What grape varietals grow best in New Jersey?

Rows of Chambourcin grapes
A grape varietal that thrives at Hopewell Valley Vineyards, in Central New Jersey

Ideal grape varietals for New Jersey wineries are largely dictated by the weather and terroir that characterizes NJ wine country.

As far as the weather conditions, New Jersey vineyards have a relatively short growing season (from May to the end of September) that makes it difficult for certain red wine varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, to properly mature on a consistent annual basis.

Also we have a temperature range from 100 degrees down to 15 Fahrenheit, so as far as plant hardiness, there's really no problem since most grape vines can survive between -10 to -15 Fahrenheit.

The main NJ climate issue for viticulture is high summer temperatures in heat waves and humidity which can sometimes be quite high.

Therefore varieties like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, which require cooler, less humid evenings, are difficult to grow on New Jersey vineyards.

Another factor - which is a growing reality due to climate change worldwide - is sudden and unseasonable weather changes, the most 'dangerous' of which is late frost.

Late frost descends in a cold snap, and basically freezes off the delicate primary buds in springtime and therefore lowers a grape vine's production that year.

This affects mostly the fruit yield, and when the vine has to re-bud with secondary fruit, there are fewer tannins which makes the growing season even shorter.

So that said, like in most Northern latitudes, white wines are usually more adept for NJ weather. And I'd say Chardonnay, in particular, is one of the best grape varietals for making New Jersey wine.

Chardonnay is ideal for New Jersey vineyards of the European vinifera varieties.

Two other excellent grape varietals for white wine in New Jersey viticulture include Vidal and Trambinet, which you'll find even up in the Finger Lakes, a renowned region to explore the delicious expressions of East Coast wines.

As far as the red wine varieties, here at Hopewell Valley Vineyards we've had amazing results with Chamourcin, which is a French hybrid.

It's an ideal red wine grape for New Jersey because of its resistance to disease (which given NJ's often humid summers, could otherwise be an issue) and also its exceptional hardiness to colder climates, which helps protect it from sudden, late spring frosts.

As far as soil, it's really never a true issue. You can pretty much grow any grapes, in any soil. Grape vines are grown in sandy soil, heavy clay soil, stone soil, gravel soil, etc,

So you find the grapes planted in pretty much any soil. NJ soil included! :-)

In NJ we have basically three major areas where vineyards are planted.

  • The Outer Coastal Plain, which is mostly sandy and covers pretty much half of New Jersey, 50-75 miles inland from the coast.
  • Then you have areas like ours in Central Jersey which consist of shale and heavy clay.
  • And North Jersey is dominated by limestone soils.

All three of these soils are suitable for planting vineyards.

BUT - I do have my own secret bias (naturally!) which I'll share with you:

I don't like sandy soil for growing vines!

Why? Simple: Sandy soil cannot retain enough nutrients and minerals to produce excellent and aromatic wine grapes, since sandy soil drains so fast.

True, there are a few benefits for the grape growers in sandy soil:

  • This easy drainage certainly makes growing vines easier and faster. As long as you irrigate you can have a vineyard up in two to three years with huge vines, all because the root system can be established quickly.
  • Plus, undoubtedly, there are less root rot issues than with other soil types, which is nothing to mess around with, for sure!

Because while vineyards on sandy soil prove easier to manage, no matter what the grape varietal planted, I'm usually left unimpressed by the quality of the grape itself. Because the soil does not hold adequate nutrients to feed into the vine and fruit, the grapes tend to taste slightly diluted and be less aromatic than grapes grown in other nutrient-rich soils.

So I think waiting longer for the vineyards to mature in tougher (yet nutrient-dense) soil is oh-so-worth-it in the long run.

That being said, all New Jersey wineries are worth exploring, from the tippy tip of Cape May to North Jersey close to New York City.

Sergio Neri, master vintner and founder of Hopewell Valley Vineyards, shares insights, tips, and personal opinion on all matters wine. No question is too big or small. His expertise is in blending his Italian wine making tradition with the New World wine country of New Jersey to produce dependably award-winning, delicious wines

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› What grapes grow best in New Jersey?

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