The Williamsburg Winery
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Starting a Virginia Vineyard
Growing Grapes in Virginia
Tucked away in the Virginia mountainside are dozens of world-class vineyards that take advantage of the location’s ideal growing conditions. Since grapes thrive in the Virginia soil and can be trained onto a wide assortment of apparatus ranging from arbors to the trellis systems traditionally used by grape farmers, growing grapes is a relatively simple task for a home grower in the area.
Whether you’re interested in growing table grapes for yourself or to sell, or whether you’re looking to grow wine grapes for personal use or to sell to one of the many local vineyards, Virginia has the environmental conditions and dedicated market to suit all needs.
Since grapes are known to last more than a century if given a minimum of care and provided with a viable place to grow, the plants are a smart investment. In addition to providing a unique addition to the landscape of your property, established grape vines can increase the value of your land in the future.
Once the grapes are established, the required care is minimal, consisting mainly of annual pruning. The only real pest facing grape farmers in Virginia is Japanese Beetles, but many farmers choose to ignore them as they don’t last very long unless they’re causing a lot of damage to the plants, which is unusual.
Given the area’s dedication to environmental issues, it’s no surprise that many grape farmers have begun to experiment with new, environmentally conscious methods for growing grapes. For most farmers, these methods include growing the grapes organically, without the use of harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides.
As there are countless applications for the grapes that demonstrate the intense flavor for which the area has become known, a dedicated community has sprung up to help new farmers interested in continuing the Virginia legacy.
The Benefits of Grape-Growing
In addition to the financial benefits of growing grapes if you want to sell them, make wine, or simply increase your property value without too much work, grapes have incredible health benefits to consider. Grapes are loaded with vitamins A, C, and B6 and are also good sources of minerals like calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron.
Perhaps the most powerful health benefit grapes bring to the table, though, are flavonoids, a class of plant secondary metabolites that help protect blood vessels from rupture or leakage, protect cells from oxygen damage, enhance the power of vitamin C, and prevent excessive inflammation throughout the body.
Grapes also contain a wealth of antioxidants that neutralize harmful byproducts of metabolism and help to prevent cancer, strokes, heart disease, and memory loss that results from Alzheimer’s disease. Since grapes grow so easily in Virginia, it’s a shame not to take advantage of one of nature’s healthiest foods!
Seedless Table Grapes in Virginia
Though Virginia’s mild climate and nutrient-rich soil foster most varieties of grapes, certain varieties have a greater appeal at local markets and produce a more intense flavor given the area’s unique growing conditions. Here are the most popular seedless table varieties, used for juice, jelly, or simply as flavorful, delicious table grapes. Each of these varieties grows well in Virginia and is self-pollinating and disease resistant.
- Concord seedless grapes are perhaps the most widely known variety as they are incredibly hardy and popular with new growers. While this mid-season variety has a longer ripening time than other seedless grapes, the excellent flavor which is perfect for juices and jellies makes Concord grapes well worth the wait.
- Reliance grapes get their name from the variety’s ability to withstand freezing winters and sweltering heat waves, both of which are sometimes faced by Virginia farmers. Perhaps the most resistant of all the seedless varieties, Reliance is an early season grape that produces sweet, red grapes that are ready weeks before Concord grapes are fully ripe.
- Mars is an incredibly cold-hardy seedless variety that works well in the more mountainous regions of Virginia where temperatures drop below freezing in the wintertime. The deep blue fruit doesn’t bud until late spring so that the fruit is protected from damage sometimes caused to other varieties by late frost.
- Venus grapes are perhaps the most productive seedless variety. The dark blue grapes have an incredibly rich flavor and ripen early in the season.
- Himrod grapes are an early season variety commonly dried as raisons, though the white grapes’ honey-like flavor and juicy texture makes them delicious as table fruit as well.
- Vanessa grapes are sweet, fruity, and firm, reserved by most as a dessert grape. The perfect companion to a cheese plate, Vanessa grapes have a wide appeal, and farmers will love the hardy vines.
Southern Native Grape Varieties
It should come as no surprise that there are several native grape varieties that thrive in Virginia’s unique weather conditions and nutrient-rich soil. These southern native grape varieties, known as Muscadines, are unlike any other grapes.
Rich and flavorful, these grapes are legendary among aficionados, and their hardy nature makes it easy to grow them without the use of chemicals. In spite of their seeds, these native varieties are so delicious and hard to come by since they only grow well around Virginia that many in the area choose to grow native varieties without hesitation.
