/fruit/blp01s01.html