Is it the rootstock or the climate?

Vitis vinifera survives the Finger Lakes: is it the rootstock or the climate?

Thomas Pellechia

According to author Thomas Pinney, (A History of Wine in America) Thomas Jefferson once praised a wine from York, Pennsylvania. The wine was named Tokay–the grape was a local named Catawba. For more than a hundred years prior, European vines had been brought into the South, Northeast and Midwest unsuccessfully, so when the American commercial wine industry began in Cincinnati, Ohio a few years after Jefferson’s death, Catawba was the foundation.

Not long after its success in Ohio, a wine industry was established in Hermann, Mo., under the auspices of German immigrants. In 1849 many Germans left Hermann to prospect for gold in California, and they brought Catawba with them. Soon, California had a successful commercial wine industry in Anaheim, and by 1860, 22 of the 32 states produced wine, most from native North American grapes.

In the 19th century, vine traffic was two-way, as Europeans experimented with Native American vines. When European vines came to America, they struggled to survive for a few years and then withered. Native American vines had a more sinister effect in Europe.

Oidium tuckeri (powdery mildew) struck Europe in 1850. An Englishman named Berkeley rightly claimed the disease arrived on grapevines from America. Three years following Berkeley’s claim, French scientists gladly learned that sulphur dusting provided a measure of control over the disease. Then, in 1865, vines in southern France began to die a mysterious death. French scientist, J.E. Planchon named this disease Phylloxera vastratrix (phylloxera from the Greek for dry leaves; vastratrix from Latin for devastator). Planchon proved that a root louse was the cause. While scientists and governments fought over the cure, the microscopic insect decimated vines across Europe, then Australia, and back to North America to California, the only place in the United States at the time where European vines provided commercial success.

By the 1870s the French found that the phylloxera bug did not kill American roots. But it took until 1881 for them to agree on a solution to the problem. They grafted scion wood from the European species, Vitis vinifera, onto rootstocks of the North American species, Vitis riparia and Vitis labrusca that went to Europe, mainly from Missouri and Canada. Even today Vitis vinifera vines are propagated on North American rootstocks to control phylloxera. But viticultural science is not yet problem free.

Peter Cousins is a grape rootstock breeder and geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service based at Cornell University’s Agricultural Experiment Station, in Geneva, N.Y. His account explains the mistake of the modern-day California wine industry when it relied on a certain rootstock.

“AXR1 is a (rootstock) hybrid of Aramon, a Vitis vinifera variety, and a selection of Vitis rupestris, so it is half vinifera. AXR1 does not have Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia in its parentage.”

Cousins doesn’t say it, but to control phylloxera, a rootstock should not have Vitis vinifera in its line–it is best to graft scion wood onto North American rootstock. But what is a true North American rootstock?

Cousins again: “Vitis riparia is a grape species native to eastern North America–it is abundant in the Finger Lakes … Vitis labrusca is another grape species native to the Northeast. Some cultivated Vitis labrusca are the result of intentional breeding between Vitis labrusca and other species, especially Vitis vinifera.”

Remember Catawba? Like a cultivated labrusca, Catawba is not a true Native North American. The vine is believed to have been the result of a field hybrid cross between native vines and European transplants. In 1860, when the Finger Lakes wine industry began, Catawba became its staple, in part because it is relatively winter hardy. Despite 19th century rootstock discoveries, Vitis vinifera vines still could not survive the New York climate.

Konstantin Frank’s thesis at the University of Odessa, in what was then U.S.S.R., was on the viability of Vitis vinifera vines in cold climates; he proved it by growing vinifera in Siberia. Frank emigrated to New York’s Finger Lakes in 1953. He was not thrilled by the overpowering grapey taste of local wines.

He thought he could help change the wines, so he applied for, but did not get, a research job at the agricultural station in Geneva. Under Professor Nelson Shaulis, the viticulture program at Geneva was primarily interested in native vines, and secondarily in French-American hybrid vines, a result of 19th century science, which were said to be cold hardy and capable of producing Old World-like wines.

Frank did not agree. In 1958 he established the first Finger Lakes Vitis vinifera nursery on Keuka Lake, birthplace and center of the upstate wine industry.

At the time, a French immigrant, Charles Fournier, was head winemaker at Gold Seal on Keuka. In solidarity with Frank, Fournier persuaded his bosses to invest in the nursery, a move that paid off in 1962 with the first successful commercial Chardonnay and Riesling wines produced in New York State. The rootstocks and vinifera clones Frank worked with had been developed in Europe, but within a few years he had his own rootstock mother blocks and his own vinifera vineyards for further research. Frank tinkered with various rootstocks and vinifera clones, searching for the combinations best suited for Finger Lakes growing conditions, until he died in 1985.

Today his grandson, Fred Frank, and Fred’s cousin, Eric Volz, carry on the legacy at Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Nursery and Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars. The Frank nursery is joined in the region by two more nurseries: Grafted Grapevine Nursery, LLC, formed in 1957 by immigrant Herman Amberg, who once worked at the agricultural station; and Wiemer Nursery, established on Seneca Lake by Hermann Wiemer, yet another immigrant. In addition, nursery and research work at Geneva includes Vitis vinifera viability in cold climates.

