AUBURN, Alabama —People make wine around the world, even in Alabama. The state’s wineries are more abundant than some might think, each with their own unique wines and atmosphere. Dr. Elina Coneva, an Alabama Extension fruit specialist, said which grapes can be grown in Alabama impacts the types of wines that can be produced.
Coneva said muscadine grapes, Vitis rotundifolia, grow best in Alabama which accounts for their use by local wineries.
“They are a native plant and well adapted to our environment,” she said. “Muscadine grapes also have developed defense mechanisms against various pests, which makes growing them simpler with less labor and input.”
While a grape variety can display variations in flavors, muscadine wines tend to be mostly sweet. Several wineries in the state offer a semi-dry or drier red wine. However, they use grapes from California or other states out West to create the drier reds.
Challenges to Growing Grapes
Grapes used in drier wines like Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot come from a different type of grape. Commonly referred to as European or French grapes, they belong to Vitis vinifera.
“It is difficult for them to survive in Alabama because they usually get Pierce’s Disease (PD) and die shortly after planting,” said Coneva. She described PD as “a deadly bacterial disease that limits Vitis vinifera grape cultivation.”
While the European grapes cannot survive PD, Coneva said most muscadine grape cultivars have a resistance to the disease. That resistance is one of their most important qualities.
Coneva said several factors determine how well the grapes will grow in various locations.
“European grape cultivars thrive in the warm, dry summers typical of California, where they are commonly grown.”
Coneva added Alabama’s heat and humidity make for challenging growing conditions for vinifera grape production.
High humidity is conducive for foliar disease development. In particular, foliar diseases can lead to significant crop losses or poor fruit qualit, including low sugar accumulation in the berries.
Other factors impacting grape production include dormant and summer pruning, canopy management, irrigation and fertilization regimens and weed control.
Looking to the Future
Research underway looks to make it easier to grow European grapes in Alabama. Coneva conducted a study with PD resistant Vitis vinifera selections in Alabama to test a feasibility of growing European grapes. Additionally, she is developing proper management practices for sustainable production.
“Growing European grapes has the potential to greatly impact the fruit industry in Alabama and the Southeast by providing a new, high value fruit crop market and expanding economic opportunities for growers,” she said. “It could also become an attractive destination for agritourism in the southeastern region.”
Finally, her research suggests that Alabama’s wine industry could realize major growth if it becomes possible to grow the same grapes as California and Oregon.
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