Grapes (Vitis spp.) are suitable for either large-scale or small-scale commercial production. Typically three types of grapes are grown in Kentucky: Native American, hybrid, and European grapes. The climate in Kentucky is the limiting factor to grape production. Although American and hybrid cultivars are better suited for production in Kentucky, European (vinifera) cultivars are more desirable and potentially have the highest economic gain for grape growers and wine makers. However, vinifera cultivars are more susceptible to winter injury and diseases resulting in a lower yield, reduced fruit quality, and often vine death. Growing grapes in Kentucky can be highly successful and rewarding if the cultivars are matched to a specific site and proper production techniques are implemented.
It is critical that growers determine their marketing strategy before planting, since this is an essential consideration in selecting appropriate cultivars. Growers interested in commercial production should become associated with the Kentucky Wineries Association, which is the leading grape and wine association in Kentucky. A marketing system for Kentucky’s table grapes does not exist. The volume of grapes that can be marketed in Kentucky through fresh market outlets is limited and currently concentrated at the farmers market and fine dining levels. There may also be some potential for producers wishing to explore and expand markets in more populated sections of the state, especially in the Louisville and Northern Kentucky areas. Wine grapes do offer the opportunity to market larger volumes. Several wineries operating in the state are interested in purchasing certain cultivars of high-quality, Kentucky-grown grapes. Demand does differ by variety and close communication on variety selection with wineries is a critical part of long-term planning.
There are many grape cultivars from which to choose. Each type of grape has its own characteristic and each cultivar within these types has its own advantages and disadvantages. While all species of grapes can be used to make wine, the quality of the finished product is influenced by cultivar, fruit quality, and vine management practices. Cultivar selection will be based on site suitability, target market, and salability of both the harvest yield and final product. Well-adapted cultivars that are cold tolerant and have increased disease and pest resistance for their locale are essential components of selection. Purchase true-to-name nursery stock that is certified virus-free.