In brewing, hops with North American origins, generally hybrids from crosses with European hops, became a central part of the brewing renaissance.
From the 1960s onwards, to a small number of the older hybrids grown on our hop farms, notably Cluster, a large number of new hops, starting with Cascade, was added. Cascade was released to brewers c. 1972 and resulted from USDA research in cooperation with large brewers looking for a domestic replacement for the 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.
Craft brewers and their customers were not inhibited by such novelty – tastes considered inferior in Europe and even here by large breweries whose brewmasters were formed under European influence.
To the contrary, the new tastes were welcomed, of which “IPA” is the great showcase to date. In fact, it has now partly colonized English brewing: rather ironic given IPA 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), being planted extensively here after WW II to supplant the Labrusca and other native varieties or hybrids that had the musky flavour noble Vinifera did not.
Despite that a lot of wine was sold before Prohibition tasting 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 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, it 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 that oozed the taste from every drop, 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.
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 breed them, and see what results?
The right wine can be the wine world’s answer to the highly influential Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (from 1981) and Liberty Ale (1975). Not to mention shifting some lucre for their makers who at the beginning were insouciant of foreign influence.
More soon on Norton’s Virginia.
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