By Lindsay Cairns, Director of Operations
The table is set with everything one would expect; stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, biscuits… all the obligatory carbs; and a beautiful turkey (or a ham in my family – don’t ask, that’s a whole other story). To pair with dinner, you choose a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, a Pinot Noir from Sonoma, or maybe a Chardonnay from Oregon. All wines are grown in the US, but they have French names. Why is that?
Most of the wine grape varieties grown in the US are Vitis vinifera grapes from the historic wine growing regions of Europe like France, Spain, Germany, and Italy rather than native North American grapes like Vitis riparia, Vitis rupestris, and Vitis labrusca. The North American and Mediterranean grapes are cousins – if Vitis vinifera was a French bulldog, then Vitis riparia would be a gray wolf.
If you don’t recognize any of the native grape names, that’s not surprising although most people are familiar with the taste of Vitis labrusca. Not sure if you’ve tried it? Well, the most famous labrusca family member is the Concord grape used to make Welch’s grape juice. You’ve also probably had this popular style in a PB&J if you had Smucker’s jam or ever eaten a purple, grape flavored candy or soda.
Now, obviously, the next most important question is, “Would wine made from Vitis labrusca grapes taste good?” Having been born & raised in California, and eventually attending a California winemaking school, my knee jerk reaction is, “No, of course not, Dijon Clones forever!” But this is not entirely true. A lot of winemakers in the Finger Lake Region of New York, Michigan, and Washington’s Yakima Valley are growing, producing, and selling Concord grape wines. These often have a “foxy” flavor (as in a wild, musky smell somewhat akin to the odor of a fur coat which is not found in other grape varietals). It’s not one of the flavors we identify with at Vinome to calculate an individual’s unique profile, but people who enjoy earthy, mushroom, or umami flavors may enjoy a Vitis labrusca wine from one of these regions.
What about the other native grape varieties, Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris? Could they have been used in the days of yore to make wine? Technically, yes, since any grape juice can be fermented to make wine, but those wine varietals never took off.
Although, not used to make wine, Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris have almost single handedly (or single trendily) saved the wine industry. It’s actually one of those “funny” stories. You see, European botanists in the 1850s brought back cuttings of American grapevines to show their community, but the vines were not properly treated nor quarantined like plant material is today. As a result, a tiny aphid like bug called phylloxera which feeds upon the roots of all grape vines escaped and began killing vineyards across Europe.
Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris are adapted to the American climate and soils. They are cold hardy and resistant to native pests and diseases like phylloxera. So, winemakers took the tops of the European varieties like Chardonnay and grafted them onto the roots of Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris. This is still done today. All the beautiful vineyards you see on Instagram are a Frankenstein monster of 2 different grape vines… a Frankenvine, if you will. But it does the job so the European and American wine industries continue to grow and thrive, giving us plenty of options for this year’s Thanksgiving feast, whether you are having turkey or ham.