I’ve researched and grown modern grape varieties for many years, and the winners are in the ground, producing fruit at Epona vineyard. The results of all this research, along with my farming philosophy, are described in my book, Modern Grapes for the Pacific Northwest. Some of this information is also in a presentation I gave to the Southwest Washington Winery Association.
What are modern grapes? You see new varieties of apples from time to time in the grocery store, and in the same way, there are professionals out there developing new grape varieties. Some of these are exciting. They deliver such advantages as better flavor, earlier ripening, and more disease resistance. Epona Vineyard contains modern grape varieties whose histories stretch from the 1800s to today.
Almost all vinifera grapes (like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon) need to be sprayed frequently, due to their extreme susceptibility to fungal diseases. Inorganic sprays poison the soil and injure vineyard workers, and organic sprays are expensive. Both require use of tractor fuel and labor, which is also expensive. There is a better way, and that way is modern grapes. They are much more sustainable, more planet-friendly, and much safer and more economical to grow.
In the Epona vineyard (on steep south-facing slope with good ventilation by the winds), where we use organic practices, our modern grape varieties require no anti-fungal spray at all, ever. This saves on labor, fuel, and time in the vineyard, and it avoids the decimation of beneficial insects and animals by inorganic sprays. Other advantages of modern varieties of grapes are earlier ripening, no need to net the fruit, and the ability to grow locally instead of importing fruit from over the mountains. They are far more “green” than classic vinifera varieties. Here are some of my favorite modern grapes:
Bred by Cornell University in the 1960s at the Finger Lakes in New York, Cayuga is an exciting white winegrape for cool climates. It has superior disease resistance and high yields, and produces good wine in both cool and warm years, reliably. It’s a joy to grow. Cayuga’s flavor profile sits between Riesling and Viognier, with citrus and apple flavors, and sometimes peach, melon, and honeysuckle. Its only downsides are (a) a tendency to overcrop, but that is fixed by dropping (removing) unripe clusters during August (you try to drop enough fruit that the remainder will get fully ripe in whatever your summer weather is, that year); and (b) mid-season ripening (a little later than many modern varieties), but in cool years it still makes a good wine, although with more crisp green apple notes. It’s perfect for a summer sipper, or use as a white wine with salads, appetizers, fish, or poultry. I have 3 rows of Cayuga. It is, at least at this time, my favorite modern white winegrape.
Leon Millot is an old French-American hybrid winegrape bred in Alsace, France. It has the same parents as Marechal Foch and Lucy Kuhlmann, both of which I’ve grown. I find Leon to make the better wine, and have 3 rows of it. It has many (too many!) small dark blue, early-ripening clusters. Flavors, if fermented on the skins, include boysenberry, chocolate, and woodsiness with a medium body, like a rustic Pinot Noir with some tendencies towards Syrah. If fermented off the skins, flavors tend towards cherry and a hint of spice, in a fresher, lighter style that you might call “rose” though the color can be deeper than most roses. Note: The “true” Leon is Leon Millot “Rouge,” or the “Foster clone.” There is also a “Wagoner’s Leon” grape, sometimes called “Leon Millot Noir,” which is probably just a mis-naming of the Oberlin 595 grape. If you’re going to grow Leon Millot, make sure you’re getting Leon Millot Rouge, or “Foster’s Leon.”
New York Muscat
New York Muscat wins many blind-tested flavor competitions. It’s a purple, seeded grape that we use in our rose wine. It is also a fantastic eating grape — and you should learn to eat grape seeds because they’re good for you. The “Muscat nose” is divine in this grape. It’s possible too much orange-peel flavor can be extracted from the skins if the skins contact the pressed juice for too long, so we are experimenting with shorter skin contact time, while still hoping for that mind-blowing bouquet.
Bred at University of Arkansas, Jupiter is a large, oval, seedless purple grape with some Muscat heritage. It grows well in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a great table grape, but it also has good chemistry for wine, and its pink juice smells divine and tests wonderful. We’ve used it in our rose wine, and in a new Muscat white blend. Jupiter can make loose, more open clusters if it rains during bloom (impairing pollination), and though the clusters are straggly then (which you see in the below photo, from a cooler, wetter summer), the grapes are still just as tasty. The clusters can be huge.
