Erin Doman on July 4, 2016 1 Comment While vineyards across the United States grow a wide range of European wine grapes, from Cabernet to Zinfandel, America has its own varieties to offer. Though most of the native grapes are not as well-known or frequently cultivated as their Old World cousins, they are a vital part of winemaking, with their own perks to offer. An American wine connoisseur should be familiar with these unique local strains to appreciate what they can bring to the table. 1. Concord: Original American Grapes Though less popular in wines, Concord grapes are perhaps the most recognized flavor of grape, as they are used to make grape jams and jellies, purple grape juice, and are the most common source of the grape flavoring in candies and sodas. These small, dark purple grapes are a cultivar of Vitis labrusca, the fox grape, native to eastern North America, and are capable of withstanding the hot summers and freezing winters of the region, though they’re less resilient to southern humidity. Besides their sweet, “foxy” musk and flavor, their most significant trait is their slip skins, in which the skin slides freely off the ripe grape berry when squeezed. The wild vines were first cultivated in the mid-19th century in Concord, Massachusetts by crossbreeding with the common European wine grape Vitis vinifera. Concord grapes are now grown on North America’s eastern seaboard from Georgia up to Nova Scotia, as well as in vineyards in the Upper Mississippi Valley and Lake Erie, and the Yakima Valley in Washington state. Because of their cloying, almost candy-like foxy flavor, Concord grapes are less favored for winemaking. They most often make sweet wines, though with ripe enough fruit dry wines can be achieved. Their deep color makes them a traditional choice for sacramental wines, as well as Kosher wines produced for Passover and other Jewish celebrations. 2. Catawba and Isabella: Concord Cousins In addition to Concord grapes, other cultivars of Vitis labrusca are also used in winemaking. Catawba is a late-ripening variety that, before the Concord rose to fame, was the most planted grape in the early 19th century in America, used to make sparkling wines akin to Champagne. Although technically a red grape, its low concentration of anthocyanins means Catawba produces white wines and pink rosés. Isabella is a dark grape originating in the southern United States, but has since spread around the world, widely planted in South America as well as used to make Abkhazian wine in the former USSR’s Georgia. 3. Norton: The First American Cultivar The official state grape of Missouri, Vitis aestivalis, the summer grape, is native to eastern North America, ranging from Ontario to as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. It may have been originally cultivated by the Cherokees, but is best known in the modern world as its cultivar the Norton (and its close relative or possible mutation the Cynthiana), developed in Virginia in the early 19th century. After being made available in 1830, the Norton became the dominant grape in production in the Eastern and Midwestern America. It was and is a staple of Missouri’s winemaking industry, the state with the highest wine production in the nation in the 1800s, and home of the first American Viticultural Area, federally certified in 1980. Lacking the “foxy” flavor of other American grapes and being somewhat lower in acidity, Norton grapes are closer in profile to European Vitis vinifera grapes, and are very suited to producing dry red wines. Their deep purple skin has a high content of antioxidant anthocyanins. While some years may have a “grapey” aroma reminiscent of Concord grapes, they tend to be more meaty than fruity, with the flavors in young wines tending toward complex hints of elderberries, plums or bittersweet chocolate. Missouri wines produced from Norton grapes have received recognition in wine tastings around the world, often considered the equal of any European variety. 4. Vitis riparia: Cultivation’s Salvation Known as the riverbank or frost grape, Vitis riparia, originates in central and eastern Canada and the United States, extending as far west as Montana. One of the hardiest species of American grapes, it can endure temperatures of well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and, crucially for the production of wine grapes worldwide, is resistant to mildew, rot and parasites. Its small berries, high acidity, and strong pigments and aromas make it less suitable for making wine on its own. However, it is commonly used as grafted rootstock and crossed into hybrids in grape breeding, and in this manner saved modern winemaking. In the 19th century, an epidemic of the phylloxera aphids, a small insect that attacks grape vine roots, devastated vineyards across Europe, severely impacting wine production. Phylloxera originated in America, and most European grapes, derived from Vitis vinifera, were completely susceptible to it. However, American species, especially Vitis riparia, had natural defenses against the pest. While hybridizing failed to produce the desired grape–one with the familiar taste of Vitis vinifera but the hardiness of the American Vitis riparia–cultivators turned to grafting, using the resistant rootstock of American vines, which protected the grapes and continues in vineyards around the world today. 5. Hybrids: Crossing Vitis riparia with Other Grapes While Vitis riparia in its original form is rarely used in winemaking, some of its hybrids have gained popularity. Marechal Foch and its cousin Léon Millot crossed riparia with German Goldriesling, and are used to make both light and dark red wines with a strong acidity and fruity aromas. Triomphe d’Alsace originated from a similar cross and is a robust vine that grows rapidly in cooler climates, used in some Dutch and English wines, where it imparts a mild raspberry flavor. Frontenac is a newer hybrid derived from several complex crosses and released in the 1990s, and its cold-resistance has since made it a popular planting across northeastern North America. With its red-fruit aromas, it’s used to produce dry reds and port-like fortified wine. In addition to these common American grapes, there are a number of others that can also be used in winemaking. America’s generous array of native grapes makes for a broad range of possible wines. Though they may not have the same tastes and flavors as European wine grapes, they can be appreciated on their own merits, as well as the strengths they bring to hybridization, and wine production is immeasurably richer for their existence.