Are All Grapes Equal?

I guess that depends on who you ask.

The most common grape types come from the genus of vitis vinifera. These are the grapes that are native to Europe, Southwestern Asia and North Africa. These grapes have spread throughout the world beginning in the 2nd century BC when their cultivation was introduced into China (although local wild grapes were used before that).

Because of their close association with wine making over the last, oh, 7,000 years or so, many believe they are the only grapes that should be used when making wine. Initially, cultivation of the vinifera varieties occurred only on the west coast beginning in New Mexico and then migrating up the coast. However, hybrids of the vinifera and local vitis species have been producing wine as well.

Can good wine be produced from these native species? Well, we are beginning to find out now.

The vitis labrusca, or fox grape, more commonly known as the Catawba, Concord, Niagara and Delaware and used in wines in the Niagara Escarpment and elsewhere. Generally known for producing sweet wines, some vinters are beginning to experiment with producing drier wines from these grapes. Freedom Run has specifically produced a dry Niagara wine that is aged in oak (Manor Manning Reserve).

Vitis riparia or the Frost grape has been used to make many of the hybrids of vinifera species that are common throughout most of the nation. The Baco Noir, Marchel Foch and Frontenac are all varietals that have mixed with v. raparia.

Vitis rotundifloria…. the Muscadine grape. This grape was different than the other vitis forms in that its fruit grows in clusters instead of clumps. These grapes were the first native grapes to be used to produce wine. Their earliest know cultivation for this purpose was in St. Augustine, Florida during the 16th century. These wines are typically seen as sweet, dessert wines but this is due to added sugar during the winemaking process. Additionally, these grapes are noted for their resistence to many of the worst grape pests. Lastly, the muscadine grape is noted for having more than eight times the anti-oxidants of other grape varieties. The wines from these grapes are produced throughout the Southern United States.

Do these grapes rate compared to the vitis vinifera? Well those grapes have been in cultivation and in production for wine a long time. But these grapes are being used more intensively now. Will they catch up to their old world cousins? Time will tell?