(April 13, 4:30 p.m.) Florida agriculture scientists have developed a fresh grape variety that could help the state’s small grape industry.

The Gainesville, Fla.-based University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has released the “delicious” muscadine variety primarily as a fresh-eating grape.

The state likely has less than 1,000 grape acres, with 80% of production going to wine-making and U-pick operations, said Dennis Gray, professor and developmental biologist with the university’s Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, Fla.

Though Florida grapes are grown throughout the state, production is predominantly in central Florida and north to the panhandle, he said.

The newest muscadine variety, released in 2008 but publicized in a February horticultural publication, ripens in late August and produces fruit for two weeks into September.

“We selected it as a fresh fruit grape because of its eating characteristics,” Gray said. “This variety can be picked relatively early because it still has good sugar while it’s a little young. As it ripens, it becomes increasingly juicy. The early time-frame is important because of allowing a U-pick or any kind of production to start earlier and extend the overall muscadine grape picking season.”

Delicious might have a little more range to it because it tastes good when it’s not at its peak of ripeness, Gray said.

The young industry’s season runs July through early August on the bunched grapes, grown primarily for wine, and from August into September for the muscadine varieties, which have also been grown primarily for processing. Muscadines are grown primarily in the south.

Muscadines, which produce large, dark purple berries, have edible skins and are suitable for mechanical harvesting for wine use.

Kellie Thropp, a board member of the Florida Grape Growers Association, East Palatka, and co-owner of Log Cabin Winery, Satsuma, Fla., grows grapes sold primarily to commercial wine production.

Thropp has several rows of muscadines and sells some fresh fruit that can’t be harvested mechanically. She has one delicious vine.

“I understand for fresh fruit, it is phenomenal,” Thropp said.

She said her operation plans to propagate the variety or grow a limited quantity of it to sell as a fresh fruit.

Unfortunately, Thropp said she doesn’t see much of an immediate future for commercial shipments of Florida fresh grapes.

The market, she said, is higher for wine grape growing, especially with the state of the economy, which she said favors alcohol sales.

Though Florida’s grape deal remains a growing industry, other growers, such as Kathy Giller, co-owner of Grapes of Kath Vineyards in Sebring, Fla., said they don’t see much grower interest in fresh.

To improve muscadine marketability, Gray said researchers are working on genetic engineering technology to produce more seedless and rot-resistant varieties.

He said grower interest varies. When the citrus market begins to falter, Gray said growers begin inquiring about grapes. So far, he said he hasn’t heard of any large installation of fresh acreage.

Gray said the name delicious was chosen for the variety based on comments received from visitors to the research center’s vineyards.