Bacchus would be proud as Missourians use autumn as an excuse to revel in wine-filled times with good friends.

While they celebrate, University of Missouri researchers work to improve vineyards and the fruits of their labor.
“The grape and wine industry in Missouri is not just important because we’re making a product, but also because of its importance to tourism,” said Ingolf Gruen, director of the University of Missouri Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology (ICCVE). “A lot of people come to Missouri just for the purpose of going to bed-and-breakfasts, visiting wineries and tasting wine, so tourism is a large aspect of the wineries.”

MU ICCVE research and teaching teams work on viticulture (grape production) and enology (wine production), involving both undergraduate and graduate students in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The Missouri Wine and Grape board uses a tax on every bottle of wine to help support this effort for the future of the industry in Missouri.

7-year study

ICCVE hopes to pinpoint new cultivars that offer the best in traits like disease resistance in grapes and taste when those grapes are transformed into wine. The seven-year study, now in its third year, is evaluating 70 new varieties. The long span of time will balance out the impact of Missouri’s variable weather on vines. Wine taste tests each spring aim to measure the palatability of a crop.

“We identify varieties that perform well in all different extremes of weather, and we’re going to get high-quality lines out of those grapes,” said Marco Li Calzi, MU researcher and enology program leader.

Missouri wine and grape growers produced more than $1.6 billion in total economic value to the state in 2009, according to a study by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. That includes the value of grape crops, winery revenue, jobs and the boost to tourism Missouri wine gives the state. The economic value is almost triple the benefit seen in 2005, thanks to a nearly doubling in the number of Missouri wineries from 50 in 2005 to 97 in 2009.

Yet Missouri’s continental climate presents significant challenges for grape production. Growers need hardy grape varieties than can tolerate extreme cold and blistering heat and also resist mildew and fungal diseases. At the same time, varieties need to fully ripen in Missouri weather and develop proper acidity to ensure freshness and taste in the end product.