January 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Traminette's Popularity Spreads Across the East

How the white hybrid with vinifera-like quality was developed and tested

by Ray Pompilio

Traminette, an aromatic grape related to Gewürztraminer, has become a popular variety in 19 states. First named in 1996 by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES), the variety has experienced widespread growth from the East Coast to as far west as Missouri. It is very popular in New York’s Finger Lakes region and has been named Indiana’s “signature grape variety.” In addition, it was named Outstanding Fruit Cultivar by the American Society for Horticultural Science in 2015, the fourth NYSAES-bred fruit cultivar and the first grape to be so honored. Much of Traminette’s background information presented here was provided by Dr. Bruce Reisch at Cornell University and Dr. Bruce Bordelon at Purdue University. 

The cross of Joannes Seyve 23.416 x Gewürztraminer that became Traminette was initiated in 1965 by Herb C. Barrett at the University of Illinois. At the time, Barrett was focused on grapes that had resistance to black rot, and originally he thought this cross would be a good candidate for a flavorful, large-clustered table grape. With his impending move to another position in Australia, Barrett sent seeds from the cross to Cornell, where they were first planted in 1968. Fruit observation began in 1971, and the original vine was propagated in 1974 as NY65.533.13. Cornell initially described the grape as “a vigorous and productive green grape with moderately loose clusters.”

New York’s breeding trials
NYSAES published its early experiences with Traminette in New York’s Food and Life Sciences Bulletin in 1996. Much of the following information comes from this bulletin and, where applicable, is directly quoted with the permission of Dr. Bruce Reisch, who took over a vacant grape-breeding position in 1980. His predecessor, Dr. Robert Pool, alerted him to “two very interesting selections in the grape-breeding program, one of which was what eventually was named Traminette,” Reisch recalled.

In order for a grape to develop into a named cultivar, Reisch noted, “We have to see some consistency over a number of years, because any prospective grower will be making at least a 30-year investment. We need multiple years of vineyard testing to study cold tolerance, disease resistance and fruit and wine quality.” 

In addition to testing on-site in Geneva, N.Y., they also studied results from other sites, including cooperative field growing efforts by Herman Amberg of Clifton Springs, N.Y., and by John Brahm at Arbor Hill Grapery & Winery in Naples, N.Y. “Support from the wine industry was essential to the development of Traminette,” Reisch said.

Research was done on own-rooted vines, which were productive and vigorous regardless of the presence of phylloxera in the New York soils. In an interview, Reisch noted that the vines weren’t totally resistant to phylloxera, but New York’s cooler climate allowed them to grow without inhibition. He added, “Rootstocks can easily transmit crown gall,” another reason for planting on their own roots. Trials done at the NYSAES showed the vines to be moderately winter hardy, but on heavier soils, trunk injury occasionally occurred.

Early growth trials also considered how the vine would deal with phylloxera. In Michigan, Dr. Stan Howell and others at Michigan State University grew vines grafted onto 3309 rootstock but found such vines “were overly vigorous, with low productivity, excessive winter damage and crown gall,” according to NYSAES Bulletin 149. 

Reisch explained that even though Traminette is not totally resistant to phylloxera, in cool climates such as New York and Michigan, own-rooted stock seems to be a better choice. “We have learned that grafted rootstocks can easily transmit crown gall,” he said. Yet in warmer climates, planting on grafted rootstocks might be more successful. Trials also showed the cultivar to be moderately resistant to powdery mildew, Botrytis bunch rot and black rot. The foliage can be affected by downy mildew, but standard commercial spraying can control this issue. 

In New York, Traminette usually ripens during the first two weeks of October. Cornell trials showed higher sugars and lower pH than with fellow hybrid Cayuga White; they also found the variety did not quickly lose acidity as it reached ripening. “Growers would probably say that it is not overly productive but produces a sufficient crop to be economically viable, something in the 4-5 ton per acre range,” Reisch said. He also noted that if the vines are moderate in size, they can be planted more closely with 6-foot spacing to fully utilize the vineyard site. 

