Thursday, January 30, 2014

Can I grow grapes in my backyard?

Certainly. (As Mrs. Quantock says in Lucia in London, " 'I'm all for everybody doing exactly as they like. I just shrug my shoulders.' And she heaved up her round little shoulders with an effort.")

I know it is possible to grow grapes in this area -- south suburban Chicago -- because my neighbor three doors down grows a big grapevine on a trellis every summer. However, I doubt he is growing vitis vinifera, the wine grape.

For some reason, vinifera wants to grow in soil so unforgiving as to hardly count as soil. It also wants to grow on a hill. The good black farm dirt and flat, sun-washed, snow-smothered land of northern Illinois would not please it. In the ancient wine-making regions of Europe, in France and Germany especially, the vines grow on chalk cliffs, on slate, on the actual pebbles and stones of prehistoric river beds. Apparently, these conditions force the vines' roots to struggle deep into the ground in the search for nutrients, and this in turn makes for a strong plant and good grapes full of flavor. But just a few grapes, not many: apparently, also, these bad conditions force the vine to produce comparatively little fruit, and that too is a good thing. The less fruit, the more intense the flavor of what is there, and the better the eventual wine. Grapevines that bear too lavishly are pruned, hard, by the grower. Where the grower does not prune his vines, and where the summer's rainfall and sunshine were good, he will get acres and acres of grapes of no distinction, and therefore lots and lots of wine, also of no distinction.

Why vinifera prefers to grow on hillsides is a bit puzzling. It has to do with the danger of frost to the crop, and to the fact that cold air runs down hillsides and "pools" at the bottom. Since a really hot climate would make vinifera bear too abundantly -- the grape grows rougly at around 45 degrees north and/or south latitude -- winemakers have learned to cope with the good and bad points of the cooler regions that the vine does like. Hillsides answer the problem. By their angle, they catch all the rays of the summer sun possible; their slope drains off the frosty night air; and if the hillsides happen to be poised above a convenient river, then that, historically, was all the better for transporting the final product to market. When you see a French wine label with the word "cote" on it -- Cote d'Or, Cote de Beaune, Cotes du Rhone -- you are looking at the product of a slope (cote) near a river.

So can you grow grapes in your yard this summer? Certainly. They may be very tasty eating, and the neighborhood birds will thank you.

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