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Kentucky’s Grape and Wine Industry Bursting with Potential

Photo of cluster of grapesby Robin Roenker

Last year Chris Nelson, an associate professor in UK’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and owner of Chrisman Mill Vineyards and Winery, contemplated planting some additional acres of a Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety. But he changed his mind after a visit from Kaan Kurtural, a UK expert on the cultivation of grapes for winemaking. Based on the topography and soil at Nelson’s Jessamine County vineyard, Kurtural, who joined the College of Agriculture last July, steered him away from planting additional vinifera, or European-variety grapes. Instead, he encouraged Nelson to plant an American grape variety called Norton, which Kurtural believed would grow better there.

In hindsight, it’s a decision Nelson is pleased with. “The long-term viability of Norton is where Kentucky’s wine industry is going,” he says.

Helping growers and wineries in the state realize the potential of Kentucky’s grape and wine industry—and how they can most successfully play a part in it—is precisely the goal of several extension research projects being overseen by John Strang, an extension professor in UK’s Department of Horticulture.

Thanks to a $585,000 grant from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, obtained through the efforts of the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council, the Kentucky Vineyard Society, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Strang was able to hire both Kurtural and Tom Cottrell, an extension enologist, on two-year appointments. (Enology is the science of winemaking.)
While Kurtural’s primary focus is helping Kentucky grape growers select the optimal variety for their particular sites, Cottrell’s is visiting Kentucky’s 24 operating wineries, tasting their wines, and suggesting ways to improve them. “My work with the winemaking aspect is pretty straightforward stuff,” he says, belying the wealth of expertise he brings to Kentucky. He has begun and operated wineries in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and California.

The statistics speak to the boom under way in Kentucky’s wine industry. In 1998, there were only 40 acres of wine grapes in commercial vineyards in the state; today, 102 growers across the state cultivate approximately 500 acres of grapes. In 2003, Kentucky wineries produced 24,000 cases of wine, and this year they will bottle more than 61,000 cases.

As fast as the growth has come, it would be tempting for the state’s wineries and vineyards to keep putting the bulk of their energies into European grapes and wines, like Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons that tend to bring the most revenue per acre. But, as Strang points out, while these grapes thrive in California, they are very difficult to grow here in Kentucky. One extreme winter could potentially wipe out the state’s entire crop.

Photo of Carol Jordan's research teamKaan Kurtural (left), a UK expert on the cultivation of grapes for winemaking, and Tom Cottrell, an extension enologist, are helping Kentucky grape growers select the optimal variety for their particular sites. Enology is the science of winemaking.

“We’re way over-planted in those, as far as I’m concerned. Thirty-seven percent of all the Kentucky acreage is planted in vinifera varieties. And none of the surrounding states are anywhere close to that,” Strang says.

Strang and Kurtural, with USDA funding, are testing other grape varieties, particularly American varieties like the Norton, in hopes of determining which ones will be most sustainable over the long term in Kentucky’s varied climates. Kurtural explains that while some vinifera varieties do grow fairly well in Central Kentucky, they are not appropriate for sites in other parts of the state.

Kurtural spends much of his time traveling to grape-growing sites like Chrisman Mill to determine their suitability, but his overall diagnosis of a site involves technology beyond his in-person visit. Having developed a program that utilizes geographic information system (GIS) technology, Kurtural can now type in an address of a vineyard or potential vineyard and within minutes have electronic access to key information—such as temperature trends and topography—that helps him determine, first, if that site is suitable for planting grapes, and, second, which varieties might thrive there.

Kurtural says that “we can grow grapes in essentially all parts of the state,” but the ideal site is one that is slightly more elevated than the surrounding areas, with a 5 to 10 percent slope and a north-facing aspect, to mitigate the damages of spring frost and delay “bud break” in spring. Also, while Kentucky’s limestone-based soil suits the grapes well, there must be at least 30 inches of rooting depth, good drainage, and a good balance of potassium, phosphorous and other nutrients available.

Cottrell says that Kurtural’s role—helping growers choose appropriate sites—will be pivotal as Kentucky works to catch up with surrounding states like Missouri, Indiana and Ohio that have had thriving wine industries for more than 30 years.

“Raising grapes in new places is fraught with uncertainties. Kaan and Tom are using their expertise to help Kentucky growers select varieties that will thrive as well as make premium wines,” says Strang.

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