“The First Duty of wine is to be Red . . . the second is to be a Burgundy.”
Harry Waugh’s quote (above) could have come from Mother Nature. Even nature seems to prefer red grapes, as there is clear archaeological evidence that the first grapes collected to make wine were of a red/black/purple color, and that white grapes came later. White grapes are generally genetic mutations from a mother vine that was originally red. But it gets more complicated. Hybrids created by both man and nature often make tracing the genetics of a vine difficult, and the results sometimes are confounding. For example, modern ampelography (the study of grape genetics) suggests that Chardonnay’s parents include Cabernet Franc. True to form, the more we learn about the origins of modern grape varieties, the more we discover that the most ignoble grapes often combine to create the world’s greatest varietals.
Seeing Red: Choosing the right variety
Due to our tweaking of nature and moving vines of various types around the world for our own drinking purposes, we now have at our disposal a massive selection of winegrape varietals to select and grow in our own small vineyards. Whether we choose a varietal with a long and storied past, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or choose a grape that has been purposefully hybridized for a specific climate, such as Norton, planting the right vines in the right place is the most important decision a winegrower will ever make. I make this supposition without hesitation: that the correct match of place and grape makes growing wine a simple pleasure, and that most problems in the vineyard start with a mismatch of cultivar and terroir. As I’ve said before, and as I’ve told every client that had hired me for a vineyard project: what you like to drink is rarely what belongs in your backyard.
In other words, if you want to grow great Cabernet you may have to move to Napa Valley or Bordeaux. If you want to try Pinot Noir in Kentucky I’m not going to stop you, but I may suggest you’ll be disappointed with the results. When you decide which vines to plant, here’s a short checklist of what you should consider:
- What’s the best red wine you’ve tasted grown within 25 miles (40 km) of where you plan to grow grapes?
- What climate zone do you live in, and which varieties are well suited to the degree day accumulation between spring and fall?
- Have you sought out local growers and home winemakers to discuss their efforts, failures and successes with growing various varietals?
- How do local vineyards deal with issues of mildew, rot and pests? Are there varieties that offer “built-in” protections against pests?
- Is there a local college or university that offers classes on wine or winegrowing? How about a local winemaking or winegrowing club or society? Humans have helped one another create red wine since the Paleolithic era. Don’t stop now!
- Are you committed to spending your free time working in the vineyard to coax greatness out of your vines?
Red Wine is Easier
In my experience, red wine is easier for a home vintner to grow and vinify than white. White wine lacks the color pigments that can keep a wine stable during aging, and of course red wine doesn’t require as much temperature control in the cellar. Reds seem to ferment to dryness easier (for me at least), and if carefully racked are usually cleaner and more stable in the bottle without fining or filtration.
When I speak with home winegrowers and ask what they are growing in their backyards, the answer is inevitably red grapes. So let’s get down to business and discover how we can improve our viticulture for producing delicious and expressive red wines.
Wes Hagen’s Top Ten Red Wine Cultivars for Backyard Vineyards:
West Coast viticulture is marked by an arid climate, loads of sunshine, diverse soils, as well as quality coastal production and more bulk-oriented inland production. Look for sites that have complex, well-drained soils and good, clean water sources for irrigation. The Southwest is coming on strong. Vineyards from Texas to Arizona are beginning to understand and overcome the challenges of desert wine growing, and are developing wine cultures of their own.
Cabernet Sauvignon: If you live in a climate that can grow good Cabernet, you are the envy of many backyard vineyardists that can’t. For name recognition and sales in the US, Cabernet is unrivaled as a variety for growing complex reds with the capacity to age. The bones of Cabernet are fruit and structure — and the structure of Cab Sauv is clearly tannin. Even though the clusters are rather large, the berries of Cab Sauv tend to be quite small, which produces dark, tannic wines as a result of the low juice to skin ratio. From a growing perspective, Cabernet’s biggest challenge is removing vegetal/green pepper character and promoting dense and aromatic black fruits. Canopy management is key to removing the veggie, so do your best to remove as many leaves on the morning side (after bloom and set) without exposing the fruit to sunburn. Full ripeness is another key to eliminating the green character — if the veggie character persists, you can go ultra-ripe in the vineyard (26–28 °Brix), then water back to high 23s and acidulate to around 3.5 pH before fermentation starts.
