American Wine from American Grapes?

BY Sarah Dowdey / POSTED May 27, 2010
muscadine grapes

Perhaps one of history’s most experimental gardeners, Thomas Jefferson documented his cultivation failures as often as his successes. In the summer of 1809, his squash “came to nothing,” as did his Old World grapes, the famous wine fruit, Vitis vinifera. The squash may have just been unlucky — Jefferson had plenty of success with his favorite vegetable, peas, or with imported plants from Italy or Mexico. But with the vines at least, he may have just needed to think more creatively.

That’s because not long after his own failure, another Virginia man, physician Daniel Norton, hybridized the European vine with a Midwestern plant, Vitis aestivalis, for hardiness. The resulting grape still grows in Virginia, and it serves as the basis for Missouri wines.

But such Vitis vinifera-heavy hybrids are about as far as most American-grown wines go. While many people are now perfectly willing to venture outside of Old World labels for the best wines, choosing bottles produced in places like California, Oregon or New York, growers are less willing to gamble on native varieties of grapes.

Brendan Borrell covers the problem of American wine’s dismissal of American grapes in an interesting piece for the Smithsonian science blog. While Europe has one variety of wine-producing grape (the aforementioned V. vinifera), North America has six, each perfectly tailored to different climates like the hot and humid South (muscadine), or the cold northeast (fox grape). But most of the 700 million gallons of wine made in the United States each year come from the single Old World standard — largely because it’s what people started making wine from in the first place, and it produces the taste we’re used to.

And while a David Mark Brown article for the Palate Press notes that five of the American varieties have been used in French-American hybrids or to make other cultivars, they’ve mostly been “pack mules,” as he describes them, lending their own native hardiness to support the characteristics of V. vinifera that actually make it into the bottle. For now at least, most attempts at hybridization only happen if there’s no other way to grow European grapes in a North American climate.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Some pioneers are working to develop American vines to produce, as Brown writes, a “native grape capable of transforming the wine world.” Sounds lovely to me, but he also notes that the issue of consumer taste is a little more complicated than simple growing and packaging a new product: “The commercial problem with developing an American wine identity is that most people have never heard of a Frontenac or a Muscadine, much less know how to match one with a steak or penne pasta.”

True, although I myself have had muscadine jelly and it, at least, is delicious. If there’s a wine out there made from those oversized, Southern grapes, I’ll give it a shot.

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