Ask Wine Wizard

I have some kind of grapes growing in my backyard, but have no clue as to what kind they might be. Is there a way to figure it out?


John Schmidt — via email asks,

I have some kind of grapes growing in my backyard, but have no clue as to what kind they might be. Is there a way to figure it out? Can you recommend some books?


The ancient science of identifying grapevines by their physical characteristics is called ampelography and, you’ll be happy to know, it is a relatively well-documented field. As you can imagine, in the days before genetic fingerprinting and DNA analysis technology, it was pretty valuable to be able to identify a grapevine by its size, shape, color and other visual characteristics.

There are many fine books that can get you started. The premier volume is “A Practical Ampelography: Grapevine Identification” by Pierre Galet, translated from French into English by Lucie T. Morton. This tome is recommended by many educational institutions and is often cited by winegrape industry professionals and educators alike. Luckily, it’s easy and clear enough for an amateur to use and has many color plates and drawings to aid in the identification process. This handy book is available online through www.amazon.com or through the California University at Fresno and the University of California at Davis bookstores. Other books to check out:

  • Rootstocks for Grape Vines by D.P. Pongracz. This text is focused on rootstock but has a solid section on ampelography.
  • Viticulture by Bryan Coombe and Peter Dry. This often called the “definitive text on Australian viticulture” and it’s worth buying, even if it is geared towards those who grow grapes south of the equator (I know many a viticulture newbie who got confused by the “reversal” of the months with regards to their antipodeal seasons). This two-volume set covers it all — ampelography is only a small, but detailed, part of the offering. The authors explain planting material, soil climate, taxonomy, phenology, varieties, aspects of operating a vineyard, trellising, management and more. It’s a great resource to have on hand.

If you want immediate gratification (and don’t want to wait for that Amazon shipment), try jumping onto http://www.dainet.de/eccdb/vitis/. This techno-heavy Website is sort of hard to navigate, but it nonetheless can show you a picture of Marechal Foch or Ugni Blanc. It’s the site of “An Information Service for the German Centre for Documentation and Information in Agriculture.” Good stuff. Who knew? Another terrific Website is found at www.grapeseek.com. Click on “Grape Pictures” for up-close-and-personal shots of hundreds of grape varietals, from Afus Ali to Zenit. Who knows? You might stumble across an exact photographic match.

To email a question of your own, send it to [email protected].

Response by Alison Crowe.