Doing the Saint "Vitis" Dance

(Originally published December 2004)

The United States has a long and storied history of wine growing and winemaking. Every state — Red or Blue — has at some point boasted of active wineries and/or wines to call their own. Indeed, the United States is the world's fourth largest producer of fermented grape juice, behind France, Italy and Spain. During the holiday season many Americans travel across this broad, proud land to visit family and friends making it a good time to discuss an area which confuses many budding wine appreciators. That is, the curious local wines you find hither and yon, the names of which remain unfamiliar and strange.

Grapes are organized under the plant genus “Vitis” with about 60 different species. The grapes which make the wines we drink 99.9% of the time come from the species Vitis Vinifera. These include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and the like. Vitis Vinifera grapes, however, are not indigenous to the United States and North America. All of these grapes planted here have been brought from other locales around the globe.

Given the popularity of Vitis Vinifera it is curious that about half the world's species are native to North America. Many of these grapes have grown wild in the United States and then have been cultivated for table wines. So, when you go to a local winery in New Hampshire or Virginia or Missouri it is often the case that these are the grapes which are made into those weird wines Uncle Harold thought you'd enjoy because “You like wine, don't you?” Hanes will now discuss in overview the native and hybrid grapes of the United States not of the species Vitis Vinifera.

The most commonly found species of non-Vitis Vinifera grape in the United States are Vitis Labrusca, Vitis Rotundifolia and Vitis Aestivalis. Other species are used primarily for rootstock as they are resistant to the phylloxera louse which almost wiped Vitis Vinifera from Europe. Vine growers graft the Vitis Vinifera vines onto American rootstock to avoid susceptibility to this nasty bug. As one tries to understand the native grapes of the United States the situation can become even more confusing because many native species hybridize easily and freely. It's like the 1960's happened in the wine world hundreds of years ago. More about hybrids after we go over the basic native Vitis grapes.

Vitis Labrusca grapes are most commonly found in the northeastern United States. The mack daddy of these grapes is the ever popular Concord grape. Most people encounter this grape in the form of jelly or jam. As wine it is mostly made into kosher wines (Manischewitz, etc.). Beyond Concord there's Black Cape, Black Champion, Clifton's Lombardia, Fox, Frost, Rothrock, Talmam's Seedling, Tasker's, etc. Chances remain high you'll encounter these grapes as jam before as wine.

Vitis Rotundifolia grapes grow mostly in the southeastern and southwestern areas of the United States. Probably the most well-known of these grapes is Scuppernong but close on its heels would be the group of grapes known as Muscadine. Other grapes you may encounter (depending on how many hillbillies are in your family) are Hickman's, Southern Fox or Bull. Maybe they served these wines when your cousins got married?

Vitis Aestivalis grows more in the southeastern United States. They are juicier and sweeter than many other native species. The big enchilada here is the Norton grape, especially in Virginia. A few others of note are the Cynthiana (thisclose to Norton), Arkansas and Red River grapes.

Hybridization in the United States has led in many interesting directions (interesting, that is, depending on how sensitive your palate is!). Most of these hybrids occurred without human intervention. Moreover, hybrids have resulted from crosses between native species or crosses between native species and Vitis Vinifera, in some cases intentionally bred. The first commercially viable hybrid was the Alexander grape which was discovered in the middle of the 18th century in Pennsylvania. Because Vitis Labrusca is the one known parent of the Alexander grape it is sometimes classified as Vitis Labrusca. Ain't that fascinating?

The most popular (broadly construed) natural hybrid grapes in the United States are (alphabetically) Catawba, Champion, Delaware and Isabella. The most popular human-bred hybrid grapes are Cayuga, Diamond, Elvira and Niagara. Two experimental white hybrids grown mostly in the southeastern United States are Blanc du Bois and Stover.

Most species are known primarily for their unique flavors, which are described often as “foxy.” Meaning the wines taste like wet animal fur like a fox. Mmmmm. Something that has always cracked Hanes up is that a slur against a wine is to say it tastes “grapey.” You can say a wine tastes like any fruit in the world except a grape. Native and hybrid grapes are often “grapey.”

Some European hybrids have been imported into the United States and grown here. These may be 100% Vitis Vinifera hybrids or hybrids including other species. The main white ones are Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles and red ones are Baco Noir, Chambourcin, Chancellor, De Chaunac, Leon Miller and Marechal Foch. These wines taste more like the “normal” wines we are used to swilling. And, indeed, in smaller local wineries these are the unfamiliar grapes wine lovers are most likely to encounter. Sad as it is to say, there's just not enough Catawba or Muscadine to satisfy the demand.

Of course, Hanes must mention in passing the many other non-grape fruit wines. These can be fun to drink but shouldn't be compared to grape wines even though they are called wine for reasons Hanes is unaware of. Among the fruits employed in these wines are cranberry, blackberry, cherry, elderberry, loganberry, raspberry, apricot, guava, passion fruit. The best use of these beverages may be to wash the Chancellor out of your mouth.