Humans have been cultivating grapes for a very long time, be it for eating or winemaking. With some 60 different species of grapevines in the Northern Hemisphere — woody deciduous climbers rambling through treetops in temperate woodlands — each one has particular traits that make them better at some jobs than others.
Among the variety of species, Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris stands out. This particular vine hails from the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. From this species came fresh grapes, raisins dried on the vine, and even wine and vinegar. This is the ancestor of all wine grapes and most table grapes. It may also be the plant that taught us how to garden — and to make wine.
It’s entirely possible the tradition of drinks around a campfire began after a successful New Stone Age hunt, with bunches of grapes, already fermenting on the vine, being passed around the fire in celebration. Either that, or a previously forgotten skin bag of almost-dried raisins got the whole thing started. We may never know what happened for certain; all this was long before anyone was writing anything down. What we do know, thanks to archaeologists, is that grape pips have been found at Neolithic fire pits as old as 8,000 B.C., Armenian wine presses date from about 4,000 B.C., and the earliest proof of active cultivation of grapes in Caucasus Georgia turned up about 6,000 B.C.
Sometime in that period, man learned to prune and trellis grapes, root vine cuttings, and ferment grape juice into wine without it turning to vinegar. The grapevine itself most likely taught new gardeners most of these lessons. Grapevines will readily strike roots wherever they contact soil, and dormant vine cuttings are one of the easiest to root. Simply sticking a piece of vine with a few buds into the ground is virtually assured success. Observant gatherers would have noticed that the newest branches of a vine produced the biggest and best clusters of grapes, and that vines damaged by falling trees recovered quickly — and provided a bumper crop of grapes to boot. And, just like the fireside scenario above suggests, overripe grapes are quick to ferment, thanks to a natural bloom of yeast covering each berry in the bunch.
Somewhere in that time, grapes themselves changed fundamentally, with a chance mutation creating what botanists call “perfect” flowers, having both male and female reproductive structures. Before that, each vine was only male or female, and vineyards without so-called barren male vines bore few or no grapes at all. Reflecting this change, modern domesticated grapes are known scientifically as vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera.
Grapes, grapevines, and wine quickly assumed spiritual and religious importance among early cultures.
Wine quickly became a trade commodity, due in part to its religious significance, and more practically, due to the fact that beverages containing alcohol were usually the only things safe to drink, especially wherever the city waterworks doubled as the municipal sewer system. In short, anywhere people gathered together in any numbers at all. Wherever wine trade went, vineyards soon followed. Grape culture soon spread east and west across the Middle East and Mediterranean lands. Roman legions took grape growing and winemaking with them across Europe. Wine fanciers like to point out that Rome’s conquests stopped where wine-growing conditions ended, because Romans could not imagine life without wine or olives. That may or may not be true, but it makes for a good story.
During all this time, wine was the main focus in grape culture. People did eat fresh grapes, and they dried raisins for storage and for something sweet, and even harvested grape leaves for the table, but wine was the primary aim. Even today, wine production far outweighs the production of table grapes and raisins. Good wine grapes and good table grapes are not the same thing, by any measure; anyone who has ever sampled wine grapes will tell you, they aren’t something you’d be quick to snack on.
We can thank the New World for table grapes. While the Old World had one grape species of note, America had several, including fox grapes (Vitis labrusca), riverbank grapes (Vitis riparia), and muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia). No, America’s wild grapes weren’t exactly luscious and ready for popping, but they weren’t half bad, either. They were, however, the perfect genetic material for breeding, and for crossing with European vines, an opportunity French viticulturists were eager to take.
There was a price to be paid. Eastern American vines are host to a minute insect, phylloxera, which feeds on the roots of grapevines. American vines have ways to deal with phylloxera, such as forming galls and callus to protect against the offending pest. V. vinifera has no defense. American vines taken to France in the 1850s carried the pest with them, where it ripped through defenseless vineyards like wildfire, nearly destroying the wine industry. Now, most European grapes are grafted to naturally phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks, the only way to battle the pest.