- Magnolia grapes are the one of the only Muscadine varieties that are commonly used for wine. These mid-season grapes are small but intensely flavorful and can also be used for juice or for eating fresh.
- Cowart grapes, though almost always used in jams and jellies, are a very popular variety to grow because of their resistance to disease and their hardy, productive vines.
- Carlos grapes are a favorite for juice an jelly. The golden-bronze grapes grow huge in Virginia, and are often more than an inch in diameter.
- Triumph grapes have a high sugar content so are almost always used as dessert grapes. The grapes are self-fertilizing and ripen early in the season.
Virginia Wine Grapes
Wine connoisseurs across the globe recognize the excellence of wine grapes grown in Virginia. The soil and climate are ideal for many different varieties of grapes, allowing the area to specialize in wines to suit all tastes. Regardless of the type of wine, Virginia vineyards ensure that the wineries start with the best, most flavorful fruit possible. Though all sorts of wine grapes grow in the area, here are a few types for which Virginia is known.
- Merlot is used both as a blending grape and for varietal wines, and is one of the primary grapes used in Bordeaux wine. There are two main styles of wine produced using Merlot: the “International style” emphasizes late harvesting and produces purple wines that are full in body with high alcohol contents and velvety tannins while the more traditional “Bordeaux style” harvests the grape earlier to maintain acidity and produces medium-bodies wines with moderate alcohol contents and fresh fruit flavors.
- Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy wine region of eastern France but flourishes in Virginia conditions and growing the variety is seen today as a rite of passage into the international wine market. Thought by many to be the premier white wine grape, it produces such wines as Chablis, Poully-Fuiss, Montrachet, and more. It can be vinified in many different styles from lean, crisp mineral wines to wines with tropical fruity flavors. In addition to its wide-ranging potential, many choose to grow Chardonnay because it is one of the hardiest wine grapes.
- Pinot Noir is a red wine grape variety that is widely considered to produce some of the finest, most complex wines in the world. It is one of the oldest grape varieties used in wine making and can be traced back to Ancient Rome as early as the first century A.D. The wine it produces is dry, delicate, and pinkish-red with red fruit aromas when young but develops vegetal aromas as it ages.
- Chambourcin is a French-American hybrid variety that seizes on the complex aromas of French wine and the intense flavor of fruit produced in Virginia. Though the grape requires a long growing season, the resulting deep-colored, aromatic wine it produces makes the wait well worth it. The variety has gained popularity across the world because of its resistance to fungal disease and its distinctive red juice (most red vitis vinifera cultivars produce clear juice).
- Cayuga White is a hybrid grape that flourishes in Virginia soil. A cross between Seyval Blanc and Schuyler grapes created by Cornel University’s Agricultural Experiment Station, Cayuga is quickly becoming an area favorite as a versatile and fast-growing grape. New farmers searching for a variety that will fruit quickly are drawn to Cayuga as it produces fruit just two years after being planted. The grapes are also appreciated for their flexibility. Cayuga can be made into two sorts of wine: a semisweet, fruity wine or a dry and less fruity wine when aged in oak. The variety is disease-resistant and incredibly productive, even the first season it produces fruit.
- Malvasia bianca is a variety of grape that produces aromatic dry, off-dry, and sweet dessert-style wines. It grows well in most areas of Virginia and is often used by Chianti producers as a bouquet contributor. This early-season variety is sometimes used to produce sparkling wine bases or a muté, a stable juice that can be blended with more neutral wines to add floral notes. Malvasia bianca wines are gaining recognition for their distinctive floral and fruity aromas.
- Muscat ottonel is a group of grapes characterized by the unique and distinguishable flavor of the wine they produce, should consider growing the newest muscat, Muscat Ottonel, or Muscat blanc, a similar variety that is also worthy of trial in Virginia. Muscat Ottonel is increasing in popularity in Virginia as it grows well in many of the state’s climate zones, though it is still grown in relatively small quantities worldwide. While the grape can be used to produce a dry wine, it is more frequently used to make semi-dry, sweet table, and dessert wines.
- Viognier is a lesser-known grape variety, its acreage is steadily increasing worldwide in order to meet the growing consumer demand. Originally Viognier was confined almost exclusively to the Rhône Valley of France, an area recognized globally for superior wine production. Viognier is produced as a varietal wine that is typically high in color, alcohol, and body. It has distinctive aromas of apricots, peaches, honeysuckle, melon, orange, muscat, pears, honey, cloves, and tropical fruits with a slight muskiness.