Choosing a grapevine varietal to plant in your backyard is just as important as deciding on a husband or wife. In fact, choosing a grapevine may be more important, as a grapevine’s average longevity (25-100 years) is more than twice the average length of a U.S. marriage (11.7 years). So while we tend to flirt, date and exclude mates for decades, we commonly choose a cultivar of winegrape based on a whim, a passion or a single recommendation.
Of course it’s important to grow something we like to drink, just as it’s important to be married to someone we love. So let’s talk about some grape varieties that would love the chance to date your backyard soil in the hopes of developing a long term relationship.
1. Traminette (white, dry to sweet):
What happens when Gewürztraminer marries an American? It makes beautiful, aromatic white wine that resists mildew and rot and declares its home in Indiana (the official state winegrape). With large berries and excellent yield, this is a no-brainer for the Midwest where rot and mildew can become problematic in V. vinifera. Some similar spicy, floral aromas to Gewürztraminer. A workhorse that can provide a barrel of white wine with relatively few vines (300–500), this should be a serious contender for every white wine vineyard in the Midwest.
2. Marechal Foch (red, light to extracted, dessert):
The parentage of the grape may be lost, but some think it was influenced by Riesling as well as some V. riparia and V. rupestris from North America. We are quite certain that it does very well in Ontario across to the Willamette Valley and throughout the Northeastern US, where it rarely takes longer than September to get fully ripe. The grape makes a juicy red wine that has been likened to Beaujolais when made in a balanced style, but because of small berry size and early ripening lends itself to making a big, extracted inky wine when left to hang and dimple, and some even make Port-like dessert wines from the “Foch.”
3. Norton (red, medium to full body):
I insist that I sit on the Norton panel at every wine competition I judge, because I am fascinated by this grape. If you live anywhere near Missouri and you have a vineyard that isn’t planted in Norton, I question your sanity. Special color compounds force a bit of extra blue/purple hue into the wines, and cause good depth of color in the glass. A very good choice for both Midwest and Eastern US plantings. The best Norton I’ve had was from Stone Hill Winery in Missouri, which placed 7th out of 20 California Cabernets tasted blind by wine professionals. Virginia also seems to do very well with Norton, which makes me think it could make good wine anywhere you can get it both dormant and ripe.
4. Chambourcin (red, medium-bodied):
Often made in an off-dry style that matches beautifully with high cacao chocolates, I prefer the bone-dry style of Chambourcin that gives the wine decent aroma intensity and complexity and a mouth weight equivalent to a Grenache or a light Syrah. Another miracle of Chambourcin is that it’s the only grape that produces colored (pink to red) juice. Recommended for the mid-Atlantic states. Seems to do very well from Southern New York through Virginia, but it is planted in Kentucky, West Virginia and in pockets throughout the Midwest and East Coast.
5. Vidal (white, aromatic, dry to sticky):
Making fruity, lovely wines with citrus, citrus blossom and tropical notes, Vidal makes one of my favorite dessert wines in the world (Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine), and also makes a lovely summer sipper as a dry wine. It does well from Ontario across that latitude to the Northeastern US.
6. Syrah (rosé to full-bodied red):
Best suited to areas with soil and climate that will limit the vine’s vigor. Syrah likes to grow. A lot. If you put Syrah in overly vigorous soil, it will take over your yard and produce weak and veggie rosé at the best. Prone to mildew and rot in the Northeast and South, the vine is moderately easy to grow on the West Coast. Large clusters yield good amounts of dark, rich wine and winemakers can easily bleed off enough juice to make some rosé and darken their red in the process. The northern Rhône, Eastern Washington and warm, arid parts of California seem to produce my favorite styles of Syrah. The new Ballard Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara County is also a rising star in Syrah production. Plan a trellis system that will harness the vigor of this turbo-charged vine.
7. Cabernet Franc (red, medium to full-bodied):
In all areas besides the Right Bank in Bordeaux, France and California’s Napa Valley, Knight’s Valley and Dry Creek Valley, I prefer Cabernet Franc to Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc just seems to be happier in more places, and produces a wine without as much pyrazine, or green bell pepper character, as Cabernet. If you are in an area where a lot of folks are growing and making decent Cabernet Sauvignon, I’d recommend you try the less popular, but often superior, Cabernet Franc.
8. Chenin Blanc (white, dry to sticky):
The most underappreciated noble white wine varietal, period. Almost all of the great Chenins today come out of the Loire Valley. Vouvray should be one of your go-to summer sippers. There isn’t much better than a dry, off-dry or even sparkling Vouvray. South Africa is also producing some excellent Chenin Blanc, but California seems to be hesitant to give the grape its proper legitimacy. Chappellet Winery in Napa is a brand that has never wavered in its support of Chenin Blanc. The grape has a great combination of sweetness and proper acid structure and can produce an excellent yield. It buds early and ripens late, and is quite susceptible to Botrytis, which can add honeyed, floral layers. Because of late ripening, green harvest in heavy yielding years may be required. New York, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, New Mexico, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Idaho all list wineries that produce Chenin, but outside the West Coast expect some challenges with disease and rot.