“I would say in New York you might want to go with closer spacing, but this might not apply in warmer climates, where phylloxera is more prevalent, or in Michigan where the soil is more prairie-like and fertile,” Reisch said.

On to Indiana
In 2010, Bordelon, a viticulture professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Purdue University, wrote Traminette Vineyard Management, which was published as Purdue Extension Bulletin FS-60-W, a part of the university’s Commercial Winemaking Production Series. Information from that publication is included here.

In 1992, Bordelon began trials with Traminette in three Indiana locations and also worked with commercial growers. He is still monitoring some of the trials in Lafayette, Ind., and has compiled almost 25 years of data. “Originally it was designed to see how (Traminette) would perform in different parts of the state,” Bordelon said. He explained that after about 10 years, Traminette’s cold-hardiness and growth patterns had been basically identified, yet would be challenged by severe winters yet to come.

In Indiana, this cultivar offers both better winter hardiness and greater tolerance for diseases than its vinifera parent. Normal winter low temperatures in the state do not cause much bud damage, and even with a severe low of -18° F at Lafayette in 2009, vines still averaged 50% live primary buds. By comparison, the same conditions resulted in only 10% live buds in Vidal. Following extreme cold exposure, “We make an adjustment in pruning severity,” Bordelon said, leaving more buds to improve sufficient shoot viability. Another positive is Traminette buds out an average of two weeks later than early budding cultivars such as Marechal Foch and Marquette, which helps to avoid possible spring frost damage. 

Trials have shown that, when planted on their own roots, the vines have relatively high vigor in a wide range of soil types in the state. However, deep, fertile and well-drained soils can produce excess vigor, leading to fruit shading in the canopy and resulting in lower fruit quality. Bordelon noted that the proper development of Traminette’s monoterpenes, the aromatic compounds, depends upon good exposure to sunlight. If the fruit is grown in heavier shade, the monoterpene content can be cut in half.

The right training system for Traminette depends on vineyard site characteristics. For sites with low to moderate vigor, Purdue’s research showed that mid-wire cordon or cane training works best, combined with vertical shoot positioning (VSP) for easier leaf removal and improved sunlight exposure on the fruit. The cultivar’s upright shoot growth works well with VSP but can allow increased vegetative vigor depending on the soil. Bordelon suggests beginning the first leaf removal only three to four weeks after fruit set, allowing the new fruit to gain a tougher cuticle by sun exposure earlier in the growing season. As growth continues, lateral shoots can develop in the cluster zone, necessitating additional leaf removal. However, only “touch-up” removal should be done post-véraison.

High-vigor sites with richer soil types, as found in the Midwest, can be best served by employing a standard high-cordon system. This will position the shoots downward, reducing their vigor. This system often requires more canopy management to allow for good fruit exposure. These high-vigor sites can be managed by using divided canopy training, such as Geneva Double Curtain or vertically divided Scott Henry or Smart-Dyson systems.

In addition to the proper training system, canopy management is very important for fruit quality. With north-south row plantings, leaf removal needs to be done on the east side only for good fruit exposure. Excessive leaf removal, particularly on the canopy’s west side, can cause fruit to be sunburned. If high-cordon training is used, some leaf removal at the top can also be beneficial.

The next fruit quality determinant is the management of the crop load. Bordelon determined that cluster thinning is usually not needed for Traminette, except on young vines in their second and third leaf years. This is due to the basic fruitfulness of the cultivar, which is less than most hybrids. In their trials at numerous sites, yields averaged 12-20 pounds per vine, based upon vines sized at 2-3.5 pounds of pruned canes per vine. This translates to a crop load ratio (yield to pruning weight) of 6 to 10, which is thought to be an ideal range.

