Thank You for Your Wine, Virginia

Sweet Virginia, Not Foxy Lady

Histories of American wine and viticulture record many fascinating stories, some with resonance to this day. 19th century growers and breeders fought long and hard to overcome difficulties of climate, blight, financing, and transportation in seeking to produce and supply a reliable, acceptable product for the public.

Despite the challenges, thousands of wineries existed in the country before Prohibition. Most of the grapes were grown in California but many eastern states and Canada too had significant winery operations with supporting vineyards.

Many popular wine varieties were based on indigenous, often Labrusca, grapes. Blending was sometimes done with these and locally-raised Vinifera.

I have seen many ads, included along with the touts for whiskey and beer, for dry Catawba, say.

Foxy grapes were never confined only to the sweet wine category, often derided today as pop wines.

One grape that resulted in commercial application is Norton’s Virginia, a red wine cultivar derived mostly from Vitis aestivalis. This is a native American grape species encountered by early explorers and colonists.

Aestivalis has four main sub-species and is found in a broad range of eastern North America. See a good description of the main species in Wikipedia, here, and from the Missouri Botanical Garden, here.

In an early study (1866) of the American wine industry, George Husmann (1827-1902) wrote the following of Norton’s Virginia (by astringent he means dry, clearly):

Even allowing for some overstatement, the lyrical invocation of Norton Virginia’s merits is striking. And while Husmann notes certain limitations of the grape in geographical terms, we must bear in mind the date of writing, and that he was writing too of humid climates. Many regions in the east are not typically humid; southern Ontario, for example.

Husmann was a German immigrant – Germans did important early wine work in America, another analogy to early U.S. (lager) brewing. He continued his work in Hermann, Missouri where he lived at the time his first book was published.

He later relocated to California and encountered many challenges there (some personal) no less than in the Show-me state. Late in life, he supported further grape varieties for different types of wine, driven largely too by his belief that what grew best locally should inform the field planting.

Still, he never lost faith in Norton’s Virginia, and supported its use to the end.

An attraction of the grape to many in the 19th century was its lack of the fox character, one that famously – infamously – characterizes the Labrusca species: after all it is the iconic “fox” grape.

The fox term is generally taken to refer to the musky or gamey note of native American grapes and most hybrids that derive from them.

The Norton Virginia is still cultivated, indeed has had a modest revival mainly in Missouri and Virginia. There are many interesting reports on its performance. Some are enthusiastic, reporting notes of earth, deep clean fruit character, yet with something different to distinguish it from Viniferas.

See e.g. this robust report from famed English wine authority Jancis Robinson. It’s from 2012, on some vintages from Chrysalis, a noted Virginia producer of Norton Virginia wine.

Other views are less sanguine, one noted “burnt” edges to the wine. It is always difficult of course to draw conclusions from any given assessment. So much depends on context: the taster, the vintage, the vineyard, the winery’s techniques.

Still, Robinson’s comments are telling in my view and may presage, as she seems to hope herself, a wider revival and influence of this grape.

Yes, that was 2012 and we are now in 2017, but five years is a blink of an eye in wine-historical terms. It takes time to turn around a very long, heavy, and powerful ship.

Still, it must be noted that Robinson shares the traditional wine establishment view of fox character, “almost rank”, she calls it.

Ultimately I feel that objection will fall away, for the next wine renaissance that is.

First, all taste is relative – think of the broad range of flavours of Vinifera winemaking – any specific flavour can catch on at any time. (Why is Sauvignon Blanc with its cat’s pee flavour not rank…?).

It may go too far to suggest all taste is arbitrary, but inherent quality is mostly driven by a complex of historical, social, economic/technical and cultural factors.

The fact that Norton’s Virginia has good antiquity, over 250 years, was early acclaimed by experts, and is an authentic product of North American terroir, suggests to me it could be a path forward to a different wine world.

I would think, given the characteristics of the species from which the cultivar emerged, that it could be grown with success in Ontario, or a related cultivar.