Grenache: The world’s second most-planted varietal (behind the Spanish white varietal Airén). If I had to recommend only one grape to backyard growers throughout the West Coast, I would consider Grenache to be a perfect candidate. It can be planted in a cool climate and produce delicate wines with bright fruit and fantastic structure, or it can handle the heat of an inland summer and still produce a nice, simple table wine. I like to call Grenache Pinot Noir’s evil twin brother. The two varieties could not be more different in their viticultural needs (Grenache produces huge clusters, Pinot tiny ones; Grenache grows like a weed, Pinot Noir tends to be lower vigor, etc.), but in the end the wines do show some similar character: lighter color, elegant character, food friendly, etc. From the growing side, Grenache can be overly vigorous, so don’t fertilize unless the vines are stunted. You may also want to cut off the “wings” on Grenache clusters for more uniform ripeness. Literature often sites that the clusters should be trimmed into a “square shape.” Grenache is also a good, solid yield producer, so it’s a good choice if you can only plant a few dozen vines for your home winemaking. Grenache is a perfect candidate for head-pruned (bush-like) training in hot, windy and arid regions. Interestingly, cool-climate Grenache is darker and richer, and in extremely hot areas the wine is known to lose color and can make a wine just barely darker than a rosé. And speaking of rosé, Grenache is a perfect candidate for making a red wine and a pink wine, and you can even bleed off some of the juice to make a saignée rosé, and concentrate the flavors and color of the remaining macerated wine. It makes excellent use of water in the soil and is known to be very drought and heat tolerant.
Syrah: Another grape varietal with a capacity for both moderately-cool to very hot regions, and an ability to make delicious wine anywhere in between. Syrah is a vine that is disease-resistant and produces a consistently heavy crop — two elements that make it a no-brainer for many backyard vineyards. The French believe that Syrah’s aromatics are most enticing at lower Brix levels, and profess that Syrah loses its aromatic complexity at high ripeness levels (let’s use 25 °Brix as a compromise). Syrah is known for its vigorous nature and rapid growth, and yields above five tons per acre are not uncommon in New World vineyards. The greatest Syrahs in the world are arguably from the Northern Rhône region of France, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie being two of my favorites. Like Grenache, Syrah is a great blending grape and can be blended with 10% Viognier for a bit of aromatic intensity. Blends containing Cabernet, Merlot, Grenache and just about any other red grape are becoming more common, as are wines known as GSM: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Syrah needs water when it’s young as it can shut down due to drought conditions, which was a hot topic known as “early vine decline” in New World growing circles. Things to consider in Syrah production: keep the canopy open by continuing to remove lateral shoots throughout the growing season. Don’t fertilize unless the vines really need it. Make sure each cluster has its own space in the canopy to encourage sun flecking on every berry.
Before the Civil War, Indiana was America’s wine country and the Midwest is rising again as an important sector of US wine production. Good wine is being produced throughout the center of the country, and we are seeing gold medals being awarded constantly to commercial wineries in these regions. Ten years ago we may have asked, “Is it worth it to grow and make Midwestern wine?” but today the answer is a strong “absolutely.” These wines are quickly gaining fans throughout the US, and wineries that used to be strictly local attractions and tasting-room only are finding a much wider audience for their high quality products. I’m happy to drink a Missouri Norton any night of the week, and dessert wines from Vidal are being poured by the glass at swanky Napa eateries. My perspective out here on the Left Coast (in a vinifera dominated landscape), is that Midwestern growers will have better luck with hybrid varieties that help stave off mildew and rot pressures. Again, it’s better to make a delicious, spot-on hybrid wine than a weedy and uninteresting vinifera wine. Don’t let names mess with your head — grow the variety that is best suited to your dirt and climate.
