If you live in the north but dream of making wine, don’t despair. Both wine and red wine grapes can grow and thrive in northern climates. Check out this list of cold hardy wine grapes for zone 4 growers!
After several years of dreaming and planning, I’m finally getting a real start on our little homestead vineyard this year, and I’m so excited about it!
A couple years ago, my parents gave us some young concord grape vines, started from vines that my grandfather had started for them years ago. (Isn’t that the sweetest?)
They’ve grown and thrived, and last fall we had our first harvest. It was so thrilling to pick our own grapes in our own backyard! I knew that this spring I needed to plant more vines and make our dream of growing wine grapes a reality as well.
While concord grapes are pretty common here in western Maine’s chilly climate, it’s less common to find grapes being grown for wine or raisins. So I’ve been doing some research about varieties that make good wine, and handle our cold winters well. Here on our little hillside microclimate, we are pretty solidly zone 4b, but have had at least one winter with zone 4a temperatures.
I don’t want to pour myself into establishing vines that are likely to meet their demise in a bad winter, so I’m trying to choose our varieties carefully. The list of cold hardy wine grapes below is what I’ve assembled as I’ve been reading through every resource I can find, about growing wine grapes in zone 4.
Please know that I haven’t grown these yet myself, this is my own working list, from which I’m choosing varieties to add to our homestead. We’re doing this in phases and adding 4-6 new varieties each year. Once I had this list compiled, with all my notes, I thought I’d share it in case you also might be dreaming of growing wine grapes on a northern homestead, and may find it helpful! I’ve broken it down into red wine varieties, and white wine varieties. First, the red…
Cold Hardy Red Wine Grapes
I’ve seen some places that describe this as early mid-season, and others late season. What everyone agrees on is that these smallish blue grapes make wonderful wine, including rose, red and port wines. Grows very well in zone 4, and even into zone 3. Considered hardy down to -40.
An early season French Hybrid. I’ve seen several places list this as a zone 4 grape, while others list it as zone 6. This slideshow from Iowa State University demonstrates it thriving in Zone 4b, so I feel it’s an appropriate inclusion in this list. Related to Marechal Foch, and very productive, one downfall is that it’s considered highly susceptible to powdery mildew.
An early season French Hybrid, related to Leon Millot, but less susceptible to powdery mildew. Small clusters of small berries ripen early, and can be particularly attractive to birds. The wine from this is considered excellent. One possible downfall can be that bud break comes early, so it can be susceptible to late frosts.
An early mid-season grape, which has become a very popular northern red wine grape variety. Considered very hardy. According to Double A Vineyards: “Typically maturing with high sugar content and moderate acidity, Marquette can produce complex wines with attractive ruby color and pronounced tannins, often with notes of cherry, berry, black pepper, and spice.”
Bred by Elmer Swenson, Norway Red is a sister of the better-known St. Croix. An early season blue grape, it’s considered very hardy (to at least -40° F.) According to grape expert Lon Rombough’s site “Norway Red is said to be somewhat hardier with better wine quality than it’s sibling.” This is a female flowered flowered grape, so must be planted near other varieties to pollinate it.
Another sister variety of St. Croix with excellent cold hardiness and good disease resistance. Sugar content is typically low and wines can have pleasant fruitiness lacking in body and tannins, so there is potential for blending with other complimentary red hybrids. On their website, the Minnesota Grape Growers Association credits the excellent book, Northern Winework, when they say, “It can yield wines with good fruit and deep colour, and, if fully ripened, be quite aromatic in character. It responds well to oak treatments, and would be quite useful served with foods made with tomatoes. Makes a highly aromatic rose if pressed very early.”
An early mid-season grape used for wine, but also good as a seeded table grape. Considered very hardy, with good disease resistance. Used both for blending, and as a varietal. Has been used alone or blended in many of the award-winning cold climate wines that I’ve seen.
