Anatomy Of A Grape Vine

Date December 17, 2008

Learn about Vitis vinifera

The common grape vine has been dated to be about 200 million years old and has been noted in the annals of history from the time of cave drawings depicting the great wine parties of the Neolithic era to The Epic of Gilgamesh in Ancient Mesopotamia to Wine Spectator’s monthly wine reviews of today. And regardless of the scribe the message has always been clear: wine good. For some of us that basic wine knowledge is enough, but there are others who crave more. So let us turn our eyes to the root of all wine: the grapevine, Vitis vinifera.

Vitis Vinifera: Common Grape Vine

Vitis vinifera is the only commercially planted variety of grape vine used for wine on a global scale. North America has native vines: Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, and some of these are made into sweet wines and have a “foxy” characteristic like musk. But their production is limited to regions in North America.

That is not to say they have no influence on the rest of the wine world. On the contrary, much of the vines in the world are planted from the rootstock of these Native American vines from the days when Phylloxera, a grapevine killing louse, destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards. I’ll go over Phylloxera in the next post.

Vitis vinifera is grown on every continent on the planet except on the frozen tundra of Antarctica. But imagine the Eiswein you would get if it were.

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and so on are all of Vitis vinifera vines. Yet as you learned how terroir affects a vineyard you know that not every vine can survive every soil and clime.

Certain wine grapes, like Zinfandel, Cab, Sauv Blanc, generally prefer temperate climates, but a few thrive in cooler temperatures, like Pinot Noir and Riesling. And then you have a grape like Chardonnay that seems to be content on any stage. But basically particular Vitis vinifera require site-specific needs and thusly not every vine will survive every site.

That is not to say though that two or more varieties can’t survive in the same location. Bordeaux, France is a perfect example where two grape varieties co-exist. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown in adjoining lots to produce the fabulous Bordeaux wines of the area.

With that said, there are some common needs in all Vitis vinifera. One is found in their nutritional requirements. Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper, Boron and Manganese are all nutrients needed for proper vine growth. While it seems like a lot, even the most undesirable soils contain these nutrients to some degree and some Vitis vinifera can survive in all but the most hostile terrain. Often nothing else will grow where a vine will thrive.

Trellis system of Vitis viniferaAnother commonality is that grape vines are crawling plants and to produce berries worthy of production their vines must be supported off the ground, trained to grow up via a trellis system or by having their heads pruned low to the ground, their trunk providing the only support. Without some kind of support grapes would develop rot or not mature properly due to lack of sun.

Clones, Crosses and Hybrids

As wines taste vastly different across varieties, a vine can cause differences in a single variety within a vineyard. This is because over time vines can spontaneously mutate. The berries produced from this “new” vine is called a clone. Pinot Noir is classic for this mutation. And there are hundreds of Pinot Noir clones or more. As their tastes differ, clones are selected by the tastes they produce and are planted accordingly to a desired result and also to maintain consistency. Most vineyards of Pinot Noir are a mixture of clonal varieties.

A cross variety differs from a clonal variety in that a cross is made from two different varieties. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross variety of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Another example is South Africa’s signature variety, Pinotage, which is a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

Crosses and clones differ from hybrids in that a hybrid is reproduced from two different species of plant. While clones and crosses are both subspecies of Vitis vinifera, a hybrid is the offspring of crossing Vitis vinifera with an American Vitis species, like Vitis riparia, which produces Baco Noir, a variety grown mostly in the Northern U.S. and Canada.


Crossing species to produce a hybrid is not the same as grafting one species of vine onto another’s rootstock to produce a pest immunity or to build a tolerance to a particular soil. When Phylloxera, an aphid-like pest, nearly wiped out all of Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century winemakers turned to American rootstocks to save them, as the American rootstocks were immune to the pest.

I’ll go into the Phylloxera rampage in the next post. We’ll see just how it devastated the world’s vineyards and learn about Vitis vinifera being grafted onto American rootstocks to save it.

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