It’s hard for me to bite my lip when discussing the Northern Tier not to include white grapes. Let’s not forget that Michigan has 15,000 acres of winegrapes in the ground, making it a serious player in the US wine industry. Vidal, Riesling and other aromatic whites for both dry and dessert wine production are hard to ignore, as is work being done to find sites agreeable to the most fickle of mistresses: Pinot Noir. Keep learning and growing, Northern Tier, and help the country understand your region through the flavor of the wines you are pioneering.
Norton: Sometimes called Cynthiana, which is a close relative of the grape that is believed to have originated in Arkansas in the 1850’s, while (the real) Norton was being grown as early as the 1840’s in Virginia and became an important variety when it moved to Missouri where it makes one of the midwest’s most complete red wines. Both Norton and Cynthiana share ancestry from Vitis aestivalis and a labrusca-vinifera hybrid called Bland (wonder why that grape never caught on . . . ), and some ampelographers believe the first Cynthiana was a mislabeled Norton vine. The variety tends to bloom late and requires no cluster thinning. It tends to like gravelly loam and sandy soils with good drainage, and does not like soggy soil types. The period from bloom to harvest is usually about 125 days. It is cold tolerant to at least -10 °F (-23 °C). Norton tends to have fairly elevated pH (lower acidity) at full ripeness and often can produce a wine in the 3.8–4.2 pH range if not properly acidulated during maceration. Norton seeds are known to have aggressive tannins — so try to keep your pressing light and separate the free run, light press and high press wines if you can. In 1873 the Norton variety was declared “Best Wine of all Nations” at the Vienna World Exposition, but I’m guessing the French were too busy with the Franco-Prussian War to vote. Norton has also been called the “Cabernet of the Ozarks,” but the TTB does not allow the term as a varietal designation on the label — as far as I know.
Maréchal Foch (pronounced “mar-esh-shall-fosh”): A vigorous, early ripening hybrid grape varietal that is also known as Foch and Kuhlmann, it’s named after a famous French marshal who helped liberate France from the Germans. It was developed as a safety strategy during the phylloxera scare in Europe, was once widely planted in the Loire Valley of France, but in the modern era has been most widely planted in the upper Midwest, New York, Niagara and Nova Scotia. Very similar to Leon Millot, this grape tends to make a wine with a light to medium color and structure, and is considered to be Pinot Noir-like or Gamay-ish in character. Fans of the variety claim Foch can age gracefully when grown and made carefully for the cellar. Berries are small, skin-to-juice ratio is excellent for wine quality, and birds are said to go after ripening Foch with gusto. Reports from growers and winemakers indicate that young Foch vines tend to produce more gamey wines, and the hybrid character dissipates in fully mature vineyards. Foch, like Pinot Noir, can make a wide variety of wine styles — the lighter examples are described as Gamay-like, and the ripe, dark wines have gained popularity in certain circles as New World examples of concentration and richness.
Chambourcin (lower Midwest and mid-Atlantic): A vine once planted commonly in Nantes, France, it is now restricted by French wine law and almost completely contained in the Midwest winegrowing regions of the United States, although vignerons in Nantes still use it for red wine production (in an area dominated by whites). An excellent vine variety to pull double duty in producing both rosé and fully macerated red wine, it is known for being a vigorous grower with good yields, solid cold-hardiness and excellent disease resistance. The wines produced from Chambourcin are known for their smoky, herbaceous aromatics — not unlike the aromas that waft from a Volkswagen bus pulling into a Grateful Dead show. Full maturity is recommended to make a palatable red wine, and some leaf pulling may help with that herbaceous character. Cluster thinning is often required, and the resulting wines are generally more tannic than most hybrids.
