America has been covered with grapevines even before varieties like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon were transplanted from Europe. Several of these native species play an important role in the world of wine, but most have been cast aside and their stories are threatened to disappear into history. Before that happens, I’d like to introduce you to several of the native wine grapes of America.
Native Wine Grapes of America
Why You’ve Never Heard of Native American Grapes
Nearly all the wines that we drink today are produced with one species of grape: Vitis vinifera. V. vinifera traces its roots back to grapes in ancient Caucasus (Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Georgia, Syria, etc). Vinifera grapes include all the most popular wines in the world: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc. and have been studied extensively. The idiosyncrasies of making wine with V. vinifera have been fine tuned for several thousand years.
In contrast, our comprehension of the native wine grapes of America is still not fully understood. Native wine grapes are very different in terms of how and where they grow, what aroma compounds they produce, and what special winemaking techniques should be practiced in order to make them well. Unfortunately, due to the low demand for these native grapes, there is very little incentive to study them. Of the hundreds of native varieties that have been identified over the last 200 years, very few are in cultivation. Let’s explore 6 of these species (there are many more, some of which may already be extinct!) and what makes them unique.
The most popular ‘grape’ flavor in the world
If you’ve ever enjoyed purple grape juice, Jewish ceremonial wine, or spread grape jelly onto toast, then you’ve tasted Concord grapes–a strain of Vitis labrusca. The taste of a fresh Concord grape is the epitome of the “grape flavor” that we’ve long associated with purple-colored candy. Despite its importance as a flavoring, Concord has been long disdained in wine. Wine writers have always described Concord-based as smelling “foxy” and, for some reason, this impossible-to-imagine-flavor-description stuck. Concord wines are perhaps best as a sweet wine with a deep red color, high acidity and aromas like strawberry, fruit-punch, violets and musk.
Varieties derived from V. labrusca
- Antoinette (white)
- Cayuga (white)
Delivering all wine from eminent doom
A species that grows happily in midwestern United States and is responsible for saving the entire world of wine from ruin. Back in the 1800’s, European botanists flocked to the United States to collect its wild grapevines. They were completely fascinated by all the new and unique edible (and drinkable) species that the US had to offer the world. Unfortunately, along with the grapes came microscopic pests, and one in particular, an aphid called Phylloxera started to infect all the vineyards of Europe. All Vitis vinifera vineyards were helpless to the louse until a pair of scientists developed a solution: graft V. vinifera onto the roots of V. riparia. Since then, several American species (Vitis aestivalis, Vitis riparia, Vitis rupestris, Vitis berlandieri) have been developed for grafting–there is still no cure for grape Phylloxera!
Varieties derived from V. riparia
- Baco Noir
- Elvira (white)
- Marechal Foch
- Triomphe d’Alsace
A cure to obesity?
It seems oddly fitting that the grape with the highest potential for fighting obesity grows only in the Southeastern United States (a region with the highest obesity in America ). Muscadine grapes (or Scuppernongs as they are often called) are gigantic, globe-shaped grapes that are incredibly high in anti-oxidants as well as a special acid (called ellagic acid) that has recently been shown to reduce the formation of fatty liver (a major cause of obesity). Southerners do make wine with this odd atlas-sized grape, but most are sweet–perhaps reducing the potential health-benefits.
Variety of V. rontundifolia
- Muscadine (Scuppernong)
Fine wine potential for America’s native grapes
The most well-known variety of V. aestivalis is a black-colored grape called Norton which was first cultivated in Richmond, Virginia. The parent grape of Norton is now extinct. Norton has shown consistent potential as a red wine. The grape grows happily in the Midwest and is one of the most important wine grapes in Missouri (MO is home to the first AVA in America!). In a professional tasting of Norton varietal wines with winemakers, wine buyers, educators, sommeliers and writers, tasters described Norton as having high acid with light tannin and big fruity flavors of black cherries, chocolate, vanilla and earth.
Variety derived from V. aestivalis
The origin species of many popular French hybrids
Vitis rupestris (aka “the sand grape”) grows quite well in sand and has high disease resistance. Because of this, many French botanists worked with the variety (in the 1800’s) to create hybrid species with their local wine grapes. The new varieties were popular in France until the appellation system forbade the use of hybrids in their wines. They produced thousands of different species, and a few have become popular varieties to grow in the midwestern States.
French Hybrids derived from V. rupestris
- Vidal Blanc
Indigenous Texas grapes
Mustang grapes grow in the “dirty” South: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Mustangs are not easy grapes to eat: they’re full of seeds, bitter with tannin, and very sharp with acidity. However, these traits suggest that they could produce a bold, potentially age-worthy wine. There have even been references of Mustang wines since before the Civil War! Today, Mustang grapes seem to only be used by foraging home winemakers mostly in Texas.
These are just a few of the unique grape species found in North America. Besides these, there are dozens of other species found all over the world. Perhaps this will inspire you to understand native species more and explore their potential in wine. Yes, it true that they will never replace varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, but that’s not the goal–we can like them for what they are.