The choice of new, high-quality dessert apple varieties suitable for production in northern Europe is increasing apace and they promise to displace some of the well-established varieties.
Many are premium club varieties such as Pink Lady. But even the free ones appear to be good enough to compete successfully at retail level with any currently grown on a significant scale.
Belgian nurseryman Florent Geerdens, whose company produces trees of some of the new varieties and has good knowledge of most of the others, says that on the continent the most widely-planted and well-established varieties are Gala, Braeburn, Jonagold, Golden Delicious and Elstar. But, as in the UK, "their prices are under pressure".
This begs the question of whether the new varieties will help improve consumer demand and thus prices. That will certainly happen if the club types emulate Pink Lady, which has consistently made a healthy premium over the likes of Gala, Braeburn and Cox in the supermarkets.
Geerdens, whose company Rene Nicolai produces one million fruit trees a year and 1.2 to 1.5 million rootstocks, spoke highly of a number of the new club varieties at Agrovista's spring fruit seminar, which was held in Ashford, Kent, on 25 February.
These new club varieties include Evelina, a sport of Pinova, which is a German type managed by the Italian Feno Group and its German owner. Evelina is called Pinata in the USA, where it's been selling for $450/bin compared with $250/bin for Pink Lady.
Everything to do with the variety is controlled by brokers, usually one in each country where it's grown, explains Geerdens. In the UK the broker is Empire World Trade. Nobody else in the broker's area can grow or market the variety.
"Brokers take all the fruit (Evelina) from their area but if necessary they can take it from elsewhere too," he says. "They agree a price that supermarkets have to pay if they want the variety. They control the quantity, which they restrict to what the market can absorb at the agreed price."
The role of brokers
Geerdens explains: "One of the brokers' main roles is to promote the variety and create consumer demand. They can also control illegal production. The growers who want to plant the variety need to know whether their broker is doing a good enough job."
Evelina seems to have much in its favour, with the ability to compete successfully with the world's best varieties. It is a red apple with a very attractive, distinctive appearance and excellent internal quality, including dense flesh and a sweet-acid flavour.
"The variety has very good long-term storage potential and an outstanding shelf life unlike some varieties that go soft after 10 days," claims Geerdens. "It produces fruit of consistently high quality and yield and picking for us is late September, like Golden Delicious. Unlike Jonagold, it has a long harvest window."
He believes that it's very grower-friendly - with low susceptibility to disease, particularly scab, making it suitable for organic production. However, it may have an issue with mildew and does tend to produce bare wood after planting so "we don't want branches to get too long in the nursery".
Although its bloom is not particularly susceptible to frost damage, it can produce secondary bloom early in the orchard's life - making fireblight infection possible. However, if infection does occur it does not appear to spread into the wood, which remains green, indicating resistance.
Geerdens' company is involved in an international joint venture enterprise, Prevar, for commercialising new varieties developed by Pipfruit New Zealand. They are all Royal Gala/Braeburn crosses, including Sweetie, a variety that's already in production and is being propagated by Nicolai.
"The breeders decided that Sweetie should not be a club variety because it came just after Jazz (which is) and they don't want every variety to be a club variety," maintains Geerdens. "If you are a Gala grower this one could be a possibility because it's a Gala lookalike, conical in shape with a yellow-green background and 70 per cent striped red colour. But it's got more of Braeburn's firmness with a crisp, juicy texture and a full sweet sub-acid flavour."
The variety is late-flowering but matures about five days earlier than Royal Gala and has a similar yield. It produces large fruit, though, and has a very short harvest window.
Prevar is developing a number of other very promising selections under the Prema name. They include Prema 17 that's been licensed to the T17 Group comprising a number of New Zealand companies and being trialled in many countries. England is not yet among them but it will be soon.
Prema 17 has the same picking window as Gala and very good storage potential and shelf life, says Geerdens. Its eating quality differs from Gala's in that it has a full acid-sweet flavour and "stunning" crunchiness.
Another member of the group is Prema 153, which picks a little after Gala and unlike the others its fruit is bright yellow with an attractive pink blush. It's very firm and crunchy with a sweet-acid flavour and very good storage potential and shelf life.
Geerdens reckons that the third Prema selection, 193, will have very wide consumer appeal. Along with 17, 153 and Sweetie, it's being trialled in the Wisbech area this season.
He is very enthusiastic about the exciting potential consumer appeal of Wellant, owned by Inova Fruit - a Dutch co-operative consortium. It's unusual in being partly a club variety to keep its price up for growers serving supermarkets but free for those selling direct to the public such as farm shops.
"Wellant is what I call a hybrid model," he says. "It (naturally) has a little bit of russeting but this is being promoted as such as a marketing tool. It's really a connoisseur's apple with a nice, high sugar-acid balance. It's best suited for growing in north-west Europe including the UK but not in hotter, drier climates."
The variety requires very little pruning and, thanks to its large average fruit size, minimal thinning, which is one reason why it's popular among Dutch growers. It has a very good yield potential of 50 to 60 tonnes per hectare and, somewhat expectedly for a dessert apple, it's good for culinary use, Geerdens points out. However, one cultural shortcoming is that it has a bare wood problem.
For growers wanting something unusual or unique in apples, red-fleshed varieties might be suitable - but they are not likely to be available for five years or so, he predicts. They are being developed in New Zealand from a chance red-fleshed seedling. Initial (F1) crosses with commercial types produced around 10,000 seedlings but they had poor flavour and eating quality. Back crosses were done and some of the resulting 3,000 (F2) red-fleshed selections are expected to be much better in these respects.
Nicolai also has a significant interest in cherries because about 10 per cent (or 100,000 trees) of its output is cherries. Geerdens says that some continental growers plant only two varieties, Kordia and Regina, but their picking season covers only two to three weeks when supermarkets and other retail outlets really want continuity of supply for nine weeks, from 1 June to 31 July.
To start the season, he recommends as the main varieties (excluding pollinators) Berlat and Earlise, which are not grown in England, and Merchant, which is, for week two. This is followed by Samba for week three, then Summit and Canada Giant, another one we don't grow whose fruit he reckons is "more red when we want black".
For the fifth week he recommends Kordia and for the sixth, seven and eighth Lapins and Skeena, Regina and Sweetheart. Finding a suitable late variety for week nine proved difficult until the recent availability of the Canadian-bred Staccato - "unique for its lateness and the first club cherry variety". As yet, English growers are not allowed to plant it - probably because the Canadians regard the UK as a good market for their late fruit, Geerdens suggests.
He points out that the self fertile variety Lapins can have a rotting problem due to over-setting, particularly if it's on Gisela 5 rootstock. Gisela 6 might be a better choice, he says. Continental growers are beginning to plant two Australian clones of Lapins, Simone and Sweet Giorgia, the latter ripening 10 to 14 days later than Lapins.
The introduction of Gisela rootstocks some 20 years ago relaunched the cherry industry, he maintains. Although they require a larger investment than Colt, it pays off in higher returns. For example, trials show that Colt planted at 680 trees/ha produced 7kg of fruit/tree to give a return of EUR4,550/ha at EUR3/kg. In contrast, Gisela 5 planted at 1,200 trees/ha produced 10kg/tree worth EUR36,000/ha.