Walking in among the rows of more than a 100-varieties of cold-hardy kiwis planted at his UNH observational vineyard, Professor Iago Hale says forget those fuzzy brown kiwis, if you really want flavor, try his plants.
“Right off the bat you’re dealing with a much, much sweeter fruit, but it’s not cloyingly sweet,” he says squinting against the morning sun, “It also has a lot of acid to it, so it has this really complex flavor to it, a lot of tropical kind of flavors: pineapple, mango, papaya – I mean they’re amazing!”
These kiwis are green, about the size of a grape or a little smaller, and have smooth edible skin. Hale is working to tame this plant, which is still essentially wild, because he believes could be the next big thing in the fresh fruit industry.
Cold hardy kiwis – a smaller but sweeter relative of the fuzzy kiwi you’re familiar with – could maybe thrive even in New Hampshire’s North Country. But for all the enthusiasm, plenty of hurdles remain before these tiny kiwis are ready for the lime-light.
Hale first tried one when he was in grad school in California.
“Our instructor was saying, yeah these are kiwis, and I’m like ‘oh my god, kiwis! I’ve never seen anything like that!’ and I just popped one in my mouth and it was just…” he pauses, and his voice is almost emotional, “you just wonder how can you be on a planet for three decades and no one just ever tell you that there’s something like that out there. It was just really upsetting.”
Hale is quickly laughing again. “It’s not like you can go in a market and buy them!”
That’s because they are not a widely commercially grown berry. Only one farm in Pennsylvania grows them at scale.
Hale is on a quest to change that. His project has been going now for three years, so it’s really just a baby.
“They’re still basically wild-plants, they’re semi-domesticated at best. We’re maybe 2 or 3 generations from a wild-plant in central and northern china,” he explains.
But this is the first year some of his vines are bearing fruit. These kiwis – which are coming to be known as kiwi berries – can grow in poor soils, they are tough, and they produce a delicious product. In particular, he thinks this plant could become a cash-crop in the North Country, since it thrives all the way into Siberia
He says, they’re “certainly not scared of the winters that we have, the plants will survive, the question is how will those hard winters affect fruit production.”
Those fruits are sweeter than grapes and sweet enough to make wine even.
“Our kiwi wine is probably our third or fourth best-selling wine. In fact we’re continuing each year to purchase more kiwis,” says Bob Manley, one of the owners Hermit Woods Winery in Meredith.
He buys his kiwi berries from that one farm Pennsylvania, and says while some wine-snobs turn up their nose at fruit wines, he can convert anyone who tries them.
“It’s sort of akin to a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, so it has a lot of the style and character you might be familiar with to a more traditional grape wine, but using a berry that grows in this area,” Manley says, “and grows quite well actually, grows organically.”
But to bring this fruit into production, first horticulturists like Hale have to find a variety that bears a lot of fruit, and has less vine: right now some varieties can grow 20 feet a year.
“But I think as soon as we make the headway that I expect we will, this is gonna be huge,” Hale says, sweeping his hands out in a grand gesture.
So keep your eyes peeled, New Hampshire, for kiwi berry vines in Colebrook.