Maybe you’ve dabbled in making homemade wine and now are thinking about growing your own grapes. While wine grapes are by no means a plant-it-and-forget-it crop, a small backyard vineyard is possible to cultivate if you live in Zones 4-10. A variety of factors—such as geographic location, soil type and personal taste preference—will dictate the grape varieties you plant and the issues you’re likely to encounter during the growing season.
Before embarking on your grape-growing journey, it’s important to know that it can take three or four years for vines to produce fruit. Just because you have a successful grape harvest doesn’t mean the wine you make with them will be, too. But that’s another story.
Here’s what you need to know about growing your own wine grapes.
Select a suitable planting site
Grapevines thrive best when planted in deep, well-drained sandy loam soils, and east-to-south exposures are desirable. Planting a vineyard on hillside land that has a slight to moderate slope is preferred, as it helps accelerate the drainage of water and cold, dense air to protect against frosts. Cultivate the soil (a neutral pH of around 7 is optimal), incorporating organic matter (manure, compost, peat moss, etc.) and removing any weeds. The vines should be planted a minimum of eight feet apart—both within and between rows—so make sure you have a plot large enough to accommodate the number you want to plant.
Choose wine grape varieties for your climate
There are many different kinds of grapes. While they technically can be eaten fresh, wine grapes generally have higher acid, higher sugar, higher skin-to-pulp ratio and more seeds than table and juice grapes. Some wine grapes are more finicky than others. Do your research on each grape before planting, considering what varieties will make the type of wine you want and what training and pruning they will need.
Although they’re capable of producing excellent wines, European grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir are susceptible to a host of diseases and are less cold-tolerant. If you’ve never grown grapes before, and especially if you live in a place with harsh winters or humid summers, consider planting cold-hardy hybrid varieties such as Chambourcin, Marquette, Baco Noir, Vidal Blanc or Chardonel. For more region-specific advice, contact your local agricultural extension to find out what they recommend.
Prepare for planting
Early spring is the recommended time to plant grapevines, giving them time to establish their root systems before their first winter. Whether you order your vines—which will be grafted onto established rootstocks—through an online catalog or through a local nursery, you’ll want to plant them immediately. Remove any broken or damaged roots, and soak the vines in water before planting. Dig a hole a few inches deeper than the longest roots, then plant the vines with the roots pointed down and evenly spread out. Space them at least eight feet apart. Do not use any fertilizer at this time. To protect the young vines from deer and other nibbling animals, you may want to use grow tubes. To support the vine as it grows, install a trellis system.
Tending to your vines
It’s widely said that vines that struggle generally produce better-quality grapes. When you restrict a matured vine’s water supply, make nutrients scarce and prune it hard, it will fruit. But it will take several years of tending to your vines before they bear grapes.
When you first plant the vine, reduce its numerous shoots to one, cutting it back to three buds. As the plant grows, it will produce new green shoots. When the shoots are eight to 12 inches long, choose the best one and support it with a stake. Trim away the others. As the shoot grows through its first and second summers, continue tying it up the stake to ensure it doesn’t break in the wind. This shoot will become your permanent trunk. Once a strong trunk is established, you can train its shoots to grow up and along the trellis by tying them to the wire. Remove any new shoots that sprout from the root area or lower trunk.
When your grapevines are mature, pruning grows even more essential, and the it should be done twice a year: once when the plant is dormant in late winter to remove old or dead growth, and another in spring or early summer to tidy up the vines. When it comes to wine grape vines, heavy pruning provides the best fruit. For the best grapes, it’s recommended they have only 20 to 30 buds per vine after pruning.
(For detailed information about pruning and fertilizing your vines, follow the steps in the Kniffin System, recommended for home vineyards, or check with your local agricultural extension office.)
Harvest the grapes
Grapes should be harvested only after they are fully ripe. Unlike some other fruits, their sugar content will not improve after picking. Depending on the variety, you want to harvest your grapes when they reach between 19 and 25 brix (the measurement for sugar content in a liquid). The older your vines get, the more grapes they’ll produce. For example, a three-year-old vine may produce anywhere from five to 10 pounds of grapes, whereas mature vines can produce up to 30 pounds of grapes in a good year. From there, it takes about 40 pounds of grapes to make 12 bottles of wine. So your level of commitment will determine whether your grape-growing hobby manifests itself into something more.