Scuppernong, Norton, Fredonia; not the usual wines you’d expect at a wine tasting but this was not your usual California wine tasting. This was the third year that the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association (ASWA) was invited to pour some of the Association’s 2010 competition’s award winning East Coast wines at the 2011 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento. During their trip to the West Coast ASWA’s Carl Brandhorst and Dave Barber were asked by Anne Vercelli, a well know local food and wine educator, and Bo Simons, Librarian at Healdsburg’s Sonoma County ne Library to present an historical wine seminar. The event included the tasting of some of the 30 different East Coast wines shipped 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 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.
Dave Barber, told the some 60 wine enthusiasts that attended the Healdsburg event, about America’s first introduction to wine production. 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 and vine disease brought on by hot, humid summers and the cold of winter 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 theUnited States was founded inIndiana 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 2010 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 bred 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 Welch’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 tasted was the Sharrott Winery’s 2008 Crimson Sky a semi-sweet red wine made from the Fredonia grape. These grapes, which are a hybrid cousin of the Concord grape, were grown in the pine forests of New Jersey. Known for tastes of candied cherry and a floral fruity finish this wine won a Double Gold and Best-of-Class in the 2010 Indy International Wine Competition. This wine is priced at $14.00
The next wine was from the Vineyards on the Scuppernong Winery located in Columbia, North Carolina. Their 2009 Somerset is made from the Native American varietal Scuppernong (also known as Muscadine) cultivars Carlos (75%) and Niagara (25%). This dry white wine, which has the aroma of carefully selected Muscadine grapes and has a clean and crisp finish, was a Gold Medal winner and First in Category winner of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association 2010 competition. This wine is priced at $9.95
Next up was the 2008 Gewurztraminer from Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars. Located in the famed Finger Lakes region of upstate New York this Gewürztraminer has aromas of orange blossoms, citrus and banana. The wine has a nice acidic balance and light residual sugar gives a subtle honey taste. This wine is prices at $18.00
The fourth wine tasted was the Bordeleau Winery 2007 Chardonnay. Located in Eden Maryland, these Chardonnay grapes were barrel fermented giving tastes of vanilla, lemon/lime with a finish of apple and spice. This wine, which won a 2010 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition Gold Medal and Best of Category, is priced at $24.00.
New Jersey’s Heritage Vineyard 2007 Merlot was the next wine tasted. This vinifera grape, grown in the humid climate of the east coast, held up quite well. It was dark ruby in color and tasted of black cherry and tobacco. Its ripe tannins gave it a nice finish. The wine won a silver medal at the World Wine Championships and priced at $19.00.
The last wine tasted was a 2008 Norton from Cooper Vineyards. The Virginia hybrid Norton grape 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 spices, fruit, tobacco and chocolate. This wine was aged 16 months in Virginia oak barrels and retails for $22.00.
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 Merlot was a good as any California Boudreaux but there were a few wines in the lineup that seemed to lack a certain balance and maybe had some oxidation problems (“foxy?”). 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.Read More