Growing wine grapes in northern Illinois

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-UNVCHPVmTF.jpg’, ‘Photo by Robert Conboy’, ‘Aurore grapes from area vineyard operator Robert Conboy in 2002.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-QeV5dXdD5r.jpg’, ‘Photo by Robert Conboy’, ‘Dark-colored Baco Noir grapes harvested in 2002 from Robert Conboy’s vineyard.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-n3Pu4kBe6b.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dennis Davidson’, ‘Grape grower Robert Conboy displays some of his harvest from his northern Winnebago County vineyard.’);

Grapes. One of my early childhood memories was eating a cluster of grapes while sitting on the curb in front of my house. It was one of those fall evenings that could set the standard for the “Indian summer” twilights we all remember.

The smell of burning leaves was in the air, the trees seemed to glow with the setting sun but there was just enough light to keep my mother from calling me in. These were special grapes grown by a neighbor, and I would pinch them one at a time into my mouth while holding on to the skin.

They were Concord grapes, the standard variety grown in backyards all over Rockford. They made wonderful jelly and juice. However, if one attempted to make wine from them, the results were usually disappointing. Concord grape wine is an acquired taste. It doesn’t resemble the wine made from European grape varieties or the varieties that provide the bulk of wines that are produced in California, and the other major wine growing regions of the world.

Their scientific name is Vitis vinifera.

The problem with growing wine grapes in this region is the climate is too severe for the classic wine grapes. In northern Illinois, the minimum winter temperatures kill the fruiting buds of most varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc. In addition, even if the buds weren’t killed by cold, the various fungus diseases endemic to the Midwest would severely impact the vines.

The defoliated crab apple trees that we often see in the summer show the same symptoms that would affect these grapes. The apple leaves get diseased and fall off as early as July. Downey mildew, powdery mildew, black rot, anthracnose, dead arm, crown gall, phomopsis, bunch rot, all of which are names of afflictions that damage both the vines and the fruit of Vitis vinifera.

And if the diseases weren’t enough, insects would finish the job. The roots of Vitis vinifera vines are susceptible to attack by an insect known as phylloxera, and the vines gradually dwindle and die. There are many additional bugs that attack the vines, including borers, and leaf eaters such as Japanese beetles and caterpillars.

While this is an oversimplification of the reasons the Midwest is not traditionally a viticultural area, a few pioneers have been breeding wine grapes that are suited to our conditions.

Essentially, this is done by crossing the European wine grapes with the disease-resistant American grapes. While thousands of crosses have been made, only a few have both the hardiness to thrive here, and some of the wine-making qualities of Vitis vinifera.

These hybrids have been produced by both American and European grape breeders. They are referred to generally as French hybrid wine grapes because most of the early varieties were produced by French breeders. More recently, American breeders have added to the number of successful varieties that have been produced.

Cornell University at Geneva, N.Y. has been a leader in breeding these new grape varieties. Wisconsin native Elmer Swenson is an individual breeder of such success that the University of Minnesota has used his work as a basis for their ongoing grape breeding project to produce winter-hardy, disease-resistant wine grapes for the rigorous climate of the upper Midwest.

Two pioneering wineries that recognized the possibility of making wine from grapes grown in the upper Midwest are Galena Cellars located near Galena, Ill. and Wollersheim Winery near Prairie du Sac, Wis.

Recently, thanks to assistance from State of Illinois officials, there has been an increase in the number of new wineries in our state. Though most are in the southern part of Illinois, Stiengtunt Winery has opened in Waterman, and Massbach Ridge Vineyards and Winery has opened near Elizabeth. These new wineries also have French hybrid wine grapes as the majority of their grape plantings.

When it comes to individual grape varieties the home gardener would plant for the purpose of wine making, there are literally dozens from which to choose. Talking to local people who are familiar with French hybrid wine grapes is difficult because few grow them.

Some of the better nursery catalogs have listings of wine grapes and may be a good place to start looking for suitable grapes. The Internet is also a useful tool to contact sources for vines and obtain descriptions of the various types of available grapes.

Great River Vineyard and St. Francois Vineyard are both suppliers of vines. Information about their vines is readily available on the Web, along with additional nurseries.

The “bottom line” for the beginner is if you have the space for a few grapevines, and the interest, there is no reason you can’t grow wine grapes in this climate. These hybrid grapes, with care, have the potential to make great-tasting wine.

Robert Conboy is an award-winning beer and wine maker, lifetime resident of Rockford and a retired Rock Valley College chemistry professor. He grows French hybrid grapes in northwest Winnebago County.

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