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.
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*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.