Can American Vitis species produce wines that compare with those made from vinifera on a global stage? If so, will the wine traditionalists ever accept them? While continued research and experimentation with these varieties will hopefully answer these questions, perhaps an educational introduction will get the ball rolling.

Of the eight species of grapes in the Vitis genus, six are native to North America, while only vinifera is native to Europe and amurensis to Asia. The powerhouse species native to Europe gives us varieties (also called cultivars) such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, riesling, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. Basically every wine grape most of us can think of.

Of the six native species that had been growing in North America long before European settlers arrived, some may sound more familiar than others: rotundifolia (muscadine), aestivalis (summer grape), riparia (frost grape), labrusca (fox grape), mustangensis (Mustang grape), and rupestris (sand grape). Over the last hundred years some interest has been given to this rowdy and uncouth bunch of American species. While these grapes are not as widely cultivated or commercialized as vinifera varieties, they do show potential for making enjoyable wines and deserve to be recognized.

First, a quick look at the family tree, which may require a brief review of high school biology and taxonomic rankings. For our purposes we begin with the genus Vitis as the trunk of the tree. Moving upward, most scientists list two subgenera, with Muscadinia branching away on its own. This being the case, Muscadinia contains three species including rotundifolia. The key reason for this division has been the muscadine’s inability to successfully crossbreed with other species and create fertile offspring, similar to a donkey and a horse, due to their 40 Chromosomes in contrast to 38 for all other species.

From here, each of the species has numerous varieties within it. As noted earlier, with the exception of muscadine, these can interbreed with one another to create completely new varieties known as hybrids or inter-specific crossings. This sometimes happens in the wild—cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc crossed to create cabernet sauvignon, for example—but more frequently these crosses are the result of human manipulation.

This latter situation is typically an attempt to combine beneficial traits from two varieties into one, creating a new cultivar. Cultivars can be “crosses”—the result of two varieties within the same species (vinifera x vinifera) as well as “hybrids” between two different species of grapes (vinifera x labrusca).

Rotundifolia (muscadine) was the first species in North America to be heavily cultivated, and has a history of over 400 years. The living proof resides on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Known simply as the Mothervine (right), this ancient muscadine is the oldest known grape vine in North America. North Carolina is the largest producer of muscadine, but over three hundred improved muscadine cultivars are currently growing throughout the southeastern United States.

Usually dark purple or black, rotundifolia also produces a bronze colored grape. The most famous of these is known as the scuppernong. Sometimes the term scuppernong is used interchangeably with muscadine, but should not be confused as muscadine is in fact the broader term encompassing all rotundifolia.

Muscadine has shown some promise for wine production but has run into some hurdles as well: The grapes tend to grow in small bunches between four to ten grapes, a significant problem for commercial harvest, and traditionally have a strong musky aroma. On the plus side, muscadine are extremely resistant to pest and disease, including phylloxera and Pierce’s disease, and have been used for dessert and port wines over the last five hundred years.

Vitis rupestris, interestingly despite its American origins, is more commonly used in France than anywhere else in the world. France uses a handful of rupestris cultivars as rootstock because of their phylloxera resistance and deep shooting, non-lateral roots. These same roots make rupestris well adapted to sunny slopes and hillsides as well as well-drained prairies throughout the Southwestern United States.

Vitis mustangensis has little to no redeeming commercial qualities. Limited in habitat to Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of Louisiana the mustang grape is highly acidic and bitter in taste. Simply handling the grapes can irritate the skin.

Vitis labrusca is almost singly known for its 1849 cultivar, concord, and its relatives such as the niagara. Further development of labrusca has been limited by its classic foxy or musky flavors and aromas, which have been deemed by most as unfavorable in comparison to those of vinifera—quite ironic, since flaws like Brettanomyces in Burgundy and Rhone wines and mercaptans in South African reds seem to be accepted, if not desired, elements of the sensory profile of those wines. Concord and niagara, while both occasionally used for creating a diesel-esque Riesling-like wine, are most often used as table grapes or for juice. The species is well suited to the northern stretches of the U.S. and much of Canada.

