Pick Your Grapes

Somewhere, buried deep within the psyche of almost everyone who makes his own wine, there is a grape grower trying to get out. As someone who once successfully ripened Seyval Blanc grapes grown in a whiskey half-barrel set in the window, I feel your pain. While it is technically possible to pull off a viticultural stunt under such daunting circumstances, it is obviously easier if you have an acre of land, or maybe just a little extra room in your yard.

If, after your friends have stopped laughing at your eccentricity, and all the pitfalls regarding climate, soil and so on have been considered, you are still determined to produce your own wine from the ground up, the following is an introductory guide to learning how to select the optimal varieties to try in your area. Assuming you’ve chosen a patch of ground that seems viable, should those vines be classic Vitis vinifera winegrapes, one of the hardy French-American or other hybrids, or some useful native variety? What are the climate and soil needs of the vines you select? And how does one go about gathering all the information needed to select the varieties of grapes that offer the best possibility of success in growing and producing a wine that you want to drink? The journey begins with the first step, and that is researching whether viticulture is even feasible where you live. Many areas of North America can, with a little ingenuity, produce grapes that will enable you to proudly say you produced your wine from the vine to the bottle.

Assessing Your Climate

There are at least 6,000 cultivated varieties of grapes, and who knows what other furtive vines may be lurking  in the hinterlands of Asia or in the test vineyard of a university? With such a vast variety of vines, it should be clear that the climates and soil types that will support viticulture are many. The issue for you as a budding viticulturist (pun intended) is to determine what your specific climate considerations are, and whether the soil is suitable for vine growth. To make things even more confusing, there are normally several answers to these questions, and within one generalized area there are many microclimates whose conditions may vary widely from the norm.

In any event, one should first determine the length of the growing season in your area. Some grapes, such as Riesling, Aurora, Foch or Pinot Noir, are very early-ripening, even in 100 days or so, but a good rule of thumb is a 140-day growing season on average. By consulting almanacs, local farmers, university extension services and the like, one can arrive at a figure for the growing season of the vineyard. For example, if one lives along the Front Range of Colorado, one can expect a 90- to 150-day growing season, while in the Finger Lakes of New York or along the Missouri River in Nebraska, it might be 150 to 180 days. When one looks at lists of grape varieties, there is normally an indication of whether the grape is early (130 days or less), early midseason (150 days), midseason (170 days), late midseason (180 days) or late (200 days plus). If your area has a short growing season, you would be wise to select from the earlier ripening varieties, while if you live where the season is long and the climate mild, you can consider later season types.

Obviously, if you are a great lover of the austerely dry, mineral-clean Chardonnays of France’s Chablis district (which is quite cool, and thus suited for an early season variety like Chardonnay), but you live in the desert Southwest, you will have to make a choice. Since you won’t be making a Chablis look-alike, you’ll either have to be content with attempting a big, ripe, buttery Chardonnay in the California style, or eschewing Chardonnay for a different grape variety that may ripen late season, yet yield a fairly light, clean wine, such as the hybrid Galibert 261-13. If your season is extremely short — if you live in the northern tier of states, much of Canada, or at altitudes over about 5,500 to 6,000 feet — your choices may be limited to only a few winter-hardy varietals that may still need to be taken down from their trellises and buried each winter. One commercial concern north of Denver, Colorado has even gone to the fantastic expense of installing pipes for circulating warm water to the vine roots in winter in their vineyard — but few have the means for that sort of thing. What is best is to determine your limitations and choose accordingly.

Precipitation, both in the form of rain during the growing season and snow during winter, is also important in choosing a grape variety. Some grapes are more tolerant of dry conditions, while others thrive in moist, humid conditions that would cause most grapes to mold. Thus, the muscadine family is quite at home in the wet and humid parts of the American South, while many Vitis vinifera may produce only sadly molded bunches. In general, vines like at least 20 inches (50 cm) of moisture annually, which can of course be the result of both natural precipitation and irrigation. Ideally, much of this occurs during the dormant season, with little or no rain during the final ripening period of the grapes. In some cases, even less moisture is adequate; one must observe growth patterns and adjust accordingly.

