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Posted by Cris Carl | Jun 24, 2012

The Basics of Growing Grapes for Wine

Cris discussed viniculture basics with an extension specialist from the University of Massachusetts.

If these grapes don't make you want to start growing grapes at home, I am not sure what will. (Photo: jak/morguefile.com)Growing grapes for wine is a complex topic requiring a great deal of research and experimentation. However, in an interview with Sonia Schloemann, a Small Fruit Extension Specialist at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, we discussed start-up basics to get you on your way. Keep in mind that growing grapes for wine is not an inexpensive endeavor. But, if you have the money and drive, for many it can become a passion. Schloemann said that it costs approximately $10,000 to $15,000 per acre to raise grapes for wine. Also, you will need to wait two to three years for your first harvest, so patience is required.

Materials and tools needed to grow grapes

Schloemann said that you need to start with a strong trellis or arbor structure. “It needs to be strong enough to support the weight of the vines plus the fruit,” she said. Consider having a local fencing company construct an arbor for you, or hire a carpenter like Pro Built Construction, a Baltimore contractor who specializes in trellises and arbors for the custom decks they build.

Aside from general tools for soil cultivation, the only other tools you need are “good pruning tools such as loppers and hand pruners,” she said.

How to select a variety of grape for your region

Grape vines are grown from hardwood cuttings and have a shallow root system. While Schloemann said that there are no easy answers to selecting a variety of grape, there are plenty of resources. It is always helpful to check with your local university extension program. Schloemann said, “The variety must be suitable for location regarding to winter hardiness, length of ripening season, (frost-free days) and heat accumulation (degree days). Then it should be suitable for the style of wine you wish to make.”

Growing grapes in New York and similar climates

Cornell University offers a wealth of information on varieties of grapes that grow well in New York on their website such as the Delaware variety. “Delaware is an early ripening variety with small berries, small clusters, and a mild American flavor. It is an important dessert variety in Japan, yet in New York is used primarily for juice and white wine,” states the website. The website states that the “Delaware variety is one of the highest quality American varieties for wine; also that it is a high-yield variety that 'requires deep, fertile, well-drained soil.'”

Growing grapes in warmer climates

Schloemann recommended the website Novanine to help with variety and selection for warmer climates. The site breaks down the varieties (of which there are many) into categories of variety, bud break, vigor and harvest.

Soil considerations

Schloemann said that “soil pH should be slightly acid, 5.5 to 6.5, of moderate fertility, and not too wet. High fertility produces a lot of vegetative growth and not as much fruit, plus it makes ripening conditions less favorable. You also don’t want there to be too much shade.” Once you have tested your soil for pH, you can add sulfur to the soil if it needs to be acidified.

Pruning

It is recommended to prune annually, removing all old growth and only allowing renewal spurs and new fruit canes. Pruning heavily will benefit your grape vines.

Harvesting

The longer the grape is on the vine the more sugar is produced. Wines in general should be less sweet unless you want to create a dessert wine. Time of harvest will depend on your region in terms of ripening. If you have a small vineyard, you will likely be picking the grapes by hand. There is specialized machinery for picking in larger vineyards.

Next on your agenda will be learning the process of turning the grapes into wine.

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