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.