Climate is also affected by the proximity of bodies of water, which can moderate temperature and protect against spring frosts, or by hilly or mountainous terrain, which causes the cooler air to slide into the lower areas, making hillside vineyards less frost-prone. Thus, cooler conditions may be mollified by a longer season, even in areas so far north that viticulture seems tenuous.

Another way of looking at grape selection and growing conditions is the heat summation method pioneered by Winkler et. al. at the University of California at Davis. This method totals the heat available to a vine during its growing season (in California, April through October) by calculating the “degree-days” above 50° F during that period. For example, one day at 70° F equals 20 degree-days, while one day at 94° F equals 44 degree-days. At the end of the season, you add up the degree-days to get the total. The state of California was then divided into five regions by this method: Region I (2,500 degree-days or less), Region II (2,501-3,000 degree-days), Region III (3,001-3,500 degree-days), Region IV (3,501-4,000 degree-days), and Region V (over 4,000 degree-days).

For those living in California, or in other established Vitis vinifera  growing regions, this method is commonly used to select varieties whose best characteristics are derived from growing in cooler or warmer conditions. Thus, Riesling is very happy in Region I, with cooler weather akin to its German homeland, while Zinfandel, which seems to have originated in southern Italy, likes the warmer conditions of Regions II-IV.

In selecting vines for your area, it should prove useful to do some heat summation research as well as traditional growing season analysis. It may be that a shorter but more intense growing season will facilitate varieties that, on the basis of growing season alone, might seem inappropriate. In addition, the availability of sunlight to the vines by correctly positioning the rows of vines can reduce the harsher effects of colder conditions and avert some problems with molds and other vine diseases.

Understanding Your Soil

Grapes can be grown successfully in many soil types, and amendments can be added that may alleviate any extreme conditions. Native varieties like somewhat more acidic soils (low pH), hybrids fairly neutral soils, and vinifera prefer slightly alkaline soils (higher pH), but clonal research is making changes to these generalizations almost annually. In general, grapes like a well-drained, sandy or gravelly loam. The old saw that “vines don’t like wet feet” is important to follow, and gravelly or rocky soil can hold the sun’s heat longer.

In most cases, the type of rootstock selected for the vines can compensate for soil difficulties. (Rootstock is a hardy grape root to which the fruiting vine is grafted.) In general, nearly all vinifera or hybrid vines are grafted onto rootstocks selected for disease resistance, adaptability to specific soils, winter hardiness and the like. For example, rootstocks with some American Vitis riparia heritage can grow well even in heavier wet soils. It is worth noting that excessively rich soil will not produce the best grapes; most famous vineyard areas of the world have relatively sparse soils. Excessively acidic or alkaline soils can be corrected by adding limestone or sulfur and gypsum, respectively, or by selecting rootstocks for the vines which are known to thrive under such conditions. For example, Solonis x-Riparia 1616 is adapted to acidic soils, and Dogridge and Salt Creek are both useful in alkaline soils as rootstocks. By having your soil tested for pH and other factors by a qualified private laboratory or state or county agricultural extension office, it will be possible to determine what amendments are needed and in what quantities, and to select appropriate rootstocks as well.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that, if the climate is suitable, soil can often be brought into line fairly easily.  Thus, if you find that your growing season is adequate, it should be possible to grow grapes in many locations. The key is finding the best grape type for your area, and in being willing to go to the trouble of cultivating it.

One sensible step is to locate any wineries in your area, or other home winemakers who grow their own grapes, and talk to them and hopefully try their wines. This will give you a reasonable idea of what the parameters are. If you really don’t like what they are doing, you may decide to stick with the good old California grapes that arrive by boxcar each fall, or better yet, to plant several varieties experimentally and perhaps find a better solution. You may also be willing to go the extra mile on vineyard care (although maybe not to the point of putting in plumbing!) that will enable you to successfully grow varieties never seen in your area before. It may well be that your location, even if close to other vineyards, has rather different conditions, and you may be able to break new ground in your area, while making wines that you can really enjoy.

Native, Hybrid or Vinifera?