An early season grape, Valiant was developed especially for northern growing climates, by the University of South Dakota. Considered very cold hardy, with compact clusters of small berries that ripen reliably. Often considered more of a juice or jelly-making grape, it’s also used for red wine. I liked reading through these wine-making notes from regular home growers who use Valiant grapes.
Cold Hardy White Wine Grapes
Early Mid-Season, with good disease resistance, and very hardy. This makes a light wine, that everyone seems to describe with words like “tropical”, “floral”, and “pineapple”. From some of my reading, it seems to be a bit of a love it or leave it grape, when it comes to wine making, because of its unique and pronounced flavors.
A mid-season grape, Elvira is considered very cold hardy (to at least -40). Described by Cornell University as “one of the most productive varieties grown in New York.” Very tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. Most commonly grown for blending in white wine production.
Mid-season. A white sport of Frontenac. Very cold-hardy and easy to grow, with grapes that are used to create a classic white wine. This article about growing Frontenac Blanc from Midwest Wine Press was helpful in learning more about Frontenac Blanc. Katie Cook is an Enologist (wine expert) from the University of Minnesota. In the article, she says:
‘For me the Frontenac family is one of the easiest grapevines to grow. I think all the growers really like it,”Katie Cook, Enologist, University of Minnesota
Mid-season, and very cold hardy. Another color mutation of Frontenac, this one makes a more amber-colored wine. According to Iowa State University: “Produces a clean, crisp white or salmon-tinged white wine w/ an apricot or peach flavor.”
Mid-season. Itasca is a relatively new release from the University of Minnesota’s prolific cold-hardy grape breeding program. Very hardy, with good disease resistance, Itasca produces an aromatic, dry white wine that is light yellow to straw in color. Some describe “subtle honey notes.”
Covering the 2017 Cold Climate Wine Competition, the Growler writes: The breeders, enologists, and winemakers who have tasted the first experimental wines made from the newly released Itasca grape are blown away by its potential as a dry white wine for Minnesota. We expect to see the first commercial versions on the market in the next year or two.the Growler, Covering the 2017 Cold Climate Wine Competition
Described by some sources as “early” and others “late“. Somewhat susceptible to disease, but very cold hardy. Bud break is early, so late frosts may be an issue. Aromatic yellow-pink berries form loose clusters. With its high acidity, it is seems often used to produce sweet or dessert wines, with apricot and peach characteristics.
Early season, very vigorous and cold hardy. Prairie Star is considered moderately productive, and produces a well-balanced white wine. I enjoyed checking out the amazing collection of wines crafted by this Wisconsin winery, all from local grapes. Listen to this wonderful description of their Prairie Star varietal:
Prairie Star wines are full bodied, with brisk tropical fruit flavors, and a long, cinnamon spice finish, to be compared favorably with a Riesling of Sauvignon Blanc.Seven Hawks Vineyards
Mid season, and very hardy. A wonderful dessert grape, know for its distinctive strawberry undertones. Also used to make rose or white wines. On his website, grape expert Ron Lombough noted that Swenson Red was his favorite. That was enough for me – this is one of the varieties I’m planting this year.
Mid season, and very hardy. Yellow-green berries are supposed to have a very distinct floral aroma. Swenson White was developed by the famous northern grape breeder, Elmer Swenson, to be an improvement on Eidelweiss, from which it was selected. Bud break is mid-season so generally safe from late frosts. Also known as an excellent seeded table grape.
Resources for growing wine grapes in Zone 4
These are some sites and resources I’ve found helpful, as I’ve been researching growing cold-hardy wine grapes:
University of Minnesota Extension : helpful resources and information for northern grape growers.
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs : helpful resources and information for northern grape growers.
Double A Vineyards : A good source for started vines, with excellent descriptions about each)
BunchGrapes.com : Website of the late Ron Lombough, grape expert and collector. His wife still manages the site and offers cuttings from their extensive grape collection. I have ordered from her, and received extra cuttings, super-fast shipping, and wonderful communication – she is great!!
Minnesota Grape Growers Association : helpful resources and information for northern grape growers.
Iowa State University : Very informative slideshow, full of information about cold climate wine growing.