North American Wine and Terroir

Hops with North American origins, generally cross-bred with European hops, to a large degree fuelled the craft brewing renaissance.

Starting in the 1970s such new hops, inaugurated by the Cascade variety, supplemented in the brewhouse established domestic hops, notably Cluster, and imported European hops.

Cascade was released to the market in 1972. It resulted from U.S.D.A. research, supported by large brewers seeking a domestic equivalent to the “noble” German Hallertau.

In the result Cascade offered new flavours, quite un-noble (speaking technically), with a grapefruit aroma and taste, the result of its international genetic lineage and particular traits imparted by American soils.

Some of the new hybrid hops reprised the musky or blackcurrant notes – often called dank today – of venerable Cluster, a hop originating in the 19th century if not earlier.

Craft brewers and drinkers embraced these flavours of terroir. They did so even for aroma and flavour vs. merely bitterness. They did so even though it contradicted both European brewing dogma and large brewer practices here developed in its shadow.

“I.P.A.” is the great showcase for these new tastes. In fact, the taste has partly colonized British (and international) brewing, rather ironic given I.P.A. aka India Pale Ale is British to begin with.

Why has something like this not happened to wine?

In wine, things have gone the other way. Vinifera grapes, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Zinfandel (a European-origin grape), were planted extensively since the 1930s to supplant native varieties or hybrids that exhibited so-called musky or foxy notes, flavours noble Vinifera did not typically reveal.

Although a lot of wine from native or hybrid varieties was made before Prohibition, some with good reputations and sales, certainly, much of the rootstock was pulled out later except to make jam and grape juice.

To be sure, wine is still made in America from Concord and other native grapes, but the mid-market and upper markets are dominated by Vinifera.

I speculated in a post recently that the prestige of Europe’s wine traditions explained this, hence the VQA system in Ontario (Vintners Quality Alliance) that promotes European grape types, but the focus is seen throughout North American winemaking.

Hybrid grapes of course are raised, say Baco Noir in Ontario, but rarely is it accorded the respect Cabernet Sauvignon gets, or Pinot Noir.

As European tradition was so dominant we sought to grow their grapes here, even where soils and climate were hardly ideal. This produced good results in some cases, not so good in others.

Everyone knows the success story of classic European reds in California, and Oregon Pinot Noir, but the East Coast frequently offers a different picture. For white wines, some varieties do particularly well here, Chardonnay and Riesling, often.

Wine is still viewed a peg or two above beer in social status. The deference paid generally to European cultural tradition has dictated that we keep trying to evolve great Vinifera wines throughout North America.

Beer, since the onset of the craft era over 40 years ago, has chosen a different path, at once more blithe and self-confident. Even in the “bad old days”, pre-craft beer, brewing could show signs of independence, e.g. the adoption of corn or rice in brewing, a non-European tradition.

So beer in America generally has been less intimidated by, or deferential to, European models than winemaking, which remains considerably colonized, if you will, from coast to coast.

When one thinks about it, there is no logical reason. First, there is the relativity of taste – European wine taste is not inherently superior. It is something learned, a cultural construct.

Some Vinifera, or wine from the old countries, can in fact exhibit idiosyncratic flavours, yet these are accepted due to their European origin. Sauvignon Blanc is noted, basically prized, for its “catty” taste, wine made from it anywhere shows the trait, considered a plus by its heritage.

Why is it not “foxy”?  Because it originated in France, hence is noble. Some Riesling has a characteristic diesel taste, “petrol” they call it. Why is that noble, and the wild-fruit tang of the Delaware or Catawba grape is a peon by comparison?

And what of the stenchy Brettanomyces tang in some Rhone wine, and others? It is called “animal” and accepted as a trait of the region’s winemaking, at least if not dominating.

We need to rediscover our own Bacchic tradition, to gain the confidence to do that as we have in brewing. In the 19th century thousands of grape varieties were bred and studied by American 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 particularly in Virginia and Missouri. It is sometimes called the Norton, or Cynthiana, grape.

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

The right native-variety or hybrid wine can be the wine world’s answer to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Brewery’s Liberty Ale, famous beers that helped kickstart the I.P.A. trend decades ago.

More soon on Norton’s Virginia.

Note re image: image in text above is from www.wine-searcher.com, here. All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “North American Wine and Terroir”

  1. One factor is that grape vines are a long term commitment, which probably makes growers a lot more risk averse. It takes a lot of guts to devote serious acreage and years of your time to a variety that may never be popular, instead of sticking to the tried and true. On top of that, you might need to wait for several years after harvest to know the quality of wine produced from a new variety. It’s much easier for farmers and brewers to take a chance on something like a new hop or barley variety.

    On the other hand, you are seeing more people starting vinyards just because they want the lifestyle or they get agricultural tax breaks, and they may not be too worried about the economics involved, so that may change the equation a bit.

    • Good points, thank you. Your qualifier to the main point may prove the deciding factor: it did in brewing. There was the lifestyle, the “indie” even renegade factor in small-scale brewing, the freewheeling interest to experiment. Fritz Maytag was a good example in San Francisco, an independent thinker who rode through the tough years getting the public (enough of them) on board by financing the business from family money. Today, his equivalent is the retired tech person or sports figure who starts a winery. What they may share is a willingness to be different and stick to their guns to make a difference.

  2. The Muscadine grape is the South’s grape, and it’s wine is very fine indeed. It is every bit as good as European varieties. I think it is just a matter of time until the SNPA of the viticulture world is discovered.

    • Thanks Tony, while I don’t see the unseating of the current foundation of Napa, Sonoma, Pinot Noir in Oregon, etc., a foundational change could come from a source like you mention. I’ll talk soon about Norton’s Virginia. It perhaps will issue from a place where the grapes have a historic growing home, but even if so with modern technology, the influence of a game changer like that would grow quickly, as for SNPA. On verra.

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