This is part 2 of the What is Wine Made From series. If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.
Before I continue with my discussion of winemaking grapes, I'd like to wish a very Merry Christmas to one and all! Now back to our regularly scheduled program...
Europeans had been making wine from vinifera grapes for centuries when they discovered new and intriguing varieties in the Americas. These native grapes include vitis labrusca (not to be confused with Lambrusco, an inexpensive jug wine from Italy), vitis aestivalis, and vitis rotundifolia, also known as Muscadine. Speaking of Lambrusco, this was actually the hottest wine in the United States in the 1970’s. It is a little fizzy (called frizzante’), sweet, with an unusual aroma and taste. In 1976, it was the biggest wine import at about 4,700,000 cases. There was not a restaurant or bar that did not carry this wine.
Getting back to the native grape varieties, labrusca grapes are slip skinned, in that the center pops out when the grape is squeezed, leaving the skin behind. They are commonly referred to as backyard grapes as so many people have grown them for eating and for jelly. In season, they are easily found at roadside stands and in supermarkets when. While they are grown in the west (mostly for Welch), when they are used for winemaking, it is more commonly in the North East and Eastern United States. Examples of grapes of this species include Niagara (white) and Concord (red), best known to most people as the grapes from which Welch’s makes its grape juice. The term “foxy” has been used to describe them for many years. Personally, I find the term odd, but, as most coined terms are wont to do if used enough, it now denotes the characteristic aroma of this native grape. I prefer the term “grapy” as they remind one of grape juice. Wine made from these grapes usually shows a very intense “grapy” aroma and flavor and usually have some level of sweetness. The best examples make you think you are eating the fresh grapes. These wines tend to be great “starter” wines for the person who is not yet into drinking the wines of the world, most of which are dry (meaning not sweet).
A grape gaining in importance in the Eastern United States is the Norton, also known as Cynthiana. This grape is believed to be native to this country and is vitis aestivalis in parentage. It is not certain whether this is a hybrid or not, but, if it is, it is an accidental one (made by nature). At one time, it was believed that these were two different grapes but after DNA testing (yes, they are even doing DNA testing on grape vines), they were shown to be identical. It is a deeply colored red grape with none of the grapy character (foxiness) of other native American grapes, so it is very distinctive in that manner. Personally, I like the name Cynthiana better, but I am told by wineries who make it that they call it Norton because Cynthiana is too feminine and they are trying to portray a heavy duty, robust red wine that is often made much like Cabernet Sauvignon, with all the barrel aging etc. I have found many examples that were excellent and quite comparable to wines made from vinifera grapes.
The other commonly used native grape species would be the Muscadine, including Scuppernong, which is vitis rotundifolia. These unusual and controversial grapes deserve a post of their own so tune in next week.
Next Week: The Mysterious Muscadine