Saving America’s Indigenous Wine Grapes | Wine Enthusiast
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Saving America’s Indigenous Wine Grapes

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Most of the world’s fine wine, like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay, derives from European grape varieties, all of which come from the species Vitis vinifera.

Starting in the 1870s, Thomas Volney Munson, a Texas viticulturist, identified 31 undiscovered grape species, all but three indigenous to the U.S. Two of the best known are Vitis riparia, which played a role in the creation of “French-hybrids” like Frontenac and Baco Noir, and Vitis labrusca, known for grapes like Concord and Niagara.

At the time, a root louse called phylloxera had hitched a ride from America to Europe and was spreading like a plague across Old World vineyards. Those European vines, based on Vitis vinifera, lacked natural resistance to the blight, and were almost completely decimated.

Munson’s solution, credited ultimately with saving French wine, was to graft Vitis vinifera vines onto American rootstock, as species like Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris could deflect the pest.

Image of a grape leave and vine vine
Photo courtesy of Hudson-Chatham Vineyard

What happened to America’s heirloom grapes?

Jerry Eisterhold, founder of Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Missouri, adheres that heritage grapes are species native to America, not a plant variety that was hybridized.

Inspired by the work of Munson, Eisterhold is dedicated to the cultivation and research of these wild American varieties, or the direct producers originally bred by Munson.

“We consider direct producers to be heritage [varietal grapes] since they are derived from the native American strains,” says Eisterhold.

Carlo DeVito, founder of Hudson-Chatham Winery in the New York’s Hudson Valley, has a slightly different perspective on what constitutes an American heritage grape. DeVito considers heritage grapes not solely the native species, but inclusive of hybrids by way of tradition.

“We use the word heirloom, though it amounts to the same thing,” he says. “Our goal is to reach into the past and bring grapes once hugely popular, but long forgotten, back into production.”

DeVito partnered with Steve Casscles, a regional hybrid expert, author and grape historian, to explore those options.

Several of DeVito’s blends employ grapes like Dutchess, Ulster and Jefferson, each hybridized in the Hudson Valley more than a century ago. They also work with Baco Noir and Chelois, as well as additional American grapes like Chambourcin.

Collage featuring La Crescent Grapes / Image by Deirdre Heekin

Based in Vermont, a state which produces quality wine despite a climate perceived inhospitable, Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista explained her perspective.

“If we see American heritage grapes as incorporating the idea of cultural traditions, an artisanal craft and plant varieties that have been farmed for at least 100 years to make wine, then I would say the varieties I work with are the American heritage grapes of the future, ” says Heekin.

At La Garagista, Heekin cultivates La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac Noir, Gris and Blanc, all grapes crossed in the 20th century.

So, if America has 27 native grape species and hundreds of existing and potential hybrids, why do consumers rarely encounter them?

The most obvious answer is that winemakers have accepted Vitis vinifera’s flavors, textures, tannins and acid structures as preferable, or even superior to American varieties. Direct producers and hybrid wines are often accused of simplicity, coupled with unappealing foxy or musky flavors.

However, others argue that time-tested viticulture and winemaking practices could coax out the potential of American varieties just hasn’t happened at scale yet.

“Pinot Noir has had a thousand years of continuous production, and yet people still talk about how difficult it is to grow and make well,” says Doug Frost MW, MS. “We should probably not be too judgmental regarding grapes that have only been around a few decades and upon which only a handful of dedicated winemakers are focused.”

Naysayers argue that these grapes demonstrate less character and remain limited in appeal and scope. Yet, the growers have often sold their efforts short. They’ve been apologetic, says Heekin, about their wines as compared to their Vitis vinifera brethren.

After rescuing the world’s wine industry, the French government “chose to push down rising interest in hybrids through a savvy smear campaign [and] western winemaking cultures inherited a negative bias,” says Heekin. “Even the [Wine & Spirits Education Trust] exam references hybrid wines—these potential American heritage wines—as second-class citizens.”

Heekin, who farms organically and biodynamically, and vinifies naturally, thinks conventional techniques should be reconsidered for American heirloom grapes. These approaches, long successful for Vitis vinifera fruit shaped by landscapes and climates, bear no relationship to many American sites.

Circular metal tool atop crushed red grapes and stems
Photo courtesy of Hudson-Chatham Winery

While inexperience and prejudice have held heirloom grapes back, Frost points to another reason: tannin and ageability.

“Red hybrid grapes tend to be short, or even devoid, of tannin,” he says. “That makes their flavors an unfamiliar experience for many consumers. That’s an inarguable challenge. And few hybrid grapes, outside of Norton, have shown the ability to age.”

Frost thinks fresh white wines and some grapes like Chambourcin make good early drinkers. Heekin, who has won praise and accolades for her efforts in Vermont, argues that “hybrid wines are the misunderstood underdogs, the dark horses, but they can be equally as stunning, special, and speak volumes of the place in which they are grown.”

There’s little evidence upon which to articulate the commercial appeal of heirloom grapes. Eisterhold has winnowed his varieties down based on “health, productivity, and above all, potential to make great wines.” Grapes he works with include Albania, Hidalgo, Delicatessen and Lenoir (sometimes referred to as “Black Spanish”).

Frost shares that excitement. “I’ve been an enthusiast of Lomanto and Lenoir. They’ve proven themselves in Texas.”

Andrew Stover, an importer/distributor for Siema Wines, says Norton, Black Spanish and Mission, a Vitis vinifera grape now scarce in Europe, have great commercial possibility.

“We’ve already seen the potential with Norton,” he says. “It’s Missouri’s official state grape and almost every winery produces one. It’s also widely popular in Virginia.”

Photo of an empty wine glass and a bottle of wine
Photo courtesy of Hudson-Chatham Winery

Like Heekin, DeVito’s Hudson Valley wines have earned praise, especially Baco Noir and Chelois.

“They are the early winners for us,” he says. “Both have achieved terrific scores and reviews, and have been solid producers in our harsh climate. Plus, they bud late and harvest early, so they reach full maturity during our growing season and require fewer sprays because they are disease resistant.”

Why put the time, money and energy into exploring alternatives, especially with the decades-long trial and error period? The answer is both complex and simple.

Vitis vinifera has limited range. It’s intolerant of extreme climates, as well as certain pests and diseases. Growers often force Vitis vinifera into unsuitable places, and then may need to employ an arsenal of chemicals and techniques to push production and save plants from demise.

As America’s climate changes, the use of plant material native to the soil or hybridized to thrive in its regions may be critical to the survival of the country’s wine industry.

“Black Spanish’s resistance to Pierce’s Disease will give it increasing importance in Texas and elsewhere” says Frost. He says that many of the grapes are bred for extreme seasonal temperature swings.

Debate about how to manage diversity problems with Vitis vinifera is underway.

“[The lack of diversity] is affecting vinifera’s resilience and adaptability to a rapidly changing climactic and ecological environment,” says Heekin. Using cold-climate cultivars in a place like Vermont brings genetic diversity into the vineyard. It also allows vines to be own-rooted, which Heekin believes makes organic farming easier.

As heirloom foods nearly lost to industrialization have once again been revitalized, perhaps wine growers will embrace similarly forgotten American grapes.

“Recall that Prohibition played a major role in the destruction of the U.S. wine business,” says Stover. “Missouri was once a top-ranked wine region. Its Norton all the rage. In fact, a Missouri Norton was rated the top red of all nations at the World’s Fair in late 1800s.”

Thus, it may only be a matter of time before La Crescent, Baco Noir and Norton make an appearance on America’s dinner tables.