The most important decision you’ll have to make – one that you will have to live with for the life of your vineyard – is what varieties of grape to plant. But before we get into the different varieties, we should define a few terms.
Variety – For our discussion variety means a sub-species of vitus vinifera. All wine grapes grown in California are European in origin and from the family vitus vinifera. In addition to the most popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel there are many, many other varieties to choose from —several hundred as a matter of fact.
Clone – A clone is a genetically identical vine propagated by cuttings from one mother plant that was chosen because of some particularly desirable trait. In some varieties, there is not much difference between clones and in other varieties, like Pinot Noir, there are large differences.
Selection – A selection is vine material taken from a specific site. If you go into your neighbors vineyard during pruning and collect bud wood from plants that you particularly like you have a “selection”.
Rootstock – Although Vitus Vinifera is generally considered the best grapes for making wine, it is highly susceptible to several diseases native to North America. So, to get Vitus Vinifera varieties to grow in North America, you have to graft them onto rootstocks that are created from crosses of North American native species that are resistant to those diseases. There are a variety of rootstocks suited to different situations and it is far, far beyond the scope of this to go into them. Suffice it to say that you will need an expert advising you on the rootstocks that will work best at your site with your varieties.
So no that we know our terms, we can talk about the different varieties. Although there are hundreds of varieties of wine grapes to choose from, unless you have a passion for one of the obscure ones, there are really one a few practical choices. Each is suited to one or two different climate and they are listed below by the preference for heat.
Hottest – Napa, Alexander Valley
Moderate – Most of Sonoma
Coolest – Russian River, Carneros, Sonoma Coast