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.




4 thoughts on “Returning North American Wine to 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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