Selection of the proper cultivars to plant is a major step toward successful grape production. Before planting, commercial growers should give serious thought to the market outlet and the requirements of the processor or consumer who will purchase the crop. Cultivars that are in greatest demand or sell for the highest price also are often the most difficult to produce.
Table 1 shows grape acreage in each state in the Midwest and the most planted cultivars. At the time of this factsheet’s publication, the total grape acreage in the Midwest is nearly 20,000 acres, with Michigan as the leading state. Figure 1 shows the 13 states and geographic locations of counties with the most reported grape acreage.
Criterion for Cultivar Selection
Choosing a grape cultivar is based primarily on three major criteria—site characteristics, cultivar characteristics, and market outlook (fig. 2). Some important considerations are listed here, and these considerations should be studied prior to planting. The major challenge of growing grapes in the Midwest is winter injury, which is likely to occur during the grapevine life. Therefore, the first and most important criterion for selecting a cultivar should be its winter (cold) hardiness. Other considerations for cultivar selection include site and viticulture characteristics, including fruit and wine quality, ripening season, disease susceptibility (especially bunch rot), yield potential, growth habit, and cultural requirements. The market outlook considers the supply and demand for a given cultivar: whether grapes will be used for table, juice, or wine; the cultivar’s current monetary value; and consumer trends and acceptability.
Table 2 includes five categories describing considerations for cultivar selection. Note that the table lists the most commercially planted cultivars (based on acreage) in the Midwest. The description of each cultivar is intentionally brief to highlight more cultivars. For a more detailed description of each cultivar, several excellent resources are listed at the end of the fact sheet. Table 3 describes the disease resistance and chemical sensitivity of these cultivars.
Three types of grapes are grown in the Midwest—European (or vinifera), hybrids, and American (or Heritage) (fig. 3).
|Figure 3. Selected grape cultivars grown in the Midwest United States. Click image to view/download pdf file.|
Vinifera Cultivars: European-type (Vitis vinifera) cultivars are most widely produced in milder winter regions of the world, such as California, Mediterranean countries (e.g., France, Italy, Spain, North Africa), Australia, Chile, and New Zealand. Examples of widely grown vinifera cultivars are Thompson Seedless, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, and Merlot. Although cultivars vary slightly, fruit buds of most vinifera are injured at temperatures between 0 and minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and vines are often killed if temperatures reach minus 15 F or lower. Since much of the Midwest experiences these temperatures during winter, vinifera are the most challenging to grow even though they produce high-quality wines and typically are the highest-priced grapes (>$1,500 per ton). Therefore, vinifera should be grown only on good sites, and specific cultural practices should be used to lessen vine injury. Nevertheless, vine injury and death may still occur during exceptionally cold winters.
Hybrid Cultivars: Hybrids have been widely planted in the Midwest since the mid-1940s. This group includes new cultivars or interspecific hybrids produced by crossing European or vinifera grapes with one of the American species. Many were introduced from French breeding programs, and the cultivar name often includes the name of the breeder—for example, Vidal blanc (Vidal 256). In addition to the hybrids developed in France, many newer hybrids have been developed by breeders in the United States. These new cultivars are widely planted in the Midwest. Examples include Chardonel, Frontenac, Itasca, Marquette, Noiret, and Traminette. Hybrids are generally used in wine production and possess more winter hardiness and disease resistance than most of the V. vinifera parents. The most widely planted hybrids have a wine flavor reminiscent of European grapes.
American Cultivars: The American type has the widest distribution throughout the northern half of the United States. Major producing areas include the Great Lakes region, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and eastern states from Delaware to New England. Examples of important cultivars include Concord, Catawba, Delaware, Niagara, and Norton. Most American-type grapes are slip skinned—that is, the flesh separates readily from the skin. Generally, they are processed into juices, jams, jellies, or wines. Well-managed vineyards have high yields of 6–12 tons per acre. American-type cultivars are generally hardy and widely adapted in the Midwest. They have been grown the longest and have performed well in the Midwest. However, their acreage is declining, and new planting is limited due primarily to their lower price per ton.
Winter or cold hardiness of a given cultivar measures the critical temperature when 50% of bud injury occurs. Based on the publication Winter Injury to Grapevines and Methods of Protection, grape species and cultivars are divided into six classes of winter hardiness:
- very tender—winter injury in dormant buds is expected to occur at minus 5 F or above
- tender—minus 5 to minus 8 F
- moderately tender—minus 8 to minus 10 F
- moderately hardy—minus 10 to minus 15 F
- hardy—minus 15 to minus 20 F
- very hardy—minus 20 F or below
The frequency of occurrence of extreme subfreezing temperatures is also important and depends on the vineyard site—the best sites have less frequent (e.g., once in 8 to 10 years) winter damage than poor sites (e.g., every 2 to 3 years).
Grape cultivars ripen at different times of the season and are thus classified into categories based on number of days between bloom (typically occurs 4–6 weeks after budbreak) and harvest. The classifications in Ohio correspond to the months as follows:
- early season—includes cultivars that have less than 95 days between bloom and harvest and ripen in late August
- early midseason—95–100 days, ripens early to mid-September
- midseason—100–105 days, ripens mid- to late September
- late midseason—105–110 days, ripens early to mid-October
- late season—110–115 days, ripens mid- to late October
- very late season—120–130 days, ripens in November
Geographic Locations of Grape-growing Regions
Based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Hardiness Zone Map, there are multiple zones in the Midwest that range from zone 3a (coldest, minus 40 to minus 35 F) to zone 7b (warmest, 5 to 10 F). For example, in zone 5a, the 30-year average of minimum extreme temperatures ranged between minus 10 F and minus 15 F every year between 1976 and 2005. As a general guidance, grape cultivars should have bud cold hardiness 5 F or lower than the zone where they are grown. To find out the cold hardiness zone of your area, click the following link and then enter your ZIP code: planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/.
More information on wine grape cultivars for the Midwest is available in the following resources:
Smiley L., D. Cochran. (2016). A review of cold climate grape cultivars (HORT 3040). Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach.
Wolf, K. T. (2008). Wine grape production guide for Eastern North America (NRAES-145). Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Service (NRAES).
Zabadal, T., I. E. Dami, M. Goffinet, T. Martinson, & M. Chien. (2007). Winter injury to grapevines and methods of protection. Michigan State University Extension, Extension Bulletin E2930.