Vitis riparia is considered by many to be the most commercially viable indigenous American species for its use as grafted root stock and in hybridization with vinifera. On the downside, riparia is known for overly high levels of acidity and strong herbaceous aromas. Riparia’s strengths include its vast geographical range and soil adaptation from New England to Montana to Texas, its disease and pest resistance, and its cold hardiness down to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Riparia is best known for its contributions to the cultivars baco noir, marechal foch, and frontenac. Wines from these grapes are gaining in popularity and commercial viability throughout the Finger Lakes region and Oregon.

Vitis aestivalis could provide potential solutions to the problems apparent with riparia. Aestivalis is known for having much lower levels of acidity and a flavor profile more on par with vinifera. Aestivalis is also pest resistant and cold-hardy but, unfortunately, is difficult to propagate through dormant cuttings, the primary commercial means of propagation. The best known aestivalis cultivar is norton, the official grape in the state of Missouri, but also widely planted in Virginia. As one of the oldest known American cultivars, the official heritage of norton is still debated, although most believe it to be a hybrid between aestivalis and vinifera.

How can one compare these American hybrids and native cultivars with vinifera when they exist in such isolated spheres? For the most part, wineries and vineyards are focusing on the best grapes available to them whether they are in California, Oregon, Missouri, Minnesota, New York, or North Carolina.

Is a malbec better than a tempranillo? Is a cabernet sauvignon better than a pinot noir? Beyond personal tastes, it is difficult to debate those questions, and rightly so. Great wines can be made from each variety. Is a baco noir better than a syrah? Is a norton better than a barbera? These also are essentially misguided questions. What is considered “great wine” is often based on personal preference, and tastes in the wine world evolve gradually, one wine drinker at a time.

Can indigenous American grape species make wonderful and complex wines? This writer strongly believes that the answer is most likely yes. But it will take time and continued experimentation for these varieties to find their full potential and their rightful place among the long respected giants of Vitis vinifera. So make an effort to discover which hybrids and native varieties are best suited to your region and sample the best that your local wineries have to offer. You may be surprised to find that your new favorite wine has no European heritage at all.


David Mark Brown is a freelance writer and author as well as a home winemaker and proud owner of his urban vineyard (of 12 vines).  You can follow David’s current projects at his web site: David Mark Brown Writes. David and his family currently live in Salt Lake City and have lived in the Rocky Mountains for the last seventeen years.

  • http://winecurmudgeon.com Jeff Siegel

    David, native grape varieties are already making wonderful and complex wines, Virginia and Missouri nortons being the best examples. It’s just that too many of us don’t get a chance to taste them.

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  • http://www.beachroadtomanteo.com Lee Whitley

    Unfortunate news. Local newspapers reported on June 17, 2010: “The Mothervine, the scuppernong grapevine estimated to be more than 400 years old, has survived hurricanes, droughts and other catastrophes but man-made chemicals have now left her damaged and her future uncertain.” http://obsentinel.womacknewspapers.com/articles/2010/06/17/top_stories/tops199.txt. It’s unbelievable that something like this could happen to such a local and national treasure.

  • lynn

    One slight problem, David. Not likely that cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc crossed “in the wild” to produce cabernet sauvignon. I think you may mean that they are assumed to be an “accidental” cross rather than a deliberate cross. And at that, one can only guess. Both cab franc and sauv blanc have been cultivated varieties for a very long time.

  • http://www.davidmarkbrownwrites.com David Mark Brown

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I hope to follow this piece with a more specific look at what is being done with native wines. If you have any specific leads feel free to pass them along: hache@comcast.net

    Lee, I too am very sorry to hear that about the Mothervine. I hope she pulls out alright.

  • Larry Chandler

    A wine blend might be a way to gain acceptance for other species.

    I once had a red wine from the Finger Lakes that was a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Leon Millot. It was actually pretty good, though I don’t know what the Leon Millot would taste like on its own.