Once you’ve decided that you want to try growing your own wine from the ground up, and your research about the climate, soil and other growing conditions is in hand, you are ready to begin narrowing the selection of grape varieties down from the rather daunting 6,000-plus types mentioned above. A first step is to decide whether native North American varieties, hybrid grapes developed either here or abroad, or classic Vitis vinifera  grapes (or a combination) are in order.

In many climate zones of North America, some varieties from each of the three groups will be possible, but some brief notes about each will help you decide. Again, it is important to select grapes that will make wines you really enjoy, unless of course you are willing to make some compromises in return for the satisfaction of at least being able to grow grapes that produce wine at all. A row of vines in springtime flower, or as the leaves color in the fall, is a thing of beauty on its own, so you may be willing to forego that red Bordeaux for a light dry white that your climate will support.

Native American Vines:

You may recall that the Vikings, arriving in North America in the Middle Ages, called the new discovery Vineland. Native vines of several families thrive in many parts of North America, and while many are better as table grapes or raccoon fodder, some can, with a little help, make palatable table wines. In addition, these vines are hardy against such devastating diseases as phylloxera and Pierce’s Disease, which may make them more suitable in some regions — as well as useful for rootstocks that will make other varieties hardy enough to grow in areas where previously they would not have lasted a season. Indeed, the phylloxera resistance of native American vines essentially saved the European vineyards from total devastation in the nineteenth century by grafting classic Vitis vinifera vines onto American rootstocks.

The best-known of these grapes are the Vitis labrusca family, found originally in New England and westward, with the good old Concord the most famous of the lot. Generally, with apologies to most of our grandmothers and their sweetened kosher Concord wines, labrusca grapes tend to be rather insufficient for winemaking without adjustment, and mostly have a pronounced foxy aroma that many wine lovers do not enjoy. A quick way to experience “foxiness” would be to compare the aroma of a glass of Concord grape juice with the vinous aroma of a glass of Cabernet. The difference is apparent, and fermentation will not remove the foxy quality of labrusca grapes. On the other hand, some do enjoy this distinctive aroma, and the grapes are notably resistant to cold. In addition, some labrusca varieties have much less foxiness, or have naturally crossed with other grape families to produce “natural” hybrids that have been used with success in winemaking. A few of these are Catawba, Delaware, Elvira, Isabella, Niagara, Missouri Riesling, Cynthiana (Norton), and Ives.

Other native grape families of note are Vitis rotundifolia, which includes the muscadine family of grapes that do so well in the hot, humid southern U.S. and have a distinctive flavor all their own; Vitis rupestris, a very vigorous group found in the central and southern part of the country, even into Texas; and Vitis riparia, native to river areas from Canada to Texas and as far west as Utah. Rupestris and riparia vines have proven useful for rootstocks owing to their cold and phylloxera resistance, although they may contribute to flavors in hybrid grapes that are herbaceous to a fault. Several other families of vines exist in North America that are not generally used for winemaking, but that doesn’t mean you may not want to try a gallon or two of whatever variety you just outduelled the neighborhood raccoon for!

Hybrid Vines of All Kinds:

Many countries have produced hybrid grapes. The reasons range from combating vine diseases, to increasing wine production in regions with poor climate or soil, to a desire to increase commercial production volume. While the 19th and early 20th centuries were dominated by the French-American hybrids, today viable new crosses are coming from several countries, include the U.S., Germany and even Eastern Europe. Many hybrids have been bred to obtain some of the desirable flavor and ripeness aspects of true wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) while increasing hardiness, disease resistance and adaptability to specific soils. Given that much of the continent is not ideally suited for Vitis vinifera, out of the thousands of hybrids you are likely to find the best compromise between the limitations of your climate and the making of a truly outstanding wine. Research into new hybrids is ongoing at many locations worldwide, and the amateur grower may actually find him or herself in the vanguard of the process.

Many hybrid varieties are in use commercially, both here and even in France, and produce wines that at their best are better than lower-grade vinifera wines, even from renowned wine regions. A few venerable hybrids are Ravat 6, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, Foch, Chambourcin, Leon Millot and Chancellor. New hybrids continue to appear that are so genetically close to vinifera that their DNA all but matches, and whose wines are remarkably like their vinifera parent, such as Traminette, a hybrid based on Gewürztraminer. If one wants to imitate vinifera wines, there is an almost limitless array of possibilities among hybrid vines.

