A Quick Guide to Starting a Vineyard

A Quick Guide to Starting a Vineyard

By Mark Simpson, Oct 1, 2007


Strong Demand for Grapes Drives Rapid Vineyard Growth in BC

The demand for BC wines is rising as the industry matures. Demand has outstripped supply as consumers are responding to good winemaking, improving varietal vine maturity and strong marketing from the industry.  The net acreage in BC is approximately 7500 acres, which is 13% percent higher than 2006 (6632 acres). Grape contracts are hotly contested and spot prices have risen to an all time high of over $C 3000 per ton for good fruit.  Many growers are starting wineries themselves to realize higher economic returns, leaving their long term winery customers scrambling for fruit.  These trends are all leading to vigorous vineyard expansion in both established and new growing regions. Crop conversions (like apples to grapes) and extensive remediation of marginal sites (rocky or poor contours) are also becoming more prominent as first class growing land gets more expensive and hard to find.

This story will survey some key considerations for successfully establishing a new vineyard, starting first with considering key site influences.

  • Conduct a number of site visits at different times of day to view site weather and a variety of other influences (people traffic, vehicle traffic, insects, wildlife, wind, light, ground moisture, indigenous plants)
  • Review of all documents pertained to the site such as: correspondence with local planning officials, civil engineering documents, soil analysis, irrigation information
  • Consult with acknowledged Viticulture experts regarding the optimal plant varieties for the site, including other local growers and winemakers
  • Review ease of access to the site for get equipment in and crops out
  • Investigate all available water sources, including any restrictions on irrigation and effluent


If all these factors seem positive, then it is time to consider the actual viticulture parameters to ensure success. Every site has its own terroir and micro climate, so gather your own data to allow precise decision making


Minimum Requirements for the Planting of Vitis Vinifera.

  • frost free season exceeding 150 days
  • minimum mid-winter temperatures no lower than minus 25°C
  • minimum temperatures during the shoulder months of November and March no lower than minus 20°C
  • minimum of 1200 growing degree days >10°C are needed to mature the fruit for Bordeaux red wine grapes
  • well drained soils
  • sunshine between April 1 and October 31 to exceed 1250 hours
  • Availability of irrigation quality water (low silt, pathogen free, low metals) equal to 2L/plant/day at planting rising to 5L/plant/day at maturity during active growth periods. For a 10 acre vineyard planted at 1200 plants per acre, he demand could be as high as 60,000 liters/day.  Water storage and harvesting may be necessary depending on available site wate

Solar Radiation

Solar radiation is associated with growing degree days at particular sites. Factors such as the length of growing season, although not directly related with heat accumulation, are associated with solar radiation. Long growing seasons with low heat unit accumulations are found in cool grape growing areas such as coastal climates where solar radiation is limited. Development of flavour components in grapes suitable for cooler climates is generally enhanced in such climates. Flavour components for the same varieties are often destroyed or neatly non-existent in areas of too much solar radiation

Growing Degree Days

Growing degree days (GDD) is an expression of heat summation and is a measurement of physiological time. Growing degree days is an expression of the amount of heat the plant receives that is above the basal development temperature. The more degree days accumulated, the faster the rate of production. One growing degree day is accumulated for each degree the mean daily temperature is above 10°C. Accumulations are measured throughout the entire growing season. The formula for calculating Growing Degree Days is listed below:

Growing Degree Days (GDD > 10°C) = (T max- T min)/2   – 10

Each daily accumulated GDD is added to previous GDD accumulations to give the total GDD accumulated in the season. If the daily average temperature is below the basal limit, the GDD for that day is O. There are no negative GDD values. Early ripening varieties require fewer GDD than late ripening varieties and therefore are best suited in the cooler regions of the valley. Late ripening varieties require more GDD which for some varieties limits the regions in which they can be produced successfully.


