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watson system for growing grapes

Pierce’s Disease (PD) is a serious threat to the cultivation of grapes in the United States, especially in the warmer, southern regions. Recently, the UC Davis grape breeding program developed new European (Vitis vinifera) grape selections with resistance to PD. These are expected to produce high-quality yield in regions with PD pressure where Vitis vinifera production was previously not a viable option.

On-going research at Auburn University focuses on determining the development and production potential of three PD resistant 87.5 percent V. vinifera selections from the UC Davis program. These selections were planted at the Chilton Research and Extension Center in Clanton in 2010.

The results are promising and indicate that the newly developed PD resistant European grape progeny have the potential to greatly impact the fruit industry in Alabama and the Southeast. This progeny will provide a new specialty fruit crop to the market and broaden the window of economic opportunities especially for small and medium-size family farms. As a result of research outcomes, two commercial vineyards in Alabama were granted the license to grow up to 2,000 vines from each of these three selections.

Figure 1. PD resistant 94% Vitis vinifera selection ‘502-20’ trained to a Watson system grown at the CREC, Clanton, AL.

Figure 1. PD resistant 94% Vitis vinifera selection ‘502-20’ trained to a Watson system grown at the CREC, Clanton, AL.

New Research

The results encouraged researchers to acquire and explore a new PD resistant grape accession with enhanced European grape parentage. Building on previous experience, researchers expanded the research plot to include a next generation PD resistant 94% European grape from UC Davis named ‘502-20’ (Figure 1).

The goal of the study is to determine the feasibility of growing 94 percent Vitis vinifera grapes in Alabama and evaluate the vine production potential when trained to a highly efficient Watson training system. Knowledge gained through this project will aid in development of best management practices and production system recommendations, vital for the establishment of a sustainable modern grape industry in the Southeast.

Vines are planted in a replicated study at three planting distances of 6’, 7’, and 8’ in-row and at 12’ between rows to a density of 605, 519, and 454 vines/acre respectively. This is done to compare the total yield and fruit quality and to determine best suited planting distance for this variety. The Watson trellis system is a relatively new training structure that has gained popularity in the southeastern viticulture. It features a divided canopy training for better air movement and reduced risk of foliar disease development.

Observations are on-going to determine vine phenology, cropping potential, yield efficiency, and fruit quality at each planting distance. After trellising the vines during the first growing season, cluster production was observed during the second year of vine growth and development. Fruit clusters were removed before flowering in order to encourage root system establishment of the young vines.

Vines were dormant pruned in Feb. 2019 to 12 spurs per vine (6 spurs/cordon) with two buds per spur retained for a total number of 24 buds per vine. Shoot thinning was conducted during the spring to maintain the desirable shoot number. Additionally, cluster thinning was applied to adjust the crop load to one cluster per shoot.

Figure 2. Total yield of ‘502-20’ grape grown at the CREC, Clanton, AL, 2019.

Figure 2. Total yield of ‘502-20’ grape grown at the CREC, Clanton, AL, 2019.

Results indicate the vines produced a commercial crop during the current season (Figure 2). Although statistical differences between the total yield/vine were not found among the three planting distances, the 6’ in row treatment produced the highest yield of 18.1 lb/vine. Mean cluster weight varied between 320.0 g for vines planted at 6’ X 12’ to 332.2g for vines planted at 7’ X 12’ (Figures 3 & 4). The number of clusters harvested per vine ranged from 20 for plants at 7’ X 12’ to 23 for vines at 8’ X 12’. Mean berry size for all planting distances was slightly above 2 g with soluble solids content of 19 to 20 percent.

Yield and fruit quality results for the first commercial crop of 94 percent European grape suggest that cultivation of this high-value PD resistant vine can provide an excellent opportunity for the development of value-added products. It also can contribute to sustain rural communities in the Southeast by creating economic conditions for new employment and new businesses, while boosting existing industries, such as the local agritourism.


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