Restless natives

Rediscovering American grapes

September 26, 2007

Think wine — cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling — and you’re thinking of just one type of grapevine, the European Vitis vinifera. The plant has conquered the globe; be they in the Old World or the New, Africa or Australia, the world’s major wine regions all depend on a plant that originated in Europe.

There are, however, several types of grapes native to North America, including Vitis labrusca, also known as the fox grape. The labrusca grape’s varieties include the catabwa, the delaware, the niagara, and the well-known and über-sweet concord grape. Wines made from these native grapes are famous — infamous, some critics would say — for their high levels of acidity and overpowering sweetness.

Due to this Welch's flavor quality, the vast majority of native grapes end up as fortified wine, dessert wine, or Manischewitz kosher wine. But in such states as New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and Virginia, a few native grapes are twining their way toward a place in the sun.

A glass of norton wine from Chrysalis Vineyards.

In New York, where 83 percent of wine production involves native grape varieties, sweet niagara grapes are popular for use in dry white wines, like the award-winning Ogarita Niagara Table Wine at Arbor Winery in Naples, New York. The large, thick-skinned, yellow niagara grapes grow particularly well in the northern United States and southern Canada. There’s even a Niagara Wine Trail with a consortium of 10 wineries, many of which produce excellent niagara wines. And here in Oregon, Oak Knoll Winery produces a popular and well-regarded niagara white wine.

North Carolina claims to be home to the native scuppernong, a type of muscadine grape; the scuppernong was the first variety of grape ever cultivated in the United States. Many of North Carolina’s 61 wineries produce popular varieties of scuppernong wine and other light, fruity wines. Though scuppernong suffers from the same problems as the concord grape, its fruity scent and high levels of antioxidants draw many regional buyers.

But it’s the norton, or cynthiana, grape that wins the native prestige prize. The norton grape prospers in such milder, central climes as Missouri (where it’s the official state grape), North Carolina, and Virginia; it lacks much of the cloying sweetness and high acidity of concord grapes. Most norton wines are dry, deep, and brick-red in color, and flavored with hints of raspberry, elderberry, coffee, and even mint.

In Virginia, both Horton Vineyards and Chrysalis Vineyards produce popular and award-winning norton wines; Horton’s “Horton Norton” is sold as far away as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. And in Augusta, Missouri, Montelle Winery makes a cynthiana wine it describes as “slight raspberry and black cherry fruitiness, full body with a lingering finish, similar to a cabernet.”

Native American wines might never earn all the respect accorded to such European classics as chardonnay and pinot noir. But wine connoisseurs who discount native American wine as too simple and too sweet might just be missing out.

Also on Culinate: A review of the book The Botanist and the Vintner.

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