This may be easier than trying to adapt Viniferas to our climate: we have had some successes to be sure, especially for white wines, and icewine, but the reliable production of a great red wine type here seems elusive (while many good quality wines acceptable for table purposes exist, to be sure).

There may be hundreds of other heirloom varieties, or new hybrids that can be devised from them, that offer the magic formula, that would make it beer’s IPA.

Maybe it will never be one grape, from every region certainly, but I foresee that each region may soon develop its bellwether native variety wine, with some cultivars being common to most of them as occurs for the classic Vinifera types.

Vinifera will not disappear any time soon, nor should it. But taking a cue again from the history of hop-culture and brewing, there is no reason that distinctive local varietal character should be eschewed; to the contrary.

For any of this to happen, a sea change will be needed in the mind of the stewards who have guided the industry since the end certainly of WW II. They did good work in their day, but a new day is dawning IMO. Not that there is no precedent for it: a harbinger is the new respect accorded historical grape varieties in places such as Spain, Greece, Italy.

The influence of Californian and Australian alcohol levels and fruit character on European wines is another example.

But the push needs to, or will in any case in my view, be wider and deeper than that and extend finally to using native American grapes to found dominant new styles of wine.

For a final analogy to beer, I would cite the environment the U.K.’s “Campaign for Real Ale” (CAMRA) is confronting in Britain.

CAMRA from its inception in the early 1970s has stood for a specific type of beer processing and dispense: cask-conditioning. This is due to its long history in England and tendency to increase the quality of the beer.

Yet, new trends have caught on in beer in the last 30 years, in Britain no less than elsewhere. CAMRA is currently considering if it should abandon cask-conditioning as its raison d’être and convert itself to a general beer lobby, one which promotes interest in beer quality irrespective of how it is carbonated or served.

Even I was doubtful some years ago that CAMRA should change, but I now think it is inevitable. I see the wine picture as no different: the many moving parts of the wine business, from Napa to the Ontario LCBO, from Epernay to the Hunter Valley, will need to look at wine differently in the next generation.

Nore re images: the first image shown, of a hybrid Norton grape cluster, was sourced here and is copyright Don Kasak. It used by permission under Creative Commons Licence Attribution 4.0, see the full license terms and conditions via this link.  The second image is from George Husmann’s book linked in the text and is available via HathiTrust. All intellectual property in the work resides solely in its lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Returning North American Wine to Terroir

In brewing, hops with North American origins, generally hybrids from crosses with European hops, became a central part of the brewing renaissance of the last 40 years.

From the 1960s onwards, a large number of new hop types, starting with Cascade, was added to a small number of the older hops grown, notably the workhouse Cluster. Cascade was first released to brewers in 1972. It resulted from USDA research, in cooperation with large brewers, seeking a domestic replacement for the “noble” German Hallertau.

It was found the new hops had vigorous tastes, quite non-noble and in some cases rather new, e.g., the grapefruit taste of Cascade. Some of the new hops continued the musky or blackcurrant notes of the venerable Cluster type.

Craft brewers and their customers were not inhibited by such novelty – tastes considered inferior in the 1800s by European brewmasters, and even here by large breweries whose brewmasters were formed under European influence, suddenly found new favour.

“IPA” is the great showcase to date for these new hop tastes. In fact, the taste has partly colonized English brewing: rather ironic given IPA – India Pale Ale – is English to begin with.

Why did something like this not happen to wine? In wine, it went resolutely the other way, with Vinifera grapes, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Zinfandel (of European origin), were planted extensively here after WW II to supplant Labrusca and other native varieties or hybrids that had the musky flavour noble Vinifera did not.

Although a lot of wine was sold before Prohibition that tasted of North American terroir, most of it was uprooted quite literally except to make jam and grape juice. To be sure, wine is still made in the U.S. from Concord and other native grapes, but it’s the low end of the market. The mid-market and upper are dominated by Vinifera.

I speculated in my post of yesterday that the overwhelming prestige of the European wine tradition, the fame of the great vineyards of France and Germany, explained this development, hence the particular features of VQA in Ontario but also the general mien of wine culture in North America.