Grapes grow best under mild, dry spring weather conditions, followed by long, warm dry summers after bloom. Cold temperatures and rainfall during the flowering period may interfere with fruit set. Rain and wet weather at any time can create climate conditions conducive to the growth of pathogens detrimental to crop production and vine health. Rain at harvest may also reduce fruit quality. The advantages or disadvantages of rain depend on when, how long and how much it rains.


The amount of heat accumulated at a site varies depending on the slope of the land and the direction of the slope. In the northern hemisphere, south facing slopes are the best choice to gain increased solar radiation. North facing slopes gain the least while west facing slopes intercept more solar radiation than east facing slopes. The angle of the slope, in relation to the location of the sun, is very important to maximize the amount of solar radiation collected at a site. Cold air flows down slopes and collects at the base creating frost pockets and areas with late spring frost and early fall frost. The most suitable slopes for grape production have a gentle slope that provides good air drainage and maximizes heat accumulation.


Grapes are grown over a wide range of elevations in B.C. (9 to 490 meters above sea level). Vineyards at higher elevations are therefore generally cooler than vineyards at lower elevations the same region. Higher elevations can be wetter due to increased precipitation during the growing season and winter months. Cooler temperatures at higher elevations delay bud break, flowering and ripening dates.


Moderate air flow is beneficial to grapevines as it generally results in reduced disease pressure. High winds can cause serious damage to grapevines. Many studies illustrate the negative effects of high wind on vine growth, production and fruit quality. Vines create a special climate between the rows and in the leaf canopy that is altered or destroyed by winds. Exposure to moderate and high winds has a desiccating effect due to the high evapotranspiration rates, which causes physical damage.

In regions with significant wind issues, row directions should run parallel to the prevailing wind where possible in order to reduce shoot damages. Studies in other areas show that sheltered vines protected by artificial or natural windbreaks have higher percentages of bud break, more shoots, higher pruning weights, larger clusters and more berries per cluster, lower pH, and potassium. Yield increases have been reported when vines were protected from strong winds. The benefits of wind shelters will vary with the frequency and the degree of high winds.


Large bodies of water, such as Okanagan Lake, moderate temperature effects on surrounding areas. Such bodies of water have a large heat storage capability which has a cooling effect in the summer and warms surrounding area in the winter. In addition to this moderating effect, vineyards located on slopes close to large lakes or rivers benefit from the reflection of solar radiation from the water surface increasing the length of frost free period. Lakes or large rivers can also increase the surrounding area humidity and cloud cover. All of these factors reduce the risk of late spring or early fall frosts and extend the growing season. Fog and moist air masses should also be considered as they can lead to increased disease pressure and block radiation when humid air lingers in the vineyard.

Selecting Rootstock

The type of rootstock selected depends on many factors from marketing to soil and is a complex enough topic to merit its own article.  There are two main types of plants: self rooted vines and grafted rootstocks.  Self rooted vines are grown in a nursery and usually come in small pots. They establish quickly and can be propagated from vineyard cuttings.  Grafted vines consist of a scion head (with varietal character) grafted to a rootstock that can be selected to impart valuable characteristics such as disease resistance, faster ripening, soil adaptation, drought tolerance and vigor modification.  Using grafted rootstock gives the most flexibility in matching the planting to the conditions and desired outcome. The best way to select the right plants is to take advice from a reputable plant supplier after a good discussion of the conditions and goals for the vineyard.  There are long lead times for plants as most of material is grown overseas, so plan ahead and order early. Another important factor is acquiring disease free material, so using plants inspected and certified by CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) is essential.


There are many factors to consider in the process, so careful planning and research is the best way to lower the risk and have a successful and healthy vineyard. Another important factor is to plan out the resources over time (finances and human resources) as a growing vineyard requires lots of labor, attention and focus to maintain healthy vines, give good yields and most important provide good varietal character for the wine.  Good wine is made in the vineyard.  The process is long and involved from first bud break to the first bottle, but is very rewarding and worth the journey.


Mark is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Food and Beverage Group Inc.



Chef Meets Grape Sep. 21 2007 013 Chef Meets Grape Sep. 21 2007 015


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Mark Simpson is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Group Food and Beverage Group.