Dozens of red kiwifruit cultivars are being trialed at farms around New Zealand in the hope of finding one that can emulate the huge success of Zespri SunGold.
A joint breeding program run by the country’s single-desk marketer and Plant & Food New Zealand has selected around 50 of the most promising cultivars.
Hopes are that one will be ready for commercial release in a few years, according to Zespri operations manager for kiwifruit new cultivar development Bryan Parkes.
Parkes said while red kiwifruit had been around in the market for a while, the program was aiming to develop a variety with unique characteristics including superior flavor and resistance to Psa.
“Zespri’s looking to produce the world’s best kiwifruit, and to do that you need the world’s best kiwifruit cultivars,” he told Fresh Fruit Portal.
He said around NZ$25 million was invested annually into the global breeding program, which has tens of thousands of potential cultivars. The breeders go through a number of stages for the evaluation.
In the search for a new red cultivar, the team began crossing wild red selections with non-red genetics.
“We’ve got a gold program breeding program which is also the same species, and so we cross those amazing quality gold genetics with the red genetics and start to combine the traits,” he said.
The seedlings with the most promising characteristics are selected for testing at different locations throughout the country. The best performers from those are then trialed with about 40 growers throughout the country, Parkes explained.
“That’s the stage we’re at now,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean any of them will necessarily be good enough, as the standards are extremely high. If it doesn’t work you just have to go back and find some more boats to put in the race.”
He pointed out that Zespri had been close to a potential commercial release a few years ago, but found out the hard way that the cultivar was susceptible to the Psa, which greatly affected the industry after its arrival in 2010.
Resistance to the vine disease is therefore one of the key characteristics sought in the program.
In terms of taste, Parkes explained there was nothing stereotypical about a red kiwifruit flavor. In fact, there is a plethora of flavors of chose from, including raspberry, melon, and even tamarillo.
“Part of our selection criteria is what flavor should we select for the market, and of course it’s a flavor that the consumers would want and would find amazing,” he said.
“The second is we don’t want to go giving the consumer the same flavor and eating experience that they can get in a gold or a green, with the only difference being the color.
“So the key is having a different flavor fruit with a color indicator. Ultimately, people don’t buy for the color, they buy for the flavor.”
As with the taste, the representative said there was no such thing as a standard-looking red cultivar from the outside. But he pointed out as they were the same species as the gold there were generally smoother than the green varieties.
The breeders are now in the process of narrowing down the cultivars that are in the more advanced trials to what would be the commercially viable ones.
“You can’t count your chickens until they hatch, but we’ve got some ones that look very promising and we’re optimistic,” Parkes said.
“You can find a fatal flaw a long way down the pipeline, which is frustrating. The challenge, though, is it’s got to meet all of our criteria for a Zespri-brandable product, which is high.
“The key is having lots of boats in the race – some sink, but you’ve still got some others that can get across the finish line.”
In terms of markets, he said the cultivar selected in the future was likely to be received particularly well in Asian markets like China, where the color red symbolizes good luck and fortune.
Parkes added there would be a high level of interest from growers in a new commercial kiwifruit release, given the strong success of previous releases.
He says a red kiwifruit cultivar could undoubtedly do as well as SunGold, which is seeing phenomenal growth in production and demand.
“The reason that Zespri SunGold is doing well is because the consumers love it, and that comes down to its flavor, eating experience and that we can get consistent quality fruit into the market,” he said.
“If we can do the same with the red, I think it can be easily as large, and potentially even more desirable in the Asian markets.”
Photos: Courtesy of Zespri