Indigo blue, seedless and addictively tasty, Jupiter table grapes are being sampled by small flocks of consumers this fall. Those lucky enough to come across the first trial in select Costco and Metro stores in mid-September are picking the stand clean.
For Jourdan Tregunno and 86 fellow members of the Ontario Fresh Grape Growers’ Marketing Board (OFGGMB), hopes are high for the new entry of locally-grown table grapes that mature after the Sovereign Coronation crop finishes. Testing at 18° brix on September 13, Jupiter grapes represent an opportunity to extend the marketing window to the end of the month. That timing would be ideal for this snacking grape in school lunches.
“This grape tastes like candy,” says Tregunno. “We think this fresh grape should be marketed towards kids.”
Just two acres of Jupiter grapes were grown commercially this year, tucked away in a Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard owned by Tregunno Farms. Hesitant to commit too many resources into this new grape, Tregunno explains that it’s important to evaluate the agronomics and yield potential before expanding to a larger footprint. He was heartened by bud hardiness levels and winter survivability in both 2019 and 2020.
The variety development project, now in its fourth of five years, is under the umbrella of the OFGGMB. In the past, Sovereign Coronation grapes have represented the bulk of sales, but growers have realized that their sweet-and-sour flavour appeals to a loyal but niche market. Sales topped $5.1 million in 2019 and slipped to $3.8 million in 2020 under drought conditions, but growers aspire to better those farmgate values.
As David Hipple, chair, OFGGMB, says, “We found a different consumer in our taste studies. The Sovereign Coronation grape has a thick skin and tastes like a Concord. The Jupiter grape has a thin skin and is sweeter. I think Jupiter grapes are a pure growth opportunity without cannibalizing the market we have with Sovereign Coronation grapes.”
Current estimates are that Ontario’s fresh grapes earn just 1.8 per cent of the entire marketplace, with California imports dominating the category. Hipple calculates that doubling that market share is attainable if growers ramp up to 50 acres. To date, the limited supply of virus-tested budwood is crimping rapid expansion.
To borrow an old phrase, it takes a village to bring up a new project. Hipple acknowledges funding provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in partnership with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland). The first vines were planted at Vineland on June 10, 2014, but not before another company, Vinetech, had certified virus-free budwood from the U.S.
“Through scouting different breeding programs in both cool and warm climates around the world, I found the University of Arkansas as an option,” recalls Michael Kauzlaric, technology scout and grower outreach, Vineland. “Where their grape breeding is undertaken, winter temperatures may fall to -15°C.”
Kauzlaric noted several attributes: seedless, decent berry size, a harvest window that was different from Sovereign Coronation, good post-harvest quality and a positive consumer response from tastings. Before importing it for initial trials at Vineland, he tasted the grape on the vine.
It’s an interspecific seedless Muscat grape with the Muscat flavour emanating from a vitis vinifera variety and the seedlessness from a vitis labrusca variety. American researchers estimate a yield of eight to 13 tons per acre, but those numbers are yet to be tallied under this season’s Ontario growing conditions.
Besides Dr. John Clark, the University of Arkansas breeder, private breeders are investing in the lucrative table grape market. International Fruit Genetics, based in Bakersfield, California, launched several varieties in 2020 with fanciful names such as Bebop, Kokomo, Julep and Gracenote. Andy Higgins, CEO since 2016, predicts that grapes won’t be just red, green or black anymore, but tri-coloured. The company’s genetic pipeline is geared towards sweeter, snacking grapes.
In keeping with these trends, the OFGGMB has looked to other potential entries besides Jupiter. Sarah Marshall, general manager, OFGGMB, says that other imported varieties of seedless green, red and bi-colour grapes are currently in local trials.
To take these varieties to a younger demographic in the marketplace, packaging is an important consideration. For the Jupiter variety, the OFGGMB marketing committee and partners chose miDori Biosolutions. The 1.5 pound/680 gram stand-up pouch contains an organic additive that speeds up biodegradation in landfills. The packaging for Jupiter grapes contains a QR code at the bottom that leads consumers to its website.
All of these elements – breeding, propagating, trialling, growing, marketing and packaging – have coalesced to bring Jupiter table grapes to Ontario consumers. The story of the oval-shaped grape is still being crafted for kids and adults alike. A cluster would look totally in place on a charcuterie board surrounded by artisanal cheeses.
As of mid-September, the 2021 crop is looking so promising with heavy yields of 800 to 1000 cases (18 lb/case) per acrethat Tregunno would be happy to transition his block of Sovereign Coronation to the premium-priced Jupiter variety. If several growers jump to Jupiter, 50 acres would represent 50,000 cases and just under a million dollars of farmgate value. Only time will tell how fast those numbers can be achieved.
For his part, Tregunno has enlisted his 20-month-old to toddle into the vines.
“He knows what he wants,” says Tregunno. “He can’t get enough of them.”