Can I grow wine grapes in Ohio?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

How can I figure out if I can grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on my property?

—Bob, Tippecanoe, Ohio

Dear Bob,

I’m not a vineyard consultant, and I don’t play one on television. But I have some information that might be helpful as you consider a potential journey into viticulture.

Not every grape can excel in every place. There are dozens of variables that make a site a great fit (or not) for a Vitis vinifera vineyard. Vinifera is the European species of grapes most successfully used for winemaking, which includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. Unfortunately, vinifera grapes can be challenging to grow. Other types of grapes, like hybrids and North American varieties, will grow much more easily but, as you might suspect, have a smaller audience of wine lovers, and often carry a smaller price tag.

The biggest challenge you’d face growing Cabernet in Ohio is the climate, with its relatively short growing season and longer, colder winters. Grapes are sensitive to cold temperatures, and late or early frosts can be particularly damaging. One bad late-spring frost can wipe out the entire crop for a year. Later in the season, when the grapes are ripening, cold weather can force a winemaker to pick grapes before they’re ready to prevent them from being ruined. Cabernet Sauvignon is considered one of the least hardy wine grapes in terms of frost resistance.

You probably already know that Ohio has a growing wine industry, with five designated American Viticultural Areas like the Lake Erie and Ohio River Valley AVAs. There is some Cabernet Sauvignon planted there, but cooler climate, hardier grape varieties are considered to have greater potential.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources for anyone interested in planting grapes, including the USDA hardiness zone map. Keep in mind that this information is based on average conditions, not extreme temperature swings. You might also try reaching out to the Ohio Wine Producers Association for more resources, and there's even a viticulture and enology program at Ohio's Kent State University at Ashtabula that you might want to check out. Good luck in your research, and hopefully you can find some real vineyard consultants to help you on your next adventure!

—Dr. Vinny

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