American Wines With Native Vines?

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First it was pet turtles and now it’s wine grapes—I just can’t stop thinking about what it means to be native. The United States ferments 700 million gallons of wine each year, most of it from the sugary mash of Vitis vinifera, a grape species imported from the Old World. Yet North America boasts a total of six grapes, including the subtropical muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), the cold-hardy frost grape (Vitis riparia) and the fox grape (Vitis labrusca) from the Northeast. What gives?

About 7,400 years of Vitis vinifera winemaking, as I wrote for Scientific American last year. But just because V. vinifera happened to be the first grape humans began domesticating, doesn’t mean it has to remain the ne plus ultra of the grape world.

The online wine magazine Palate Press has an interesting article about American pioneers like the late Elmer Swenson of the University of Minnesota who hybridized the Frost grape with the European grape to develop the St. Croix. The University Web site says “it is still too soon to judge its wine quality potential.”

Other researchers, such as Bruce Reisch of Cornell University and independent breeder Lon Rombough, are trying to create new grape cultivars for homegrown wines. But so far the grapes' potential has been limited to niche markets and growing regions where the climate is too warm or too cold for V. vinifera. “Most people have never heard of a Frontenac or a Muscadine, much less know how to match one with a steak or a penne pasta,” David Mark Brown writes at Palate Press.

In fact, America’s favorite oenophile, Thomas Jefferson, tried and failed to grow European grapes at Monticello. According to a new book, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, Jefferson should have gone local. Just a few years before his death in 1826, a Virginia physician named Daniel Norton succeeded in hybridizing V. vinifera and a Midwestern native, Vitis aestivalis. The Norton is still grown in Virginia and is the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry.

Brendan Borrell will be guest blogging this month. He lives in New York and writes about science and the environment; for Smithsonian magazine and, he has covered the ecology of chili peppers, diamonds in Arkansas and the world's most dangerous bird.

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