The European influence could not be resisted and so we sought to grow their grapes here, even in places where the soils and climate could never really accommodate them. This produced good results in some cases, e.g., California reds, some whites in Ontario, and not so good in others.

Wine is viewed a peg above beer in status, was and still is. I’d infer the prosperous classes who drank wine were by nature deferential to Old World influence: wine would be just one example.  One may look at classical music, art, literature, design, cuisine, and more to see how strongly European culture dominated our thinking until quite recently.

But today North America has acquired the confidence to bruit its own products and ideas in many fields; wine is still not one of them, though. (There is the odd exception, or quasi-exception, Ontario Icewine, say).

Beer was never as intimidated by European hauteur. Even in the “bad old days” (pre-craft) it wasn’t, as evidenced by the corn or rice it contained and the funky Cluster hopping. Yet our wine culture remains considerably colonized, from the east coast to the west and the same for Australia and New Zealand. Chile too, for wines viewed as in the top rank.

When you think about it, there is no logical reason for this. First, there is the relativity of taste. Second, some Vinifera or wine from the old countries can have, shall we say, idiosyncratic flavours. Sauvignon blanc is noted, or rather prized, for its catty taste – cat’s pee, it’s an honorific. From N.Z. to Napa to Ontario and Bordeaux, all sauv blanc has that taste.

Why is that not foxy…? Because it’s from France, noble. Some Riesling has a characteristic diesel oil taste, “petrol” they call it, preferably with clipped English intonation. Why is that considered noble and the wild fruit tang of Delaware or Catawba is a peon in comparison?

What about the stenchy Brettanomyces tang in some Rhone wine, and others? I had a Cahors recently whose every drop oozed the taste, yet the lore of the famous “black wine” is all-intoxicating, all-conquering.

To reach both full cultural and gastronomic maturity we need to rediscover the best of our own wine tradition – best meaning what makes it distinctive but also interesting to drink. In the 19th century, there were already thousands of grape varieties being bred and studied in the field by American grape growers and plant breeders.

This resulted in some notable grapes, grapes that even got attention in France. A good example is Norton’s Virginia, still grown especially in Virginia and Missouri. It is sometimes called Norton, or Cynthiana.

Could Norton’s Virginia be the IPA of the wine world? There are grapes of a similar species native to the northeast and into southern Ontario. Why don’t we grow them, or re-grow them, maybe further hybridize them, and see what results?

The right wine(s) can be the wine world’s answer to the highly influential Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (from 1981) and Anchor Brewery’s Liberty Ale (1975). Not to mention shifting some lucre for their makers who from the beginning were insouciant of foreign influence.

More soon on Norton’s Virginia.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from, here. All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Coming of Wine’s IPA

The New Sensation Will Be – Labrusca?

We examine on this blog the diverse aspects, often historical, of beer and whisky. Sometimes we broach culinary matters, and the world of wine.

I was thinking about wine recently when examining the 1930s wine menus of the The Old Mill, the venerable restaurant and well-known event space and hotel in Toronto.

The list shown below, from the website linked, offers some surprises. Australia was active in international wine markets even before World War II. Note also that notable shippers, such as B&G and Paul Bouchard, have an old history.

But the list reminds us mainly of the wine world in Ontario before the 1980s.

Interestingly, the menu was the “family” version – a deluxe version was available on request. Presumably this focused on the great Bordeaux estates and Burgundy villages, on vintage Champagne, and the finer Rhine wines.

There were many wineries in the province before Prohibition here (1916-1927). Prohibition didn’t actually cover wine, you could still buy it at the cellar door of a few wineries that were permitted to operate.

But the general atmosphere – no liquor stores, no cocktail bars, no beer or taverns – discouraged development of a robust wine industry.

After Prohibition, wineries started to get back on their feet but the Depression and then WW II inhibited their normal development. As in the U.S. too, consolidation affected the industry from the 1930s, as in brewing.

The well-known Canadian Chateau-Gai brand issued from a merger of five wineries before the war. Chateau-Gai was a staple for decades after WW II, especially its “Champagne”, a stand-by at Canadians’ weddings.

