Wine Grapes are a Low Water-Use High-Value Crop in High Demand

For a typical vineyard in Colorado, it takes three years to start producing grapes. In the 4th year a vineyard produces enough grapes to become profitable. In the 6th year, establishment costs will be paid off (not including equipment and land costs). Thereafter, a grower averages a net return of $5,134 per acre per year at 1999 prices. A typical vineyard will last at least 20 years and may last 60 years if it is well maintained.

Our Vision for the State of Nevada

We anticipate that research conducted by the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno will lead to a successful wine industry within the State of Nevada. The wine industry in the USA and the world is growing very rapidly. In 1998, the California wine industry generated $12.6 billion in retail sales in the United States and had a $33 billion economic impact on the state. In less than 40 years, Washington State has created a wine industry that produces $250 million in wine retail sales per year. By the year 2000, Washington had over 20,000 acres of vineyards and the number of wineries has increased from 19 to 145 in 20 years. Colorado has some of the highest vineyards in the world, ranging between 4000 and 6,400 ft above sea level. In 2000, Colorado had 80 vineyards (the first one was established in 1968) producing 563 tons of grapes on 400 acres with a wine retail value of over 4 million dollars. In the last 10 years, Colorado wineries have multiplied from 5 to 24. It is notable that vineyards in both Washington State and Colorado have climates similar to Northern Nevada.

UNR Vineyard Results

UNR Valley Road Vineyard, July 2001

Chardonnay, July 2001

In 1995, the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and Tahoe Ridge Vineyards and Winery teamed-up to establish a 1,080 vine experimental vineyard comprising 12 varieties of Vitis vinifera wine grapes in Reno, Nevada. These grape varieties were selected based upon their ability to produce quality wines in other regions that have similar climates to the Reno-Minden area (Bonn, Germany; Reims, France; Christchurch, New Zealand; Yakima, Washington). Some of these grape varieties have adapted better than others at the UNR vineyard.

Winter dieback has had a major impact on survival and productivity over the first five years. We have replanted 15 to 20 percent of the vineyard yearly. Of the 12 original varieties, we have removed two, Muscat Blanc and Muller Thurgau, in the spring of 2001 and replaced them with Syrah and Merlot. The Muscat Blanc and Muller Thurgau have been the most sensitive varieties to cold and have not produced any grapes. Regulated-deficit irrigation has improved cold tolerance and our survival rate of most varieties is 100% with little or no die back, once the vines have been established. In the Spring of 2007, we had a very bad false spring that afflicted the entire Western United States. Many of the varieties were damaged because they started to come out of dormancy. This was followed by a cold spell. Four varieties fared pretty well under these conditions: Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Merlot and Lemberger.

Irrigation can have an important impact on grapevines in semi-arid regions. In the summer of 2000, we applied water at 75 percent of crop Et (evapotranspiration), once plants reached a water potential of minus 10 bars. This resulted in a total of 9 applications for the entire season resulting in an eighty percent reduction in water use from the previous year. This represents 0.25 acre feet of water per acre for the season (a very low level of water application). Overall vine quality was improved with this watering schedule. We intend to pursue this type of irrigation regime in the following years. This water savings is extremely significant in arid Nevada. For example, Churchill County farmers produce quality alfalfa hay with an average application of 3.5 acre feet of water per acre per season (14 times more water than our application to grapes). Thus, it would seem that this area may have its own unique set of conditions which favor varieties not previously predicted. Further variety trials are warranted.

Northern Nevada produces excellent quality wines. The sugar to acid ratio of the grape musts for many of the varieties reached their optimum before frosts in the Fall. Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon are our two longest maturing grapes. In some years, they struggle to get fully ripe before frost, typically by mid-October. Nevertheless, even when they are less than optimum quality grapes, they can make very good wines. Our research leads us to conclude that wine grapes can be successfully grown in Northern Nevada and that it is possible to produce excellent quality wines.

Why Aren't Wine Grapes a Sure Thing?

There is a lot of variation in the way wine grape varieties respond to different climatic and soil conditions. The French have spent many centuries determining which particular varieties do best in a specific appellation. Therefore, varietal trials are needed at each particular region to accurately assess their potential over time, especially with a changing climate due to global warming.

The biggest dangers to vines in Northern Nevada are very low winter temperatures (below minus 10°F), fluctuating temperatures (false springs) which could cause premature spring growth, and alkaline or saline soils. V. vinifera grapes are adapted to Mediterranean-type climates. This species can be substantially damaged in the colder regions of the world. Native North American species of Vitis are more cold tolerant in these colder regions. Therefore, the genetic potential is there to improve cold tolerance. We have a very active research programt to improve the cold tolerance of V. vinifera varieties. Note that Native American species and hybrids are superior in cold tolerance in the middle of winter. However, they are just as susceptible to frost damage once they have broken bud.


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