    • Ben

      Larry,
      Leon Millot is beautiful on its own. Deep rich red, soft finish. Only one place that I know of, Keuka Lake Vineyards, is doing it. If you are interested, I would strongly recommend checking it out.

      http://www.klvineyards.com

      Ben

  • http://www.frugalwine.com Richard Best

    Sorry to say, there are more than 60 Vitis species. As for crosses, hybrids, etc., viticulturalists ahve been intentionally crosses virtually every species/sub-species for hundreds and even thousands of years.

    The current preference for Vinifera grapes is, in my opinion, mere wine snobbery. Leon Millot, Landot and many others can produce wines the equal of some of the well respected European grapes.

  • Larry Chandler

    Richard, I’m not sure I would attribute the preference for Vinifera merely to snobbery. This has been the primary species in winemaking for hundreds of years. It has defined people’s expectations of what wine should taste like.

    This isn’t to say that other species could not produce good wine. But really good wine is expensive to produce (especially in the US), and without a market there aren’t many who would risk their capital to produce wines that may not sell. So there probably aren’t many places where decent wines are made from these lesser-known species.

    I have had some good Norton, and some not-half-bad hybrids like Marechal Foch, Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc, but also some awful Concord, Niagara and Delaware.

    If someone with unlimited funding and a passion for non-vinifera grapes could be found, perhaps the perception and reality of the quality of these wines would change.

  • http://wwpress.blogspot.com Wilf Krutzmann

    I am just about a third of the way through “The Wild Vine” by Todd Kliman for a book review. Subtitled:’A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine’
    Fascinating reading about the history of the norton grape. Very well researched and an enjoyable read.

  • http://reignofterroir.com Ken Payton

    To add a little more color to a subject dear to my heart, one that David Mark Brown properly extols, that of the unrealized possibility for commercial success of native varieties, people might enjoy reading my 2008 interview with Jack Keller. His website (linked) is a treasure trove of winemaking advice, history, and wisdom with respect to all things fermentable, including native American grape species.

    http://reignofterroir.com/2008/10/06/jack-keller-the-nets-first-wine-blogger-pt-2/

    Keep up the good work David!

  • lynn

    Richard Best: Not that you are mistaken, but what makes you think man has been making “deliberate crosses” for “thousands of years? I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that this is true. As far as I know, actual evidence suggests that deliberate crosses have only come into being in the past few hundred years. Love to hear what you got!

  • Cindy

    Louisiana has been making some first class Norton wines for many years now, check out the norton from Pontchartrain Vineyards

  • Ron Saikowski

    Check out the Madiera that Haak Winery in Texas is making. They have wond Double Gold in NYC and SF. They also make a straight Blanc du Bois being either in a dry format or semi-sweet. It is selling wonderfully off the shelves in Texas Wine Shops and at the winery. Raymond Haak has made a name for the grape in less than ten years. This hybrid grape from Florida is being grown all along the Texas coast. I have been in a vineyard of Blanc du Bois where crayfish chimneys abound which indicates a very high water table. Grapes vines do not like to get their feet wet, but Blanc du Bois does not mind!

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  • http://www.davidmarkbrownwrites.com David Mark Brown

    THanks for all the great comments and insights, all. There is alot more here to keep me thinking and reading. Keep the conversation rolling!

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  • TNWT

    Very enjoyable article. Though V. rotundifolia and labrusca grapes have a narrow following mainly in the deep South, the native aestivalis Norton grape seems to be catching the most attention in vineyards throughout the South and mid-west. Today there are 204 Norton (aestivalis) vineyards in 23 states. Having tried almost 90 Norton wines from 14 states so far, I would state that good examples of Norton wines can be best found in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

  • bill

    It should be noted, at least occasionally, that T.V. Munson, a Texan, is single-handedly responsible for saving the European wine industry long ago with native Texas grape rootstock.

  • http://winecurmudgeon.com The Wine Curmudgeon

    Bill, TV Munson did not single-handedly save the French wine industry. This is one of those particularly Texas myths. Munson played a crucial role, but he was far from the only one. French and Missouri scientists also contributed.

  • john barnett

    Vitis mustangensis “mustang grape” has many desirable attributes such as disease/pest resistance and drought tolerance. It should not be so casually dismissed as a source of genetic material. Makes a fine red btw.

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