Regent was bred in Germany’s Geilweilerhof Institute in 1967, by crossing Diana, a Silvaner x Müller-Thurgau cross with the interspecific hybrid Chambourcin. Regent is more than 90% vinifera. A cool-weather red winegrape, Regent has medium-sized clusters and grapes, packed fairly tightly in the clusters. The juice has vivid color and the wine is dark. Regent often blooms during the last week of the Spring rains here (which usually cease on or about July 5). The blooms, if wet, can be susceptible to botrytis, which rots the flower clusters and prevents fruit set. This is the primary “Achilles heel” of this otherwise impressive grape; a lesser disadvantage is its thin skins, which are subject to predation by bees and wasps, and, of course, birds. But if healthy clusters develop, Regent makes a good red wine, similar to a Syrah in flavor. And for several years now, we’ve seen excellent fruit set, as the climate warms up.
This is a mostly-American grape, with little Vitis vinifera in its heritage. Despite that, Delicatessen has no “Welchy” Vitis labrusca flavor. Its red stems are pretty and its neon-purple juice is absolutely mesmerizing–it’s almost as if the juice is lit by an inner light and the color is so pure. In warmer locations such as the central U.S., this grape exhibits tropical, rich flavors. In the Pacific Northwest climate, those are expressed more deeply in warmer years and less in the cooler years. Due to the tight clusters, the vine needs good airflow, or can be affected by powdery mildew, but in our steep South-sloping vineyard, with good air movement, we’ve never seen powdery mildew on it. It has low yields. Still, it is easy to fall in love with Delicatessen. We use it in one of our red wine blends. I had a volunteer “selfed” seedling spring up in my vegetable garden (probably from a seed moved there by birds), and that plant was so impressive that I have tended it and planted it in the vineyard; sometimes selfed offspring (grown from the parent’s seed) are vastly superior to the parent, so we’ll see what happens.
Mindon is my name for MN1095 x Norway Muscat, bred by David Roy Johnson, who thinks it’s his best grape, and I agree. I informally use the name “Mindon” for “Minnesota and “Donskoi, which is likely the grape that is called Norway Muscat. It has high yield of blue-purple seeded grapes that can easily reach 24 Brix in early ripening. We use it in one of our red blends.
Bred by Bro. Kenneth Caudill in Amity, OR, this is a seedless white Muscat hybrid intended for both table and wine. With huge clusters and large grapes, it is very productive and vigorous, with that fantastic Muscat nose — my “beast in the vineyard.” We expanded our plantings of it, as the fruit is excellent in our rose. We’re now trying it in a Muscat white blend.
Golubok is a promising modern grape from Ukraine. It makes a big, tannic dark red wine. There are very few modern grapes that combine those characteristics with early ripening, as this variety does. We’re planting it now with quite a bit of enthusiasm, and I’m making my first Golubok wine (the 2019), as I write this–it was harvested quite upripe (only 16 Brix), but even then I’m loving the flavors. I’m hopeful that once I apply everything I know to growing it and making wine from it, I may hit a home run with it. More info to follow on this one.
There are a few additional grape varieties in our vineyard, including:
- Swenson Red (great strawberry flavor; Elmer Swenson’s best grape).
- As of 2019, I have a few varieties imported from a friend’s vineyard in Canada (lots of permits and red tape to go through, for that). They were bred by Valentin Blattner in Switzerland: Epicure (a white winegrape for cool climates) is a good grape, though nowhere near the vine health or yield of Cayuga, and VB48.05.83 (includes Cabernet Sauvignon as a parent, and wine from this grape smells and tastes like a really good Bordeaux blend!), which has such low vigor that I may have to (sadly) give up on it. I tried, then rejected Amiel (white winegrape; low vigor; disease issues; unimpressive fruit), and I very much like Labelle (red winegrape; blueberry flavors; decent yields), and am expanding my plantings of that. I’m a U.S.-licensed distributor of the VB grapes.
- Lakemont, a seedless white.
- Reliance, a seedless pink.
- 3309, a grape that’s grown for rootstock. It will allow me (and others living near me) to graft some grapes if necessary. 3309 is a great rootstock for heavy clay and a wetter, cooler environment.
Cuttings are available for purchase, in winter, for all of these grapes. Please go to the Contact page and send me a message.