9. Baco Noir (red, light to medium body):
A French Cognac grape (Folle Blanche) meets Vitis riperia from Ontario, Canada and becomes a hybrid well suited for cold regions in the Northern Tier and across the border. It is resistant to cold and most diseases that would wreck a grape like Pinot Noir. Phylloxera can’t touch it, and it can stand very acidic soil, up to 5.0 pH. Popular in Canada and the Great Lakes region. Makes an acidic, smoky, low-tannin, caramel-flavored red wine often praised for balance and black fruit aromatics.
10. Chardonel (white, dry to off-dry):
Perhaps I should have recommended Seyval, one of the parents of Chardonel, as I love Seyval too. But take Seyval and cross it with Chardonnay, and you have a pretty cool grape that can make really nice vinifera-style wines in a lot of places Chardonnay would rot before it softened. It’s a good producer, is cold hardy and will show better disease resistance than vinifera. The wine is a bit more rich than most Seyval, and is often treated with malolactic and new oak in an attempt to make the wine more “Chard-like.” My favorite Chardonel is unoaked, well-structured with acid and bone dry. Quite a lovely white wine and if the vines are well balanced, the yield will keep you sipping all summer long.
11. Pinot Noir (red, rosé to full-bodied):
The most finicky grape in the world! Pinot Noir is not difficult to grow, it’s just nearly impossible to find the places where it amazes. Plant it outside its comfort zone and it becomes thin and insipid, full of petrol, leather and dill pickle aromas. It may be the most climate-sensitive crop in the world. My advice is this: if no one within five miles of you grows great Pinot Noir, leave it alone. If you still want to know what it takes to grow this heartbreak grape, go read two years of my travails with my viticultural vixen, the red Pinot grape (http://www.winemakermag.com/blogs/blogger/listings/wes-hagen).
12. Chardonnay (white, sparkling, dry and sticky):
The question that came to my mind when trying to define Chardonnay is this: “What is Chardonnay when stripped of winemaker affectation and regional character?” It’s a bit of a ghost. I do a lot of stainless steel fermentation of Chardonnay, and find in some years it acts like Chenin Blanc (crisp and minerally), some years like Sauvignon Blanc (gooseberries and malic acid), and some years it completely confounds me. How can such an overplanted and over-commercialized winegrape be simultaneously maligned, overwrought, rare and perfect? A Grand Cru Chablis or Montrachet is arguably the greatest white wine in the world, and a boxed Chardonnay from the grocery store arguably the worst. It definitely shows site, prefers cooler climates and growing regions and is massively susceptible to mildew and Botrytis. It’s not an easy grape to grow, and pretty good wines can be had for $10 at the supermarket, so unless you want to learn how to put clothes on a white wine, you can probably do better in your backyard vineyard with another white grape.
13. Riesling (white, dry to sticky):
Next to Chardonnay the second most noble white wine varietal in the world. Riesling, known for being produced in cool regions like Alsace, Germany and Austria, has also shown great promise in slightly warmer areas like Oregon, Santa Barbara, Monterey and even Temecula. Even though you might expect me to dissuade you in planting Riesling, you would be mistaken. I actually believe this grape can make good wine in a lot of places it hasn’t been planted in the United States. Northern Michigan and the Finger Lakes of New York are producing world-class Riesling, and in Canada the winemakers of Ontario have the Riesling formula down pat.
14. Cabernet Sauvignon (red, medium to full-bodied):
Late budding and late ripening, this red grape needs heat and a long, dry fall to fully mature. Unripe, the grapes can make very green and hard wines. Fully ripe, the wine can be opulent, rich, opaque with monumental concentration and persistence. While not as picky or as difficult as Pinot Noir, Cabernet does require proper soil and climate to make a great wine. Cabernet is practically the state grape of California, but also does very well in the warmer AVAs of Oregon and Washington states, as well as palatable wines being produced in Arizona, Texas, Virginia and New York.
15. Sauvignon Blanc (white, usually dry):
One of two white grapes used in the production of White Bordeaux and Sauternes (the other being Sémillon), Sauvignon Blanc is a traditional blending grape from the Old World that has found its voice as a soloist in the New World, especially in the Napa Valley, New Zealand, and most recently the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA. Sancerre, a great white of the Loire, is usually 100% Sauvignon Blanc as well. The “Sauvignon” of both Cab and Blanc means “savage” or “wild,” and even though it may describe the vine’s forested origins, they both show a lot of wild aromas. Sauvignon Blanc is known for aromas that lay on top of bright, green apple and citrus: Serrano chile, unripe tomato, grass and gooseberry. These are all echoes of the grape’s pyrazine compounds and are more pronounced in the wines grown in cooler climates like New Zealand. Viticulturally, Sauvignon Blanc offers some advantages. It buds late to avoid frost, but ripens quite early, which opens it up to many regions that fear fall rain or hail. Besides California, Sauvignon Blanc has shown solid performance in Washington State, the Okanagan Valley in Canada and the Niagara Peninsula.