The Classic Vinifera Winegrapes:

Of course, the holy grail for winemakers wanting to grow their own has to be the Vitis vinifera family of grapes. Why? Because every great wine — in the true sense of great — derives from one or more members of this family of grapes. Originally brought to Europe from central Asia thousands of years ago, these are the true wine grapes as they developed in nature, capable of producing balanced wine just as they are. If you are fortunate enough to have a climate that will allow these grapes to ripen fully, your choice of variety can be one of these classic vines, from such standards as Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel to less familiar ones like Tannat, Aligote or Bourboulenc. It is not necessary to grow vinifera  to make fine wine, but it helps. On the other hand, a poorly made, oxidized Chardonnay may be blown right off the table by your carefully nurtured, barrel-fermented Seyval-Chardonnel blend, so vinifera grapes do not guarantee superiority.

A Whirlwind Tour

An exhaustive analysis of native, hybrid, and vinifera varieties suitable for the many climate zones of North America is a subject for not just one, but several books. Nonetheless, we wanted to give you a few ideas for further research in your area.

Consulting a good library, local agricultural universities, local growers, and the vast amount of information available on the Internet or from university libraries should serve as an excellent starting point. In addition, you may want to make observations on the microclimate of your proposed vineyard site. Equipped with this, it becomes possible to begin making some tentative choices of grapes to try. To every statement in the following tour can be added the proviso, “there are always exceptions.”

While a surprising number of regions across North America will support viticulture, let’s begin by removing some. If you live in northern parts of Canada and Alaska, or at elevations over 5,500 to 6,000 feet in the Rockies or along the West Coast, you are basically out of luck. The growing season (without a greenhouse and substantial winter protection) simply will not allow grapes to ripen.

On the other hand, across the northern tier of states in the U.S. and in southern parts of Canada, grapes can certainly be grown, and many varieties can survive frigid winter conditions without major hassles. Minnesota has a small but enthusiastic wine industry, and even northern New England has some successful vineyards. Southern Ontario and British Columbia also have proven to be friendly grape growing locations, even with some early season vinifera. In most parts of this area, however, the issues of shorter growing season and winter cold make native and hybrids easier to grow at home.

Among hardy native varieties, Delaware and Elvira make relatively “foxiness-less” white wines that can also be used for sparkling wine. The old warhorse Concord and its relatives such as Beta also will grow here.

Hybrid varieties with some Vitis rupestris or Vitis riparia in their heritage (for hardiness) have had some success in this region. For whites, Seyval Blanc and Aurora will produce light, crisp wines, while Foch and Millot, which have Pinot Noir in their backgrounds, can make agreeable red wines. A Foch relative called Lucy Kuhlmann is quite hardy and seems to make a heartier wine than Foch, less herbaceous and of quite deep color. A new German red hybrid called Regent would also be worth looking into, and the Swenson hybrids developed in Minnesota offer new possibilities both red and white.

The more or less temperate zones of the U.S. — the parts where grapes are successfully grown in many areas other than California, Oregon and Washington — can support many varieties of hybrid and vinifera grapes in a number of locales. This includes southern Idaho (where there are a number of wineries), parts of Colorado and right across the Midwest to the coast, including (among others) Ohio, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New Jersey.

If your specific region will support Vitis vinifera, you will have the enviable task of selecting the right ones for your conditions. Generally, the winters in this large zone mandate choosing early season varieties. Some of the whites include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. More obscure vines like Aligote may be fun to try as well.

Red vinifera suited for shorter-season parts of this large area include Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc, while warmer areas can also support Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other less well-known varieties like Tannat and Lemberger. Cooler parts may ripen some of the midseason types adequately for rosé, and maybe for red wine occasionally in a hot year.