Controversy and questions persist. According to Fred Frank, after his grandfather’s success, Geneva researchers endorsed one rootstock for Vitis vinifera grafting, the riparia/labrusca line 3309. But like his grandfather, Fred believes in using rootstock/scion wood relationships suited to various micro-climates and soil differences. He says, “Contrary to 3309 as the be-all, our nursery provides a variety of rootstocks. Not all micro-climates and soil sites are alike. We encourage customers to experiment with a range of low to medium to high-vigor vines to fine tune in their vineyards. My grandfather proved that vine vigor was key to its survivability in erratic winter climates. Low-vigor vines remain healthy and strong by being good at drawing nutrients from our acidic soil. 3309 is too vigorous for the region, plus it is not nematode resistant. Yet, they (at Geneva) maintain that the roots do not determine viability.”

Geneva Agricultural Station plant pathologist Robert Poole confirms that, “Nelson Shaulis felt the only difference among rootstocks was their phylloxera tolerance.” But today Poole is engaged in trying to establish which factors are more important to the health of Vitis vinifera, or any vine species grown in cold climates. He has not found the definitive answer. For instance, no one doubts Vitis riparia rootstock offers protection from phylloxera, but Poole notes that it may offer more, pointing to a recent study by one of his colleagues that indicates rootstocks with considerable Vitis riparia in their line seem less prone to certain bacteria common in the Northeast.

Local grower Thomas Mitchell is convinced rootstock 3309 is generally fine for the Finger Lakes, stating flatly that, “… it is a medium-vigor vine and it is nematode resistant.” Mitchell had been vineyard manager for the once giant Taylor Wine Company. Today his vineyards supply both local wineries and Fallbright Winemaker’s Shop, a home winemaker supply business operated by Mitchell’s wife, Marcy. Mitchell has grown grapes in the Finger Lakes for 30 years–natives, French-American hybrids, and vinifera. He challenges the notion that the region can support exclusively Vitis vinifera vines.

“Frank succeeded in growing vinifera in the Finger Lakes for two reasons: he believed in himself; and he selected clones carefully,” Mitchell says. On this, Mitchell and Fred Frank agree. “But today,” Mitchell says, “there are too many tender vinifera varieties out there. We used to get nasty winter nights, with temperatures plummeting to arctic numbers … even hardy Concord vines succumbed. I have this feeling that climate change has something to do with vinifera’s success here. What if one of those nights returns?”

Eric Amberg, at Grafted Grapevine Nursery, seems to agree with Mitchell. “Cold climate vinifera growing is commercially viable–within limitations.” Amberg indicts a short growing season, nitrogen fertilization and high yields for vinifera failures in the region. Yet Amberg provides the best advice for wintering over vinifera vineyards, “… cover that (graft) union with soil in fall, then remove the soil in spring….” Frank resoundingly agrees.

Nineteenth century science and dogged determination conspired to help Vitis vinifera grow successfully in the Finger Lakes. And the proof is in the region’s superior wines, especially Rieslings. But Mitchell’s reference to global warming is sobering. It stirs up the frightening possibility that the success of Vitis vinifera propagation in the Finger Lakes hinges not only on the imprecise–and still developing–science of viticulture, but on a truly inexact science: meteorology.

Where to stock up.

The Konstantin Frank Nursery lists the following rootstocks from its own rootstock “mother” vineyards: Riparia Gloire, 188-15, 143A, 1616, 1613, 125-1, S04, 5C and 3309.

From its own scion material: Vitis vinifera vines only: Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, White Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewi. irztraminer. (Clone selection is site specific.)

Custom grafting available. Phone, (800) 320-0735. Web site: drfrankwines.com.

Grafted Grapevine Nursery, LLC lists the following rootstocks from its own rootstock “mother” vineyards: 3309, S04, 5C, 5BB, 101-14 and 1103.

Three vine species available: Vitis vinifera: Chardonnay, Riesling, Gew0rztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Viognier, Pinot noir, Lemberger, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon blanc, Gamay noir and Pinot gris. Many of these varieties available in more than one clone.

French-American hybrids: Seyval, Vidal, Vignoles (Ravat 51) and Foch. Plus new varieties/hybrids: Traminette, Chambourcin, Chardonnel and Bianca. (Some hybrids available on their own roots.)

Natives: Concord and Niagara. In part from own scion material.

Custom grafting available. Phone: (315) 462-3455. Web site: graftedgrapevines.com.

Wiemer Nursery lists the following purchased rootstocks: 3309 and S04.

Vitis vinifera vines only, in part from own scion material: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, Pinot noir, Riesling and Gewi. irztraminer.

Custom grafting available. Phone: (800) 371-7971. Web site: wiemer.com.

(Thomas Pellechia is a former winemaker based in the Finger Lakes and New York City, where he owns a wine shop. He specializes in wine, food and business writing. He may be reached at edit@winesandvines.com.)

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