International (aka: Noble) Grape Varieties (Vitis vinifera) VS Indigenous American Varietals (aka: wild grapes)
It is possible that you’ve never heard of these varietals or tried them because as stand alone grapes they tend not to be used for wine as much as their 7 Noble Grape Cousins (aka: Vitis vinifera). The vinifera hail from Europe and while they were brought to America, the USA also had its own native grape species sometimes casually referred to as “wild” grapes.
There are 6 main Vitis species that are unique to the United States:
- Vitis labrusca
- Vitis aestivalis
- Vitis mustangensis
- Vitis rotundifolia
- Vitis rupestris
- Vitis riparia
Common Characteristics of these Wild Grapes of America
Some common characteristics of these vitis are that they are incredibly disease/pest resistant, which is why they were often grafted to the European “Nobility,” to create hybrid grapes. The American vitis also have a unique “slipskin” which literally means you can pop the flesh of the grape right out of the skin very easily. The vitis are pretty robust and adaptable, but they tend to be high acidity, incredibly sweet grapes which makes their wine power difficult to harness, they never quite reached the heights of their European counterparts as single varietal wines. Within each of these species there are several varieties of grapes, so let’s get learning.
American Grape Variety: Vitis labrusca
The most popular variety of this species is the Concord grape. According to the Cornell University Horticulture Department “Concord is grown on a greater variety of soils and under a wider range of climatic conditions than any other variety of American grape.” The vines tend to be vigorous and productive. The sweet Concord grape is the taste that you know and love in most grape products from juice to jellies. It is used for wines, but generally in sweet table wines. It is most known for its role as the super star of Jewish kosher sacramental wines – Manischewitz. The characteristics of this vitis family tend to be a musky or “foxy” aroma and flavour.
Other “Foxy” Grapes Include:
- Antoinette (white)
- Cayuga (white)
- Niagara (white)
Video: Vitis labrusca Vines
American Grape Variety: Vitis aestivalis (Summer Grape)
This vitis family has the wine flavour profile that is the most on par with the Vitis Vinifera. Like other American grapes it is pest resistant and cold-hardy. Its downfall is that it does not graft well making propagation difficult.
The most well-known varietal from this family is Norton (aka Cynthiana). It is widely planted in Virginia and the Midwest. Missouri is the main hub for this variety and is actually its state grape. As a matter of fact the first American AVA was Missouri with its Norton varietal. Norton produces high acid and light tannin red wines with big fruit flavours.
American Grape Variety: Vitis mustangensis (Mustang Grape)
Like the classic American image of the free-roaming wild Mustang this vitis family is a lone wolf. Rarely used in commercial wines, it mainly grows and is used in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana. It has a high acidity and very bitter taste because of the large amount of seeds inside. It is usually used for dyes and in cooking, but be careful because even handling it without gloves can sometimes cause an irritation.
American Grape Variety: Vitis rotundifolia (Muscadine)
Rotundifolia (muscadine) is the oldest known grape family in North America with more than 500 years of known history. There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding it as some people say it is not American but was brought over with the first colonists while others say it is native and the colonists actually wrote about smelling the beautiful Scuppernong perfumes which would not have been possible if it had only just begun to grow. The oldest specimen is found on Roanoke Island, North Carolina and is called the Mothervine (see the video below).
North Carolina continues to be the largest producer of the Muscadine family of grapes. Types of muscadine include Scuppernong (many people use this name for the entire family interchangeably with Muscadine, but that is incorrect), Granny Val, Cowart, Dixie Red and Black Beauty. Like its other American sibs it is extremely resistant to diseases like Phylloxera and Pierce’s. The problem is the bunches grow in very limited numbers with only 4-10 grapes per bunch. This makes harvesting commercially very difficult. When it has been used for winemaking again like its other American buddies it is used for sweet wines and fortified or port-style wines.
Video: The Mother Vine
American Grape Variety: Vitis rupestris (Sand Grape)
Native to the Southwestern United States where it grows well in the warm, dusty (sandy) climate this grape was also widely used in similar French climates throughout the 1800’s because of its classic American characteristic of warding off diseases. When the appellation system began to be used in France forbidding the use of hybrids this grape family began to disappear from the French wine scene.
Some of its hybrids continue to be used in North America today including:
- Vidal Blanc
American Grape Variety: Vitis riparia
This grape family is generally used for creating hybrids. It has the power to prevent Phylloxera and can withstand incredible ranges of cold. This grape should actually be called the Superhero grape as it is the vitis that actually saved the European vinifera from complete destruction. When Europe’s vineyards were ravaged by Phylloxera they discovered that by grafting vinifera onto riparia roots they were able to prevent Phylloxera outbreaks. There is no cure for the dreaded grape disease, but this was one solution to prevent it across Europe.
The Riparia family adapts well to a variety of soils, climates and geographies. It is grown from New England to Montana to Texas. It can withstand incredibly cold temperatures and has contributed to many hybrid varieties such as Elvira, Frontenac (used in icewines), Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Triomphe D’Alsace. The problem with it for winemaking is that it has very high levels of acidity and strong herbaceous aromas so it’s not always popular on people’s preference list. A winemaker must know how to balance out its characteristics to make it really great which can be a challenge and often times not worth the effort.
Video: Foraging Wild Grapes (American Wine Varietals)
So get a little “wild” and check out what some of the smaller American wineries have to offer with these unique grape varieties. You may discover something new and interesting.