Auburn, Ala.—Growing grapes in Alabama has been practiced since the state was first settled, but has only been successful in certain areas for dedicated growers. To produce quality bunch grapes one must learn about their area, choose the grape variety, perfect the setup and devote plenty of attention to the grapevine.
Muscadines are a type of grape that grows well almost everywhere in Alabama. They are native to the Southeast and are used for fresh consumption, juices and wines. Muscadines thrive because they are resistant to a key grape killer, Pierce’s Disease (PD). PD is caused by a bacterium carried by an insect that feeds on infected vegetation, acquires the bacterium and can inject it into the sap of the grapevine. The bacterium multiplies and clogs the xylem vessels so water and nutrient transportation to plant organs is being limited. Consecutively, over time the plant fails to receive nutrients and dies.
Cultivars resulting from crosses between American species or between French and American species are known as hybrid bunch grapes.
Elina Coneva, an Extension specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension explains, “American species produce an inferior quality fruit, but can be resistant or tolerant to PD. Because of this quality they are used in crosses with French cultivars that possess high fruit quality, but are susceptible to diseases including PD, which is the major factor preventing French or European grape production in the Southeast.”
Eleven PD resistant or tolerant hybrid bunch grapes including Black Spanish, Blanc du Bois, Champanel, Chardonel, Conquistador, Cynthiana, Favorite, Lake Emerald, Seyval Blanc, Stover and Villard Blanc, have been recently tested in Alabama. The top three performing hybrid bunch grape cultivars in north Alabama conditions are Black Spanish, Cynthiana, and Villard Blanc.
Regionally produced hybrid bunch grapes yield wine, juice and jams. According to North Alabama Horticulture Research Director Arnold Caylor, Black Spanish is processed to wine, whereas Conquistador is used for juice or jam. Hybrid bunch grapes are susceptible to foliar disease and are attacked by several insect pests so it is important to use pesticides when growing grapes in Alabama.
Progress continues to be made in Alabama toward growing grapevines resistant or tolerant to PD. Currently, Coneva is testing PD resistant French grapes developed by the grape breeding program at U.C. Davis in California. Based on their upright growing habit, these vines are trained in a vertical shoot positioning system, which also facilitates more efficient pest control, while concentrating the crop load within a compact fruiting zone. French grape selections are showing promise for Alabama environment and for the first time can provide an opportunity for cultivating high-value French grapes in Alabama and the Southeast.
Learn about the area, choose your type of grape, then set up to plant. The site should be in full sunlight most or all day. If planning to grow several vines, it is best to have straight rows for level land and contour rows for hilly terrain.
“The spacing between rows will depend on the vigor of the cultivar of the grape that you are growing,” said Caylor.
Make every effort to establish a permanent sod between rows to reduce soil erosion. Use a trellis system to train the vines horizontally, managing a dense canopy by dividing it, allowing more sunlight to reach the fruit renewal zone. Prepare a large hole for the entire root system; set the plant at the correct level, fill the hole with topsoil, firm it, water liberally and do not add fertilizer. Hand weeding and hoeing is necessary as there are not many choices for herbicides for the first year of growth. Pruning should be done while vines are dormant. Summer hedging can help maintain the vine canopy and ease vineyard operations .
If interested in learning more about growing bunch grapes contact your county Extension office for information and tools to get started at http://www.aces.edu/main/.
Featured image by Andrew Hagen/shutterstock.com