Vineyards and vintages can now be found across the globe, from Australia and South Africa to Chile and California. Grapevines can grow well in just about any temperate climate, including your property. They need full sun, good airflow, strong support, and deep, well drained, but not particularly rich soil. Some say poorer soil actually makes better grapes, especially for winemaking. Grapevine feeder roots lie close to the soil surface; mulch to control weeds instead of cultivating.
The two most important points to grape culture, trellising and pruning, work together. Like fruit trees, grapevines are rampant, weedy growers, putting out a lot of wood at the expense of fruit production. They need to be pruned heavily late each winter, before growth starts for the season. Grape clusters are borne on year-old wood. Remove extra canes with shaggy, peeling bark. As the weather warms, you will find your vines “bleeding” sap excessively. That’s perfectly normal, and won’t hurt the vines.
Expect to remove as much as three-quarters of the previous year’s growth when you prune, leaving a few new canes, and a few short spurs on each vine. Many pruning methods allow only two to four new canes each year, plus the same number of renewal spurs.
The pruning method you use depends on the trellising method, and that is a topic all its own, far too big to address here. For example, grapes can be trained up a post, across a wire trellis, over split-rail fencing, even over a pergola or breezeway. Also, the best training method depends on a variety’s growth habits and vigor.
There are a few things to consider when choosing a structure and trellising method. First, the structure must be sturdy and durable, as grapevines can grow for decades, even centuries. Second, allow for good air flow and light exposure, to improve flavor and avoid disease. Third, choose a structure that allows you to easily reach the vines for harvest and pruning. Finally, grapevines climb using tendrils; provide guide wires for them to fasten onto. Grapes cannot climb by spiraling around trunks or by rooting into flat surfaces.
Grapes are available in a variety of shapes — round, oval, oblong, even pointed like a teardrop — and colors: white (green), red, bronze, purple, blue, and black. Sources estimate as many as 10,000 different varieties, so there’s sure to be more than a few that do well for you, whether you’re looking for wine, vinegar, fresh eating, juice or drying for raisins. As a bonus, any grapevine will supply you with leaves for stuffing and canes for weaving. Consider one or two of the following for your own vineyard, arbor or pergola.
‘Alden’ is an American hybrid of ‘Ontario’ and ‘Grosse Guillaume.’ It bears large crops of blue grapes with excellent flavor, reminiscent of grape jelly. It is hardy to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit or so, so it’s an excellent choice for Northern and Northeast climates. It is fairly prone to disease pressures, and the grape skins are tender and prone to cracking. Its flavor and productiveness make up for its shortcomings, however.
Southern growers will find ‘Herbemont,’ also known as ‘Black Spanish,’ of interest. The accidental American-French hybrid is naturally resistant to both phylloxera and Pierce’s disease, a deadly bacterial pathogen found across the South. Once common in the U.S., nearly all available ‘Herbemont’ plants were shipped to France in response to the phylloxera epidemic. While it undoubtedly saved the European wine industry, ‘Herbemont’ was nearly lost in America. Fortunately, it is available once again. The small reddish-brown berries have an excellent balance of acids and sugars, and are used for both white and light-red wines.
For a white seedless grape, consider ‘Interlaken.’ A cross of ‘Ontario’ and ‘Thompson Seedless,’ ‘Interlaken’ produces compact, medium bunches of small, white, seedless grapes with a distinct “American” or “foxy,” sweet, aromatic flavor. It is hardy to around minus 5 degrees.
Growers in Zone 7 and warmer should consider a muscadine grape for a truly American heirloom experience. Muscadine vines produce large berries in small clusters, not traditional bunches. The berries are large, dark purple, with edible skins and high sugars. A female vine, ‘Supreme’ will need a pollinizer vine nearby to set fruit.
There are many more varieties to choose from. Contact your local extension service or Master Gardener program for regional grape variety recommendations.
Grapes are one of mankind’s oldest fruits, and may have taught us how to grow fruit, not just gather it. Grapevines are similarly long-lived. Pick the right variety, plant it in the right location on a strong arbor, and you too can enjoy the fruit of the good life.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is vice president and secretary of Backyard Fruit Growers, a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting growing good fruit in your own backyard.