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Grape Breeders Grow New Crossbreed of Disease-Resistant Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon

Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang checks on a cluster of grapes that is a crossbreed between the disease-resistant Norton and Cabernet
Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang checks on a cluster of grapes that is a crossbreed between the disease-resistant Norton and Cabernet

[Sound:  grapevines, leaves rustling]

Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang is walking through the vineyards at MSU’s Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove—that’s about an hour east of Springfield.

“This is a Norton cross with a Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says.

Hwang is a grapevine breeder. On this day, he’s pulling back vines to show me a special cluster of grapes that he’s keeping a close eye on. It’s essentially a lesson in the birds and the bees of grapevine breeding.

Hwang: “We did an emasculation, so the tiny flower of Norton, we got rid of the male pollen. So only the female part from the Norton [remained]. And then we used a Cabernet sauvignon pollen to brush onto the top of the Norton female part, to produce this.”

Moore:  “So this cluster here, this crossbreed, has essentially the disease resistance of a Norton grape and the great taste of Cabernet Sauvignon?”

Hwang:  “That’s our goal. Yes!”

A summer intern made this cluster. It contains the seeds from which researchers will grow new vines.

The efforts of this research facility have recently caught the attention of one of Europe’s most respected institutions, the French National Institute for Agriculture Research.  The two parties have just signed a Memoriandum of Understanding to collaborate in their research.

Hwang’s research partner is Dr. Wenping Qiu.  One is from China, the other from Taiwan. They joke that as long as they keep the conversation to grapes rather than politics, they manage to keep their own little “Taiwan Strait” between them.

Both are celebrating the accomplishment that their lab is the first to sequence the genome of the Norton grape. That will allow Hwang to speed up the breeding process on new, disease-resistant grapes, because he’ll be able to look at the markers on the genome that are associated with disease resistance. He plans to breed several new varieties of grapes.

The goal is twofold: these researchers hope to improve human health, they say, by exploring the compounds found in native species. 

But they also hope to make the grape and wine industry in Missouri and around the world more profitable.

Many of these new varieties will come here, in the Mountain Grove winery and distillery.

[Sound: Walking into winery]

Inside, professor Karl Wilker is making hard apple cider. Wilker oversees graduate students researching the winemaking process here.

“These are tanks where we would make white wine. And we actually have wine in there right now. This is a pink grape… this is a Catawba…and it’s finishing up,” Wilker said.

[Sound:  Opening metal lid]

Grapes are hand-picked, then they’re brought here in plastic tubs that hold about 20, 30 pounds of grapes. Soon, the new varieties will be making their debut here.

Scientists at The French National Institute for Agriculture Research are very eager to incorporate what’s happening here into their own laboratories.  In France, where wine is both a staple of the economy and a proud tradition, a disease-resistant grape that suits the French palate is highly desirable.

These researchers say their new varieties of grapes will also be a boost to Missouri wine industry, giving growers more options and more success in their vineyards for years to come.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.