Most connoisseurs of grapes are fans of the drinkable form of this ancient fruit. There are thousands of varieties: Cabernet, Shiraz, Semillon, Chardonnay to mention just a few. Some people on the other hand are aficionados of table grapes: Sultanas, Ribier, Flame Seedless and Waltham Cross are among those readily available in our greengrocers.
Yet all these names — diverse in size, colour, taste, texture, and ripening habits — are varieties of just the one species, the European Grape. But the European Grape, Vitis vinifera, of Asia Minor origin actually, is not the only species available for SE Queenslanders to enjoy. Two American species, the Fox Grape Vitis labrusca and the Muscadine Vitis rotundifolia are available here and are worth the attention of members. (Actually, there are some dozen other native American species but we haven't come across any in Australia other than these two).
Our interest in different species of grape arose when we lived in the relatively humid climate of the Dandenong Ranges, outer Melbourne. Traditional European varieties of grapes, both wine and table, became afflicted with downy mildew during the moist weather that lingered in the Dandenongs during and after summer rainstorms.
This same characteristic is relevant to Queensland. Although the relatively dry summer climate in the inland (e.g. Roma) and in the Granite Belt (e.g. Stanthorpe) make it possible to grow the European grapes successfully there, in coastal Queensland this is difficult, and humidity-resistant grapes do much better.
The labrusca varieties are also resistant to the root aphid phylloxera and so have been used as rootstock and hybrid partners all over the world. Many of the grapes we regard as labrusca are actually hybrids.
The labrusca varieties are distinguishable by the softer downy undersides to the leaves and less glossy top sides. Usually the leaves are less deeply dissected. The skins also slip off the fruit more easily than with the European varieties.
Labrusca grapes are commonly described as 'foxy' in flavour, or typically muscat. Neither description resonates with us. Foxy apparently refers to the disagreeable flavour these grapes impart to wine, but in the fresh form disagreeable is the last description to cross one's mind for these fine fragrant fruit. Muscat is also not a very appropriate description, as it is not unique to labrusca, for the Black and White Muscats are varieties of vinifera.
A nurseryman whom we approached for new varieties of labrusca said, the only good thing about them is that they taste so bad that the birds leave them alone. He must have been referring to the wine, as this does not apply to the fresh fruit, either for birds or, in our experience, to humans. A ripe Iona is exquisitely tasty: rich, sweet, mellow. And unless we bag or net them, we get no crop at all as the birds sample the lot before they even colour. (We have gone cool on netting since we lost a couple of bearded dragons in the net one year, so plan this year to bag every bunch).
Perhaps our friends in the Western Suburbs Wine Guild might one day submit an article on what happens to these delicious fresh fruit to give them such a bad name when converted to wine.
Many labrusca varieties once present in Australia seem to have vanished from cultivation: Niagara, White Labrusca, Gros Colman, Wilder, Delaware, Catawba, Aurelia. Some are kept by CSIRO but there must be home gardeners in pockets of Queensland who treasure these unusual kinds.
Some varieties seem more vigorous than others: Isabella is worth growing for its luxuriant foliage alone and its stamina, even in the early part of the wet season when rain is sparse.
We have tried the following on poor sandy soil at Bayside Brisbane.
We also have some unnamed varieties.
Despite our praise for labrusca, if you still prefer vinifera grapes then in SEQ you may like to try Carolina Black Rose which seems to tolerate the humidity better than other vinifera grapes.
We would be happy to provide cuttings of Isabella and Iona to any members within Queensland but our specimens of the other varieties are not yet vigorous enough to prune heavily. Also, please note that grapes may not be sent interstate without a phytosanitary certificate (a precaution against phylloxera).
We would also be willing to travel or pay expenses to collect scions of any labrusca varieties that we are missing.
Cuttings are collected when vines have completely lost their leaves. Take cuttings from year old wood and cut them 40-50cm long, about pencil thickness. They may be kept in the fridge crisper after wrapping in damp newspaper inside a plastic bag. Plant in winter, leaving only about 2 buds above the surface so that a good root system is developed.