Scuppernong; Norton; Seyval Blanc; Not the normal wines you’d expect at a wine tasting but this was not a normal California wine tasting. For the second year the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association (ASWA) was invited to pour some of the Association’s 2009 competition award winning East Coast wines at the 2010 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento. During their trip to the West Coast the group was asked by Anne Vercelli, a local food and wine educator, and Bo Simons, head librarian of Healdsburg’s Sonoma County Wine library to present an historical wine seminar. The event included the tasting of some of the 22 different east coast wines shippe d out for the events.
Because of its industry dominance, many people associate the history of American wines with California. The fact is the first American wines were made in the late 1500s from species of Native American wine grapes. Native American grapes were so plentiful along the Eastern United States that the name first given to North America by the Vikings was Vinland. In comparison, the first California winery was established in San Juan Capistrano in 1783 by the Franciscan missionaries.
Gordon Murchie, ASWA’s President Emeritus, told the some 60 wine enthusiasts that attended the Healdsburg event, about America’s first introduction to wine production. Being a retired U.S. State Department official, Mr. Murchie has a broad knowledge of U.S. history and his entertaining story telling made for a fun evening. For show and tell he even brought some very old wine bottles from the Jamestown Virginia Colony from the 17th century.
The earliest wine made in what is now the United States was more than likely from the Scuppernong grapes by French Huguenot settlers at a settlement near Jacksonville, Florida between 1562 and 1564. In the early American Colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas, wine making was an official goal laid out in their founding charters. However, settlers would later discover that the wine made from the various native grapes had flavors which were unfamiliar and often referred to as “foxy” or earthy in taste unlike European wines which limited their popularity.
This led to repeated efforts to grow familiar Vitis vinifera varieties beginning with the Virginia Company exporting of French vinifera vines to Virginia in 1619. These early plantings were met with failure as native pests, vine disease brought on by hot, humid summers and the cold of winter that ravaged the vineyards.
In 1683, William Penn planted a vineyard of French vinifera in Pennsylvania that may have interbred with a native Vitis labrusca vine to create the hybrid grape Alexander. One of the first commercial wineries in the United States was founded in Indiana in 1806 with production of wine made from the Alexander grape. Today French-American hybrid grapes still represent a significant sector of wine production on the U.S. East Coast.
The primary Native American east coast grape species are Vitis labrusca, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis aestivalis, and the best know Native American species Vitis riparia. Vitis labrusca’s Concord grape is used in jelly, juice and soft drinks and it was the Vitis labrusca’s root stock that saved the Phylloxera ravaged French vinifera grapes in the late 19th century.
Some of the varietals that are made from the native vines include Scuppernong (it gets my vote for the best east coast wine name), Concord, Catawba and Niagara. From the start to the 1930’s the only wine made on the East Coat came from the native grapes. Because they could more resemble vinifera wines, in the 1930’s the French Hybrids took over from the native vines. The best know of these varietals include Norton, Chambourcin, Marechal Foch, Vidal Blanc, and Seyval Blanc. With the advances in viticulture by the 1950’s the vinifera varietals began to take hold.
Today, many fine vinifera wines are being made on the East Coast. As an example, the largest American wine competition, The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest American wine competition in the world, awarded the up-state New York Finger Lakes Keuka Springs Vineyards 2008 Gewurztraminer the best white wine in the country.
And now the wines.
I really didn’t know what to expect. Being born and bread in California I only knew wines of the Vitis vinifera persuasion. Growing up I knew, as we all did, of the Concord grape (Vitis labrusca) because of Welsh’s grape jelly, juice and soft drinks. The only other thing I knew was that wines made on America’s east coast were considered inferior to those made on the west coast.
The first wine poured was the Native American varietal Scuppernong from Duplin Wines Cellars in North Carolina. It has historically has been grown in the southeastern U.S. Also know as Muscadinia or Muscadine, this Scuppernong was crystal clear, sweet and with strong floral aromas.
The next wine was a fortified vinifera Madeira from the island of the same name near Portugal. Since it’s not an east coast wine I won’t go into it but as an aside Madeira was used by our founding fathers to toast our Declaration of Independence in 1776
Next up was the Virginia hybrid Norton which is believed to be across between aestivalis and vinifera. A small, deep blue-black grape, the Norton varietal gives intense color, body with strong herbaceous characteristics which includes spice, fruitiness, aroma of plumb and tart cherries, black pepper, tobacco and chocolate.
The Chambourcin grape is one of the more successful French Hybrids which ripens late in the season. The varietal, which can produce rose and Beaujolais style wines, is known for a distinct aroma of herbaceous flavors including raspberry, clove, cherry, plum and tobacco.
The second white poured was the Virginia, 2008 Lake Anne Winery Seyval Blanc which is one of the more commercially successful east coast French Hybrids. This wine is reminiscent of the Vinifera Sauvignon Blanc in that it boasts of aromas of grass, hay, green apples and juicy pears with a nice clean finish.
The last wine tasted was a wine called Octagon which is a classic Bordeaux Vinifera Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. All of the grapes of this 2005 blend were grown in the Barboursville vineyards, Virginia. A bit tannic the winery advises that this vintage should be put down for five years to reach a flavor peak around 2012. This wine boasts of an intense aroma of plum, cassis, coffee and berries.
For the most part everyone at the event had a positive reaction to the east coast wines. Some of the native varietals took a little getting used to but not in a “bad” way only a “different” way. I personally though the Bordeaux blend was a good as any California blend but there were a few wines in the lineup that seemed to lack a certain balance and maybe had some oxidation problems. Virginia wines have come a long way from ten years ago.
As the quality of the east coast wines has improved the future of the industry will be in their native/hybrid and the “cold weather” vinifera varietals such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Since this is the only place in the world that these American Native/French Hybrid wines are produced as they get known around the world the niche market for these wines can only grow.