The hybrid possibilities in this area are almost without limit. One should study the ancestry of a particular hybrid when making a selection. Some of the better white wine hybrids for most of this area are Cayuga (dry to off-dry wine not unlike Chenin Blanc), Seyval Blanc (clean, dry white), Ravat 51 (can be used for late harvest dessert wines), Vidal Blanc (dry, clean), Traminette (aromatic, spicy dry to sweet white), Chardonnel (full dry white), and the new German hybrids Orion and Phoenix (Riesling-like but hardier in winter). Among reds, Baco Noir (robust, spicy), Chancellor (medium-bodied, a bit Rhone-like), Foch, Millot, Lucy Kuhlmann (see above), and Chambourcin (full, dry) can all be tried, as well as many others. Who knows? Some obscure hybrid known only by a number like V.2453 may be just the ticket for your own vineyard.

The foregoing group of vines may also be used in southern parts of Canada. There are several Canadian nurseries offering vines that are specially bred and hardened for winters in the region. Canada has also developed hybrids, such as Okanagan Riesling, which are successful ripeners.

The southeastern U.S. and the parts of Florida that are not subtropical, in general, have heat and humidity considerations that tend to make rotundifolia varieties (muscadines) the major possibility for amateurs, although their wine tends to be grapey in aroma and is normally finished sweet. The native variety Delaware may be possible here, as are the hybrids Ravat 51 and Vidal Blanc. There are also a number of new hybrid muscadines that are touted by North Carolina State University as capable of making a wine more vinous and less muscadine in style. In addition, improved research into rootstocks for southern climates is beginning to open up the possibility of successfully growing vinifera even in states like North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. The subtropical areas of the southern U.S. are not suited for viticulture because in the heat, vines become evergeen. One could force dormancy by pruning, I suppose, if truly fanatical. I once tasted a dry red wine in Kenya that was made from Carnelian vines treated this way.

Across the more temperate parts of the southeast, including Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and parts of Texas, many hybrids with a longer growing season as well as some early vinifera  can be grown. In addition, there are several varieties originally catalogued and hybridized by T.V. Munson in the nineteenth century that are especially growable. These varieties have not been fully explored for winemaking, so there may be discoveries to be made here. Some labrusca types will have problems, but Delaware and the foxy Niagara will succeed for white wines, and the unique Cynthiana for reds. Many of the best-known white hybrids such as Aurora, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Verdelet Blanc, and Ravat 51 are worth trying. Baco Noir and Chancellor succeed in reds, as does Rougeon, which makes a deeply-colored red wine.

Parts of Texas already have successful vinifera vineyards, especially in the hill country. Here, some hot-climate vinifera  can be grown, such as Chenin Blanc and Colombard for whites, and Barbera and Merlot for red wines. In southern Oklahoma, muscadines can also be grown, if desired, for wine or table use.

The desert southwest, in more temperate zones or with the help of irrigation, has already been shown to be capable of ripening vinifera. New Mexico has had a wine industry since the days of the Spanish conquistadores, with wineries today using a variety of vinifera and hybrids to produce table wines and sparkling wines of such note as to attract investment from the French Champagne industry.

The high desert areas of the western U.S., such as Nevada and most of Utah, owing to arid conditions in summer, alkaline soils and harsh winters, can be challenging to most grapes. Some very hardy, early-ripening hybrids without too much labrusca in their heritage may be used here. These include Foch, Millot and Seyval Blanc. Pockets in the region can ripen early vinifera such as Riesling, but site selection is very important.

Our whirlwind tour ends up in the parts of California, Oregon, and Washington that are the heart of American wine industry. This region is fortunate indeed in terms of climate and growing conditions. While the more obscurantist among growers may want to try a hybrid or two just for fun, this is the area where Vitis vinifera  is king. Once soil analysis and heat summation work are done, the potential grower has his or her choice of the full gamut of classic varieties.

The foregoing barely scratches the surface of possible varieties. A number of these are classic selections that have a reasonable track record of success, but there is no reason to suppose that careful growing practices, specific microclimates, new hybrids or old favorites cannot succeed for the dedicated vineyardist. The work is hard but satisfying, and the results can be stellar. To pour friends and family a glass of wine that you made literally from the ground up will surely be one of the most gratifying moments that your hobby can offer. By a little research and careful selection, you can soon be on the way to achieving your dream.