The Future of American Wine is Native

Almost every wine available to you comes from a single species: Vitis vinifera. Native to Eurasia, this grape has colonized the world’s vineyards and become the standard for all wine production. The classic European cultivars of this grape - Pinot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. - are the most well-regarded, to the point that other species of grapes are often frowned upon, if not outright banned. But with the majority of Vitis (grape) species being native to North America, this oenological chauvinism does not add up. For three centuries, North American native grapes and their hybrids have proven to be some of the best that can be grown here. In a time when farming practices can make or break an ecosystem, using varieties that don’t require harsh chemicals is more important than ever. As for quality, modern American vintners across the country are proving that award-winning wines can be produced from our own grapes.

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GRAPES IN A CHANGING CLIMATE

One of the biggest issues with growing European grapes in North America - particularly in the Midwest and East Coast - is that they are not well adapted to our environments. Many vineyards struggle to grow these grapes, spraying up to twice every week in order to get a usable crop. Meanwhile, anyone driving down the highway can see native grapes growing profusely along the side of the road without any sprays whatsoever. With the presence of pesticides in all wines becoming a major concern, and the worldwide rapid decline in insects resulting in large part from pesticide use on farms (including the nearing extinction of California’s Monarch butterflies), finding grape varieties that can grow without a lot of fuss and chemicals is crucial if we want sustainable, clean wines. Furthermore, as climate change accelerates, new stressors and ecological threats will emerge that native grapes stand the best chance at surviving. American winemaking stands at a crossroads, and what gets planted today will determine how well the industry weathers the coming challenges. Fortunately, utilizing indigenous grapes is nothing new - it was what made winemaking possible to begin with.

WINE’S INDIGENOUS HERITAGE

All Vitis vinifera varieties we know today were bred from the wild grape Vitis sylvestris, which grows in forests throughout temperate Europe. When Phoenicians, Greeks, or Romans entered a new territory - say, Gaul (modern day France) - they would bring their own preferred wine grape varieties to be planted in vineyards, which were not always well adapted to these new environments. Over the centuries, these foreign grape varieties hybridized with the native wild sylvestris grapes that grew throughout the nearby forests and fields, producing distinctly indigenous hybrids that every now and then contained the best of both parents: superior ability to produce wine, and adaptations to local climate, pests, diseases, and soils. In this way, wine grapes originally from hot and arid Mediterranean climates would, through selection and breeding, gain the ability to thrive in damp and temperate areas of western Europe. Indeed, even so-called Noble Grapes like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and others have been shown through DNA testing to be hybrids of imported Greek or Roman cultivars, indigenous Celtic improved grape varieties, and local wild grapes. The history of wine in Europe, therefore, is founded on this basic precept - locally indigenous grape genetics are vital to breed into wine grapes in order to create superior regional wine cultures. Why should North America be any different?

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NEW WORLD GRAPES

Even without a wine culture, indigenous peoples in North America have likely selected and grown superior native grapes for as long as people in Europe have. Some of the earliest accounts of Europeans in the New World chronicle an abundance of delicious grapes as productive and large as Vitis vinifera in Europe, sometimes with better disease resistance. So what happened to these abundant vines? With the genocide and displacement of native peoples in North America, nobody was left to manage these landscapes, and most of the large-fruited native grape selections would have reverted to smaller, more sour wild ecotypes. In some areas, however, productive native vines with large fruit still remained before development eliminated their habitat.

‘Cloeta’ - a Munson variety with excellent potential. Photo courtesty of  TerraVox Vineyards

‘Cloeta’ - a Munson variety with excellent potential. Photo courtesty of TerraVox Vineyards

In the late 19th century, famed viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson hunted for these superior wild grapes, exploring over 50,000 miles across 40 states and gathering the best of the best native grape genetics while these areas were still undeveloped. As such, Munson’s collections and breeding work constitute the truly irreplaceable foundations of a distinctly American wine culture that is only now being reborn. Although he is better known for saving the French wine industry, Munson also wrote the book on America viticulture, and bred a dizzying array of native grape cultivars to jumpstart American grape growing. His varieties have been all but forgotten - only grown in a handful of collections throughout the country - but they display robust disease and pest resistance (producing fruit without needing a lot of sprays), and many are suited to making fine wines. A few winemakers are beginning to utilize Munson’s varieties, but this is only part of a deeper, vibrant history of native grape growing in North America that holds promise.

‘Albania’ - another disease-resistant Munson variety that can produce excellent wine. Photo courtesy of  TerraVox Vineyards .

‘Albania’ - another disease-resistant Munson variety that can produce excellent wine. Photo courtesy of TerraVox Vineyards.

A FORGOTTEN HISTORY

As early as John Bartram and Thomas Jefferson, American horticulturists have been selecting and breeding North America’s native grapes.  One of the earliest American grape cultivars, ‘Ironclad,’ originated in the Philadelphia area as a natural hybrid of two native species. It was immediately noted for its robust resistance to pests and diseases (even in an era without sprays), and for the superior wine produced from it. Indeed, until the 20th century there were countless varieties of native and native hybrid grapes from across the country. Prohibition, however, changed everything: American winemaking died overnight, along with many of the old varieties like ‘Ironclad.’ Prohibition helped turn Americans’ tastes in wine toward European styles, making native grapes and hybrids unpopular in winemaking here until fairly recently. Additionally, the wine industry’s blasé, even institutionalized derision of American hybrid grapes (ignoring the wild hybrid histories of the most famous European grapes themselves) has turned a lot of good winemakers away from these great vines.

‘Ironclad’ - a native ( labrusca  x  riparia ) hybrid from Philadelphia, and one of the first grape cultivars in the United States. Image from U. P. Hendrick’s “The Grapes of New York”

‘Ironclad’ - a native (labrusca x riparia) hybrid from Philadelphia, and one of the first grape cultivars in the United States. Image from U. P. Hendrick’s “The Grapes of New York”

North American native grapes are often shunned for imparting “off” flavors not suited to traditional dry wines - a claim that is simply false for the newer French-American hybrids. Even some of the older native cultivars like ‘Norton’ do not have this issue and make for famously good wines, while still maintaining excellent pest and disease resistance (‘Norton,’ incidentally, also contains twice the resveratrol as Cabernet Sauvignon). Additionally, natives like muscadines and the variety ‘Lenoir’ are resistant to American pathogens like Pierce’s Disease that wreak havoc on European grapes. Fortunately, newer hybrids containing extensive native grape pedigree are being made into excellent wines across the East Coast, and vineyards like La Garagista are finding that these varieties allow for fine winemaking even in challenging environments. As for the older varieties that hold enormous potential, vineyards like TerraVox are working with the hybrids that Munson produced, along with other standards like ‘Norton.’ Vintners like these are trailblazers: showing that native and native hybrid grapes can produce excellent wines of complexity and depth, while allowing growers to use fewer (if any) chemicals.

As the climate changes and Deep Southern issues like Pierce’s Disease move northward, grape growers in California and the Northeast will be able to continue making excellent wines by including native and native hybrid grapes in their vineyards today. The challenge we face as growers isn’t to reinvent the wheel - it’s to look into the past and revive old varieties and techniques that are robust and diverse enough to meet the unprecedented challenges coming down the pike. The next few decades will determine whether or not winemaking remains viable in North America, and vineyards that utilize the richly flavored and storied native and hybrid grapes available to them stand the best chance at succeeding in an uncertain future.

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