Let’s explore the most important grape varieties grown in Iowa.
The most important Northern Climate varieties are mostly hybrids between Vitis riperia and other native American grape varieties. Some Northern Climate varieties also contain a Vitis vinifera component. Vitis vinifera is grown in temperate climates and it includes the varieties you’ve probably heard of.
Hybrid grape varieties are usually crosses made by hybridizers. The first of the Midwest hybridizers was Elmer Swenson who died in 2006. He was a dairyman living in Osceola, Wisconsin, and while cows and milk were his livelihood, pursuit of a table grape variety that he could grow and eat was his passion. Many, and maybe most, of the grape varieties grown in Iowa today were developed by Swenson. He frequently gave cuttings to people interested in making wine from grapes and in some cases they even named the varieties. His varieties include St. Croix, Sabrevois, Edelweiss, Brianna, St. Pepin, LaCrosse, and many others. All of these varieties are grown by multiple growers in Iowa.
Late in life, Swenson partnered with the University of Minnesota Horticulture Farm to continue his work. The University of Minnesota has since introduced Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, Marquette, and Itasca.
Most recently, Tom Plocher has developed three new varieties that include Petite Pearl, Crimson Pearl, and Verona. Plocher’s vineyard is located north and slightly east of St. Paul and all of these varieties are cold hardy. Petite Pearl has been planted in several vineyards already however characteristics of Crimson Pearl and Verona are still to be discovered.
In Iowa, grape growing and wine production from locally grown grapes is still an infant industry. We are learning which grapes grow in Iowa and which will produce good wine. Considering the fact that Pinot Noir was being planted for wine production 2,000 years ago, our pursuit of knowledge is understandable.
In Southern Iowa, some grape varieties that are commonly grown in Missouri are also growing. They include Norton, Chardonel, and Chambourcin, all of which are difficult to reliably ripen in Iowa and their acreage in Iowa is very small.