Canadian table wines then were generally made from native grape varieties or Vitis Labrusca, the foxy stuff that makes great jam and sacramental wine but was not felt suitable for good dry wines. For that need, Vinifera was born – Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, etc.

On the west coast of the U.S. starting in the 1950s, and ultimately almost everywhere in North America including Ontario, the decision was made to jettison lower-grade juice or fortified wine grapes, in the East often Labrusca, for high-quality Vinifera varieties with concomitant improvement in fermentation procedures (e.g. yeast selection) and barrel-aging.

Famously, the wine riches of Sonoma and Napa resulted. And since the 1980s in Ontario, led by pioneers such as Paul Bosc of Château des Charmes in Niagara, still comparatively young at 81, we have developed an increasing reputation for excellent Vinifera, especially Rieslings and Chardonnays.

Certain grape hybrids, all or almost all developed in Europe, are also authorized, especially for red wines. There are hybrid whites too, notably Vidal Blanc in the international showcase, Ontario Icewine.

Wikipedia well-summarizes the Ontario part of this story and its lynchpin, VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance):

In addition to the requirements regarding sources of grapes, VQA wines may be made from Vitis vinifera grape variety and approved hybrid varieties. …. Ontario uses a range of vinifera varieties and notably permits the use of Vidal, particularly in the production of some of Canada’s icewines.

VQA wines may be made with grapes from relatively small agricultural yields per vine (which increases quality), they meet specific sugar or brix levels at harvest, and the use of additives is regulated. There are also standards regulating the use of certain types of packaging and closures. To receive the VQA designation, wine must undergo testing by the regulating bodies. There is no standard location on the bottle for the VQA logo.

These are the Ontario wines you see sold in the LCBO, most “VQA” that is. For a fuller understanding of the VQA system Claudia McNeilly’s compelling article yesterday in the National Post is most helpful

She also addresses certain limitations to VQA that are increasingly apparent after a successful run of some 30 years.

To carry the VQA designation the grapes (generally) must be 100% grown in Ontario from varieties authorized by VQA, as stated. Conforming to regional or sub-regional origin rules entitles vintners as well to use the related appellation, say, Prince Edward County, or Niagara Bench.

Wineries here can make and list with LCBO a wine that does not meet the VQA’s organoleptic test to be marketed. But there is less incentive to produce them, as VQA wines earn winemakers more profit due to a sizeable break they get on the provincial mark-up portion of the selling price.

No Labrusca, to my knowledge, or other native grape species*, are permitted for any VQA table wine. An Ontario farmer may grow such varieties and sell them at the winery gate, but it is unlikely one will see such wines at LCBO, which supports the VQA framework.

This situation results from the wine world of 40 years ago, a “top-down” philosophy intended to protect consumers and improve overall quality. Broadly, the same approach occurred elsewhere except that you can still buy table wines, say in New York State, made e.g., from Labrusca wines. Many are the sweeter, pop-type wines that were popular in the 1970s.

This is interesting by comparison to how craft beer has developed. In craft brewing, the star hops – always the keynote for beer flavour – are mostly types developed from crosses with European “noble” varieties. Most of the hops associated with craft beer were released to growers in North America starting from the 1970s.

These include the Cascade, Centennial, Mosaic, Citra, and Magnum hops.

These names have a magnetic resonance on beer menus. They have done much to grow small-scale brewing to the point that large North American breweries are in decline or need to emulate the small producers to retain market share.

The hybrid grapes authorized by VQA were developed in Europe, Vidal say, under tutelage therefore of European ideas and learning.

The idea was not to change the tastes bestowed by antiquity and tradition, but improve hardiness, resistance to disease in particular. After all, American root stalks were used famously to restore even the noblest vines ravaged by the Phylloxera pest in the late-1800s.

Still, in North America, except for ice wine and a few special types perhaps, few hybrid grape wines have achieved the cachet of the great varietals of Europe: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, etc.

In contrast, many of the new, fashionable hops have a decided musky taste, sometimes called dank – foxy, you might say. Or if not that they are strongly citric or tropical fruit-like – enfants terrible compared to the revered Saaz, Fuggles, Goldings, and Hallertau hops of Europe.