Vines in the Purdue trials averaged 1.4 clusters per shoot, with average weights of 0.25 to 0.32 pounds per cluster. A way to balance yield and vine vigor is to try to attain a pruning formula of 20 + 20, thus a vine with 2 pounds of pruned canes would be balanced by 40 buds. “Those buds would produce 40 shoots each with about 0.35 to 0.40 pounds of fruit clusters, leading to a yield of 14 to 18 pounds per vine, and a crop load ratio of 7 to 9,” Bordelon noted in the bulletin. Translated to tons per acre, one can expect a yield range of 3-4 tons per acre in Indiana, depending upon site. As done with other cultivars, short shoots are best removed or fruit stripped, in order to get higher fruit quality. 

It was also observed that Traminette occasionally had poor fruit set, and Bordelon could not point to any particular scientific cause. “It’s not so common that it’s a major concern,” he said. Due to the randomness of this problem, decisions on cluster thinning are best delayed until fruiting is finished and size of the clusters is known. 

A final consideration is for pest management. The trials showed Traminette to be “relatively tolerant” of most common grape diseases, but an effective spray program would ensure vine health and the quality of the fruit. A source for spray recommendations is Purdue Extension Publication ID-169, Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide.

This cultivar sometimes develops downy mildew and, less often, powdery mildew. Generally, it is reasonably free of black rot and Botrytis cinerea fruit rot, but is more affected by Phomopsis viticola, which causes Phomopsis cane and leaf spot, and can lead to fruit rot. Bordelon said, “It clearly is something growers need to be aware of,” explaining that a consistent early spray program can help keep the problem under control. He added, “It’s more of a warm-climate disease, like in the Midwest,” and not much of a problem in areas like the Finger Lakes.

Crown gall has been observed, while phylloxera has not yet led to vine decline in Indiana. If it does develop, however, a common approach would be to plant on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. This would exacerbate any vine vigor problems, which can be managed by the aforementioned trellising and pruning techniques. Winter kill can affect grafted vines if the union is not protected for the first two or three years by heavy mulching or hilling/burying the vine base. Own-rooted vines are able to regrow from the ground after a severe winter freeze, however. 

In Indiana, Traminette is mid- to late-ripening, with average harvests ranging from Sept. 2 in the south (Vincennes) to Sept. 23 in the north (Lafayette). Fruit quality requires sufficient hang time, and earlier in the season good sunlight exposure. As harvest is near, pest and disease pressure should be closely watched, and as with most cultivars, weather can be a final determinant of harvesting. 

In addition to the conditions above, berry color assessment can be vital for Traminette’s distinctive aroma. The high concentration of monoterpenes, which provide character of apricots, peaches, roses, passion fruit and pears, is provided by sufficient exposure to sunlight. A light golden color of the grapes is indicative of high fruit quality, while shaded and green grapes at harvest are generally lower in flavor intensity. 

Fruit temperature at harvest is also important for the aroma compounds. Purdue recommends a fruit temperature below 65° F when the grapes arrive at the winery. Once the fruit temperature nears 80° F, it should be chilled prior to processing. This will not only preserve the fruit character but lessen any possible degradation from spontaneous fermentations, high stem and skin tannins, and the development of volatile acidity.

Although this article focuses on the growing of Traminette, the Purdue bulletin offers ranges of 22° Brix (+/- 2° Brix), juice pH of about 3.2 (+/- 0.2) and titratable acidity (TA) around 0.7% (7 g/L +/- 1 g/L).

Close to harvest, regular berry sampling and tasting of 200 random berries per site will also add to the assessment of ripeness. Purdue Extension also offers specifics with its Commercial Winemaker Production Series: Traminette Winemaking. 

Based on more than two decades of trials, Bordelon thinks the cultivar can provide consistently good wines in Indiana, particularly if proper vineyard management is employed to fit one’s specific vineyard site. Now that Traminette has been named Indiana’s signature wine, there appears to be statewide support for continued efforts. Thanks to research efforts at both Cornell University and Purdue University, the groundwork has been established, and it’s now in the hands of growers and vintners to continue to improve Traminette’s position in the American wine industry. 

Ray Pompilio is a wine writer based in Ithaca, N.Y. An avid follower of the Finger Lakes wine scene (and new grape varieties across the East and Midwest), Pompilio delights in finding new and interesting wines to write about and to taste.

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