The basic principle to apply when selecting winegrape varieties with which to start a vineyard is to match the varieties to the climate. Texas vineyards are located in all parts of the state, which encompasses a wide variety of climatic conditions requiring varying considerations. Temperature is the most important climatic factor and one of the concerns in Texas is hot temperatures during the fruit-ripening portion of the season. In many regions of the state, there are additional concerns over potentially damaging cold temperatures in the dormant season and Spring frost damage to young shoots.
Variety selection therefore, must consider the relative risk and impact of unfavorable temperatures at a site in relation to the characteristics of each variety. For example, "hot-climate" varieties that lack adequate dormant-season cold hardiness have not been successful in west Texas. Similarly, otherwise well-adapted varieties that have early budbreak (e.g., Chardonnay and Sangiovese) can be a risky proposition in areas that are likely to have late Spring frosts.
In a viticulturally hot climate such as Texas there is no shortage of heat units or sunlight to ripen almost any variety of grape to adequate sugar levels. However, the climatic conditions under which fruit ripening occurs has a major influence on the speed of ripening, the development of flavors, and the balance of sugar and acidity. Varieties that are considered to be "cool-climate" types do not develop the same flavors nor the balanced chemistry in a hot climate as they do under the slow-ripening conditions of a cool climate. Therefore, varieties that are known to perform well in a hot climate are the most likely to ripen their fruit with good varietal character and produce high quality wines in Texas. That being said, however, Texas has produced good wines from such "cool-climate" varieties as White Riesling and Pinot noir grown at higher elevations in west Texas.
Two other major considerations in choosing varieties for Texas vineyards are market demand and, in some regions, resistance to Pierce's Disease. Texas has already proven successful at producing good quality wines of popular varieties. Presently, the top five varieties grown in Texas are mostly well-known varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc, and Merlot. Port-style wines have also received some recognition for high quality, as well as dessert-style muscat wines made from Muscat blanc (Canelli) and Orange Muscat.
Production of varieties that are less well-known or unproven in the marketplace can be risky, particularly if a high percentage of the wine will be sold through distribution. However, small wineries that sell much of their wine through the tasting room have the opportunity to introduce customers to less familiar varieties, blends, and wine styles. Recently, there has been considerable experimentation in Texas to evaluate the commercial potential of varieties adapted to warmer climates, including Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, and Tempranillo. Some of these have already made excellent varietal or blended wines, and increased experience with them in the vineyard and winery should result in additional improvement.
Variety evaluations have been conducted in various regions of Texas. A 12-year variety trial on the Texas South Plains concluded that the varieties with the greatest potential for that region were: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc, White Riesling, Zinfandel, Ruby Cabernet, Merlot, and Semillon. See the report Grape Cultivar Performance on the Texas South Plains, 1974-1986 for more information on this evaluation of 82 grape varieties. A new variety trial will be established in 2003 at the Texas A&M Research Center in Lubbock. A good reference book that provides descriptions of hundreds of varieties is Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes.
Pierce's Disease (PD) is of concern in many of Texas' grape growing regions, but it is a limiting factor for production in areas close to the Gulf of Mexico. Variety selection in high-risk regions quickly narrows down to a few varieties that are known or thought to be resistant to PD. The best PD-resistant white wine variety is Blanc Du Bois. Black Spanish (also known as Lenoir) and Cynthiana (also known as Norton) are red wine varieties with resistance to PD. Texas A&M University has a new variety trial underway in College Station to evaluate varieties for PD resistance or tolerance.
Varietal susceptibility to fungal diseases, particularly Botrytis Bunch Rot, can be a consideration in high rainfall, high humidity locations. Varieties with tight clusters (e.g., Chenin blanc and Zinfandel) are at high risk for Bunch Rot in such regions.
A clone is defined (Hartmann, et al., 1990) as a genetically uniform group of individuals derived originally from a single individual by asexual propagation (cuttings, grafting, etc.). All grape varieties are propagated by asexual means to preserve the unique characteristics of the variety. But slight genetic variations commonly occur among the many billions of cells that make up a grapevine. If a new vine is propagated from a cane that grew out of such variant tissue, it may exhibit somewhat different characteristics than the original vine. If the difference is desirable, for example, the new vine ripens its fruit a week earlier, the vine could be further propagated to perpetuate the new characteristics. Thus, a new clone is born and it is assigned a number or given a name to distinguish it from other clones.
In practice this means that there is more that one Cabernet Sauvignon. One reference book lists 19 distinct clones of Cabernet Sauvignon (ENTAV-INRA, 1995) and describes their individual characteristics. To be considered a distinct clone there must be a unique difference from other clones, although sometimes the difference is slight. Keep in mind that differences among clones of the same variety are vastly smaller than differences among varieties, but sometimes the difference can be important. Clones may have differences in time of budbreak, time of ripening, cluster architecture (loose versus tight), fruit yield, fruit quality, or other characteristics. In addition to the book by ENTAV-INRA, Caldwell (1998) has produced a guide to winegrape clones.
It should be noted that the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) in California assigns unique numbers to different selections of the same clone that have undergone various virus elimination treatments.
Caldwell, J. 1998. A Concise Guide to Wine Grape Clones for Professionals. Second Edition. John Caldwell Viticultural Services. Napa, California.
ENTAV-INRA. 1995. Catalogue of Selected Wine Grape Varieties and Clones Cultivated in France. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. CTPS.
Hartmann, H.T., D.E. Kester, and F.T. Davies, Jr. 1990. Plant Propagation Principles and Practices. 5 Edition. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Robinson, J. 1996. Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes. Oxford University Press. New York.
National Grape Registry
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, FPS, NCGR, and USDA-ARS
The National Grape Registry (NGR) contains information about varieties of wine, juice, and table grapes, raisins, and grape rootstocks available in the United States. Growers, nurseries, winemakers and researchers can find background information and source contacts for those grape varieties in this single convenient location.
Vitis International Variety Catalogue
German Centre for Documentation and Information in Agriculture
The Catalogue provides details of grapevine collections in 126 institutions, on disease resistance data (with bibliographic references), characterization data (photographs, berry and shoot descriptions, seed), and passport data (prime names, synonyms, pedigree, holding institute).
Grape VarietiesUniversity of California Integrated Viticulture Online
This website contains descriptions of the origin and characteristics of grape varieties grown for wine, dessert, raisins, and rootstocks.
A Review of Cold Climate Grape Cultivars
Iowa State University
This reference provides information on the origin, viticulture characteristics, disease and pest resistance, cold hardiness, and wine quality characteristics useful for selecting grape cultivars to plant in cold climates.
Plant Genetic Resources Unit
USDA-ARS and Cornell University
Vitis, or grape, is one of the large collections at the PGRU. Over 1800 separate accessions of grape are held under commercial field conditions at the Clonal Repository Farm located a mile north of the station.
National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Fruit and Nut Crops at Davis, California
The NPGR for Fruit and Nut Crops is one of over two dozen facilities in the National Plant Germplasm System which collect, maintain, characterize, document and distribute plant germplasm from all over the world.
FPS Grape Program
Foundation Plant Services (FPS) was established as a public service unit at the University of California Davis to maintain and distribute materials from Foundation collections of grapevines as well as several other vegetatively propagated crops.
European Vitis Database
The establishment of an european grapevine genetic resources database with free access via Internet is one of the objectives of the European Project GENRES #81. The aim of the database is to enhance the utilization of relevant and highly valuable germplasm in breeding.