On The Cutting Edge Of Grape Hybridization, SNFL’s Josep Estiarte Breaks Down The Nuances Of What Makes A Variety Successful
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 4, 2019
As one of the “Big Four” breeders, Josep Estiarte’s opinions carry weight. We owe him a lot as he recognized early the benefit to the industry of having the Global Grape Summit be a success, and he picked up the phone to encourage many key people in the buying sector to participate in the summit.
We are anxious to hear his perspective and asked Matthew Ogg, contributing editor at sister publications, PRODUCE BUSINESS and FreshFruitPortal.com, to gain insight as to what he might talk about as a panelist at the Global Grape Summit:
Special New Fruit Licensing (SNFL)
Q: Your company has been at the vanguard in bringing new cultivars to the market, including the well-known Sheehan Genetics varieties, so what have you found to be the key points for consumer preferences today?
A: We work in a hybridization and plant development program, so we see the film from the grower’s side and from the breeder’s side. However, we have a very close relationship with the final customer, which can be a retailer, an importer or a fruit trader.
From this point of view, over the years we have seen a transition from around five varieties originally to more than 50. Before, there were just Sugraones, Thompsons and Perlette in the whites; Flame and Crimson in the red; and in the blacks there were very few — Autumn Royal and later, Midnight Beauty.
I think what this flow of innovation has supported is greater consumption. In a way, we have managed to consolidate different sales lines in the market. We have achieved better consistency in the fruit from day to day, and this has meant the consumers are more satisfied today when they buy grapes than they were 10 years ago. That’s my perception.
Q: Has the definition changed about what constitutes a good grape, and has that triggered more competition?
A: Beforehand, the consumer was accustomed to neutral sweet grapes and a few others; some were more acidic, others less. But in the world of the seedless varieties, in truth the availability and the supply, I think, were a bit boring.
In contrast, we now have a very diverse range not just in flavor but in size, shape, crunchiness and the most important part — the new and improved flavors that have been appearing. What I think that has done is attract consumers who perhaps didn’t used to eat grapes.
But not everything that has gone to market in recent years has been good. There have been varieties that haven’t achieved success, and it has also created more competition. Amongst the growers who have access to the new varieties, it has created a competitive advantage over those who don’t.
Q: And what are the varieties that serve as the best examples for your company in that sense?
A: Within my company, we have a commercial collection of some 15 varieties, and that shows how far we’ve come compared to 10 years ago when they didn’t exist.
As examples, we have the late red variety Allison, and what’s that done is create an additional window for the growers with a very competitive and efficient variety, giving them an advantage in the market with a longer presence than they had before. In that way they have been able to reduce their fixed costs and at the same time be more important for the consumer.
In addition, they’ve been able to complement their plantings of Crimson while providing a more consistent product to the market in the late part of the campaign, which was always more critical with a variety that is also attractive for the consumer because of its size, crunchiness and appearance.
Another example would be our variety Timpson. Timpson is a mid-season white variety, replacing part of the Sugraone and Thompson, and it is an excellent variety. Timpson is much more fertile, it is easier to produce, and the consumer likes it much more for its flavor and freshness in the store.
Within the flavored varieties, there is the K2 or the Strawberry grapes, which are varieties in development that contribute different flavors; they are more niche varieties, but they find additional consumers who perhaps didn’t used to consume grapes. With their emergence we can attract new consumption.
Q: And have these been well received in various parts of the world, both in terms of growers and markets?
A: Yes. Our program today should be amongst the programs with the most hectares planted. Today, we have 22,000 hectares licensed in 16 countries, so we have a presence in practically all the modern grape-producing countries, to put it that way.
And the varieties have been working well in general; there are always exceptions, and there are countries where we are working to improve protocols and performance, but in general the acceptance has been very good; our varieties are known for being grower-friendly. They are varieties that contribute many efficiencies to the producer, but also they are very good for the final consumer because of their flavor, crunchiness and size.
I think in most cases we are meeting the expectations of our customers.
Q: And on that note, how do you see the trajectory for the future given the long time it takes to breed new grapes?
A: When Tim Sheehan (Sheehan Genetics) and other table grape breeders started to breed in the 80s, for them the objective was very easy, as they just had to improve a Crimson, a Superior or a Thompson. So, they almost had a “blue sky” — it was easier for them to develop varieties as there wasn’t much in the market.
Today with our new project, Grape Genesis, led by Juan Carreño, in truth the task for him is much more complex than what Tim Sheehan had in the 80s because he has to improve a market where there are more than 50 varieties, many of which are very good.
For our new program today, it is very clear to us that we cannot come to the market with varieties that are similar to what are in the market now, because what we’d then be doing is cannibalizing what we’ve done in the past. We are very focused in better genetics and in resistance to pests.
One of our main objectives is to develop grapes that have natural resistance, thus reducing dependency on pesticides and fungicides, and then we can develop a market for organics.
Another strong line is antioxidant-rich varieties; we are analysing the issue of antioxidants and nutrition in our genetic base very well.
Another line is for the diversity of flavors by combining different species of grapes. We are working with a lot of different species to be able to achieve that diversity of flavors where we believe there is an attractive market.
Those are our three main lines, and obviously they’re not exclusive to each other.
Q: The industry is changing very fast, and you are building what seems to be a bright future. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I think that sums up the situation we’re in. To achieve a new variety today you need to make more of an effort than in the past, and our program is very committed to that. It’s very strong, and we will start to launch the new varieties of I mentioned in 2020-21.
We listen to Josep, and we say “Wow, the grape industry really needs a Global Grape Summit!!!”
Fifty (50!) proprietary varieties and more coming down the pike paints a picture of the stone fruit industry that has suffered greatly from countless varieties. Tracking this is very hard even for industry players but, most importantly, it is impossible for consumers. And if consumers don’t actually have preferences, then growers will have great difficulty leveraging proprietary varieties to get higher prices from retailers.
If new varieties mostly offer horticultural benefits, then it is math as to whether the benefits will exceed the costs. You start to have larger wins if retailers start to value the taste and flavor, and so start preferring that variety in procurement, even instructing fresh-cut processors, for example, that they want fruit cups made with these preferred varieties. The big win, though, is when consumers want certain varieties and retailers feel compelled to carry them.
This brings us to the intersection of varietal development and branding — a bully subject for discussion at this year’s Global Grape Summit.
So come hear Josep. Come be part of the discussion… be part of this year’s Global Grape Summit and The London Produce Show and Conference.
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We look forward to engaging with you and important industry issues in London.