(note that Chambourcin is also an excellent mid-Atlantic grape). The East Coast hosted America’s first vineyard: Thomas Jefferson’s winegrowing experiment at Monticello. Growing vinifera in Virginia in the 18th Century turned out to be a losing struggle, but with modern tools and sprays, vineyardists on the East Coast can now make Jefferson’s dream a reality. From the fantastic aromatic whites coming out of the Finger Lakes to good, consistent reds emerging from most eastern states, the East Coast is producing wines that can proudly match with food and friends. With Cornell University leading the charge (Cornell now has a fully-functioning teaching winery), academics and viticulturists are working together to bring the East Coast to its proper status in the wine world in the 21st century.
Cabernet Franc: Even though Cabernet Sauvignon has more label cachet, let’s not forget that Cabernet Franc is likely the older variety and is likely the most important parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. Although contentious, I believe that Cabernet Franc produces a superior wine to Cabernet Sauvignon in climates that are marginally cooler. More spice and less green bell pepper aromas are common, and research proves that Cabernet Franc requires a bit less heat to ripen fully. Cab Franc regularly produces a cedar-like pencil-shavings aroma that can be distinguished in varietal or blended wine. One key to successful Cabernet Franc viticulture is to achieve full ripeness, or the wine tends to get very weedy and herbal. Because Cab Franc dominates the right bank in Bordeaux, it has developed mutations that make it a little more tolerant to cooler, damper conditions such as those that can cause problems in East Coast growing. Hugh Johnson, a world-renowned wine critic, called Cabernet Franc “East Coast’s most promising red . . . “ in 2002. Virginia also seems to have an affinity for the grape, and nice wines are beginning to emerge from the region.
St. Vincent: For the regions that are too cool and problematic to grow a vinifera variety such as Cabernet Franc, allow me to suggest an alternative. The story of this grape contains a bit of mythology, as people like to include Pinot Noir and Chambourcin as the parents, but little research is available to support this. The vine produces moderately sized clusters of a blue/black color. Expect moderate vigor and upright growth, which makes it an excellent candidate for vertical shoot position style trellising. The vine shows only moderate susceptibility to rots and mildews, resists black rot better than most, and may require some cluster thinning to keep yields in balance. The wines made from St. Vincent are described as resembling a young Chianti with some Gamay character and cherry aromas. The varietal holds its acid well through maturity, and is made into a sparkling wine in many regions. It’s a mid-season ripener, so it needs some heat to accumulate sugar.
The South has a long and proud history of wine production. The Kentucky Vineyard Society was the US’s first viticultural organization, founded in (gasp!) 1789. Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas have more than 7,600 acres of grapes and 152 wineries producing in excess of 4,500,000 gallons (17,034,353 L) of wine annually. The vines planted in these areas are only about 10% vinifera, 60% American and 30% French-American hybrids. Mildew and rot pressure preclude vinifera in many areas, and research into what varieties can thrive is a vital component of any vineyard planning in the Southern US.
It’s difficult to choose a single varietal to recommend for the South, as there are so many different climatic zones between the Carolinas and the Gulf. Check with local growers to see what they prefer, and here are some grapes grown by region:
Carolinas: Chambourcin, Cabernet, Muscadines.
Florida: Labrusca, Muscadines, Conquistador
Georgia: Concord, Muscadines.
With so many meso and macroclimates for grape growing, and with our short history of grape production (from a European perspective), we’ve done an amazing job in having the guts to jump in and grow grapes and wine in just about every niche in the US landscape. All of you backyard growers out there are opening up new and exciting regions for wine production. So let’s get our boots on, watch our vineyards carefully, plant wisely, farm wisely, stay on our spray schedules and harvest on the perfect day. And when nature throws us a curve or knocks us down, there’s always last year’s wine to calm us down and give us perspective.