The new darlings, or hops much like them, were once rejected by European brewers and even by North American brewers making the finest beers, due to their unusual flavours.

European hops by comparison had pleasing floral and mineral tastes, at least in the estimation of the great brewers of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. North American hops, with flavours largely imparted by the soils of our hop-growing regions (initially different parts of North America but now largely Washington State and Idaho), were felt rather lesser.

That was then. Taste is famously relative, and given the huge range of flavours in the culinary field there is no reason our hops shouldn’t find someone’s favour, by dint of terroir, the uniqueness, or simply for market advantage. In the vernacular, it’s turning a negative into a positive.

In fact this did happen finally. The grapefruity, often dank “IPA”, or India Pale Ale, is the marquee example. The type is originally English but now usually is American in taste, even in England. I don’t mean the “bitter” of the pub, but fizzy, cold IPA as usually marketed.

So why not develop our own musky and dank dry wines, or other wines with distinctive local flavours? Some may gain cult status to be acclaimed finally in Europe’s capitals. Why hasn’t this happened already?

Ah, wine is different you will say. Certainly wine everywhere and not excluding North America has been faithful to the Bacchic European heritage. This is the wine of the poets from time immemorial, of romance, of haute dining.

That tradition was never American or Antipodean, it was Greek, Roman, and finally gloriously French, German, Italian.

It was powered by Sauternes, Mosel, Champagne, the classified growths, scented fine Burgundy, and the ritual of table, song and poem to go with it.

So inspired and influenced, elite wine societies and other taste-makers including finally legislators in some cases, arranged to supplant local production seen as inferior. Yet those foxy wines often enjoyed popular favour.

Henceforth, wines of European ancestry would be produced as more suitable for la table and good restaurants.

It’s not that Europe and those here under its influence didn’t accept U.S. and Australian wine finally – they did, but only when European grape types entered the composition.

This legacy is still dominant in New World winemaking today, of which VQA is a part. We have over 180 wineries now in Ontario, when there were perhaps 10 around 1980. VQA can take the credit for a lot of that growth. The story is similar elsewhere, most famously in northern California.

(Did New World taste in wine did influence Europe too? Yes, the phenomena of Mondovino and Robert Parker may be noted. But still, the grape types that are the foundation of the New World’s éclat in wine are European).

Beer developed differently. There was no sophisticated cadre to lead a progressive, informed development. Instead, beer developed in an anarchic way via a motley of (initially law-breaking) homebrewers, eccentric rich sons like Fritz Maytag in San Francisco (Anchor Brewery), and freewheeling beer writers. In the U.K. the beer lobby CAMRA has promoted traditional cask ale since the early 1970s, to good effect..

Especially in America, beer enthusiasts were open to everything and anything, from chile beers to “sours” to Stygian stouts tasting like pitch. They welcomed the emergence of locally-grown hops that tasted strongly of the lands they grew up in – of terroir – vs. England’s Kent, Bavaria, and the Czech Republic.

If the new hops weren’t noble, who cared? And so a revolution in brewing resulted.

Wine’s gentility has prevented something similar happening but encouraged by “garagistes” and other independent thinkers, this will change soon I think. Some genius will invent a dry red or white wine from all-native grapes, or perhaps rescue one from 19th century annals, that will sweep the wine regions of North America, thence to gain world success.

It will be wine’s IPA and more.


*Vitis Labrusca is the best known of the Vitis family that excludes European-origin Vitis Vinifera. The former is native to the Northeast and certain extended areas. Other species, e.g, Aestivalis, are also native to parts of North America. Labrusca grapes include Catawba and Delaware as well as the famous Concord. But other species, or hybrids partly derived from them, are grown as well and U.S. winemakers outside California, especially in the east, sometimes make wines from them. Each member of the North American Vitis family, at least originally and various sub-species within them, were adapted to best growth in certain regions and became associated with them. For example, Labrusca does not do as well in dry arid climates, including California, as it does in many eastern states.