Ever wonder why wines from a place like Missouri, Colorado or Ohio taste different than wines from places like California, France or Australia? The most obvious conclusion one might come to is that some regions are just better suited for grape growing than others. The long, hot summers and usually dry, cool autumns of northern California make for better wines than places that are frost prone, have shorter summers, early snowfalls, etc. Climate certainly plays a role in determining grape flavor and quality, but there is an even bigger reason why certain wine regions make better tasting wines than others. It all boils down to species.
Students of zoology will remember the common mnemonic device used to lodge the order of life in the mind as: Keep Pond Clean Or Frogs Get Sick. For grapes the break down is this:
Species: … there about 50 Vitis species in the world. There’s the Vitis rupestris, (rock loving), Vitis riparia, (river loving), Vitis aestivalis (bears fruit in the summertime), Vitis vulpina (the frost grape), Vitis mustangensis (the mustang grape), etc. and the most celebrated and commonly grown, Vitis vinifera.
Vinifera is the most cultivated species of grapes and the one used in the world’s great wines. What makes vinifera a great wine grape is its high sugar content (without sugar there is no fermentation), its relative heartiness from varietal to varietal, its ability to adapt to different soils and it is monoclinous, a saucy Greek term meaning, “of one bed,” or more usually referred to as hermaphroditic (which means it can pollinate itself). Most of us can name vinifera grapes. Think Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillion, etc.
How Vitis vinifera acquired its hermaphroditism was the result of the ancients want of more wine. Around 4000-3500 BCE the cultivation of grapes began in what is now Turkey along the banks of the Caspian Sea. At that time there were male and female plants along with a few vines that possessed both male and female flowers. Initially the ancients yanked all the male plants out because they did not bear fruit. Over time they rid their vineyards of the un-pollinated female vines leaving only the hermaphrodites to carry on. As civilizations developed in the Middle East and Europe the species vinifera was planted nearly everywhere. Sweeping all manner of agricultural, environmental and political developments aside let us just say that by the time of the Renaissance vinifera reigned.
Meanwhile in the New World...
Long ago North America was literally covered in grape vines. Or at least the part that the newly arrived Leif Erickson saw. When he landed on the shores of northern Newfoundland in 1000 CE he named the new land Vineland. The species of grape that Ericson would have encountered was the Vitis labrusca.
Some 500 years later while much of Europe was enjoying a Renaissance the continent of North America was being “discovered.” The first local wine using native labrusca grapes was made in 1564-65 by arriving Jesuits in what is now Canada. The members of the Society of Jesus made the trip with French explorer Jacques Cartier. Sailing down the wide mouth of the St. Lawrence river they landed on a little island covered in grape vines; so many vines Cartier named the land, Ile de Bacchus. Not long after the ever politically astute explorer changed his mind and re-dubbed the isle Ile d’Orleans in honor of the King Francois I of France’s newborn son the Duc d’Orleans. The wines the priests made from the local grapes were barely drinkable and were reluctantly used as sacramental wine only.
During the same years, down in near St. Augustine, Florida French Huguenots were making wine with a native grape called Scuppernong, also known as muscadine (Vitis rotondifolia) -- the first official wine of what would become the US.
The wines made in North America from the species Vitis labrusca are very different from their vinifera cousins. They are sometimes said to be musky or “foxy” -- an odor that few of us are overly familiar with. Other descriptors might be pulverized weeds or raw game. Labrusca’s odd smell is caused by the presence of methyl anthranilate which is also in bergamot, lemons, strawberries and ylang ylang. (Concentrated methyl anthranilate is used as a flavoring in candy, grape soda and chewing gum.) The flavor is noticeably different. Wines made with labrusca grapes tend toward a sort of sappy, resinous flavor that is both under-ripe or green and sour.
Today, in much of the middle of the US and in parts of the southwest some wineries are proudly making wines from Vitis labrusca. In most cases these wineries use what have come to be known as French-American hybrids. Some of the better known of these frost-resistant hybrids include: Chardonel, Seyval Blanc, Traminette, Cynthiana or Norton, Vidal Blanc, De Chaunac, Frontenac, Edelweiss, Chambourcin, Leon Millot, Marechal Foch (for history buffs, this hybrid takes its name from commander-in-chief of the Allied armies in France during WWI).
Over the summer Native Food & Wine traveled the center of North America sampling wines made with labrusca or French-American hybrids. We tried the reds in Ile d’Orleans, Quebec Province, Canada, reds, whites and roses in Hermann and Rocheport, Missouri. Reds and whites from Raymond, Pierce, Brownsville and Springfield all in Nebraska, as well as wines from northern New Mexico and the front range of Colorado. Interestingly, the labrusca-driven wines all share many of the usual aromatic characteristics and sour flavors but in the hands of some winemakers can be compelling. If you’re the sort of person with an adventurous palate tasting vinifera and labrusca wines side by side might be an interesting experiment.
For more information visit Missouri Wine and Wines of Canada.