Spring picnics are back on the menu as the weather heats up, but the grapes you’re filling your picnic baskets with at the moment are likely from overseas.
The Australian climate sees table grapes in peak production between November and May, but new research from the CSIRO hopes that could move to year-round production in the future.
About 20 years ago scientists discovered a dwarfing gene in an old French champagne variety, Pinot Meunier.
And now from bottles to tables, the CSIRO is using that gene to develop new grape varieties to grow in Australian conditions all year round.
Small genes, big gains
The new dwarf varieties are small enough to be grown in a pot, but they will yield the best results for commercial growers in a hydroponic setup.
“Unless you’re living in the tropics, it will still go through a dormancy period as a normal grapevine would do,” the CSIRO’s Dr Ian Dry said.
The dwarfing gene sees the microvine skip its juvenile stage and fruit much earlier than many current grape varieties, and for longer.
“It now goes from seed to fruit within six months, whereas a normal grapevine would take two to three years,” Dr Dry said.
“Most grapevines produce only one or two bunches at the base of a growing shoot, whereas a microvine shows flowering and fruiting continuously along that shoot.
With the mutation coming from a wine grape, these new varieties do not taste like what we are used to on the fruit platter.
“It has small berries, it has seeded berries, and it’s not a taste that one would normally associate with table grapes,” Dr Dry said.
Work over the past four years to change that is progressing well, with the CSIRO now looking for commercial-scale greenhouses to expand the research and move one step closer to releasing the new variety to Australian growers.
Reduced reliance on juicy imports
In 2019, Australia’s table grape exports tipped $500 million with Asia one of our biggest buyers, but through the cooler months, much of what’s on our supermarket shelves is imported.
“From about June up to [nearly] December again we rely entirely on imports, mainly from the United States, because we can’t produce those grapes locally,” Dr Dry said.