Although many associate California with Cabernet or Oregon with Pinot, these are grapes from Vitis vinifera, the vine native to Europe. North America is actually the home of six of the world’s seven remaining grape species, including Vitis labrusca, from whence hails the deep purple Concord, and Vitis riparia, instrumental in saving European vineyards during the 19th century’s phylloxera crisis.
The poor cousins of vinifera, long overlooked, are coming into their own, as an increasing number of wineries — often in places not considered suitable for wine grapes — are finding success with them.
The hardiness of American grapes is indeed “kind of what got us looking at them originally,” says Brian Ferguson, owner of Flag Hill Winery in New Hampshire, a state not normally associated with wine. Yet, he says, “We feel we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what the grapes are capable of.”
Here are five North American grapes on the rise:
Baco Noir was born in 1902 from a cross of Grande Glabre, a riparia grape, with the Folle Blanche common to France’s southwest. Baco boasts a thin skin with little tannin and “ripping acidity,” as Matt Niess, winemaker and owner of North American Press in Sonoma puts it. Unlike other high-acid grapes like Barbera, he adds, Baco boasts no bright, red fruit character, but rather a “deep plum, brambly, almost zin-like flavor profile.”
The grape has recently become a favorite among winemakers from Oregon to Ontario, and is no longer merely relegated to areas where vinifera cannot grow, and then blamed for its inability to boast the same complexity. “Let’s plant Baco next to Pinot, and let’s plant all these other hybrids next to Cab,” Niess suggests, “and let’s actually see if they make crappy wine.”
Spoiler alert: They don’t. Today, Baco is exported around the world and has even appeared on Michelin-starred wine lists.
Cold-hardy La Crescent has been a Midwestern favorite ever since it was hybridized by the University of Minnesota in 2004. Its complex lineage includes Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, and vinifera for a palette of tropical fruit, citrus, and floral aromas. Indeed, Frédéric Simon, owner of Pinard et Filles in Quebec dubs it, “the noblest of the white hybrids.”
La Crescent is Ferguson’s favorite grape, perfect for his New Hampshire-based Flag Hill, where cold winter temperatures would essentially preclude pure vinifera. La Crescent specifically, he says, is quite simply incredible.
“It’s spicy, and it’s got these really interesting spring flower notes,” he says. “You don’t even need to drink it. You can just sit next to it for an hour, and smell it.”
La Crescent also boasts a phenomenal versatility. At La Garagista, winemaker Deidre Heekin features it in everything from pét-nat to orange wines, and ages it anywhere from a few months to several years. “It has a fairly strong personality hailing from a Muscat line, so it can be aromatic, floral, and fruity,” she says, “but grown on our soils, it is also very saline and savory. It has a million different faces and I love that it can tell wildly different stories about a place.”
Dark black Marquette, another hybrid released by the University of Minnesota, this time in 1989, is “very flexible stylistically,” Heekin explains, working just as well as a pét-nat or a red rancio fortified wine, in whole cluster, long skin fermentation, or as a co-ferment with apples.
“I love how it shows fruit and some natural tannin, an earthiness,” she says. “And there can be a jewel-like clarity and purity to wines made from this grape, no matter the process.”
Simon notes that it’s indispensable in his primeur cuvee, where it offers “a lovely roundness, dazzling fruit, and a fairly low level of acidity for a hybrid.” And as it’s a quality variety, he says, “we like to treat it as such by aging it in oak.”
Norton was first cultivated in Virginia in the early 19th century from a now-extinct Vitis aestivalis parent. As compared to riparia, aestivalis is known for lower levels of acidity and flavors that can mirror those of vinifera, and Norton boasts both the drought- and fungus-resistance of American grapes, as well as a lovely aromatic complexity.
“The grapes have a lot of dimension,” says Jerry Eisterhold of Vox Vineyards in Missouri, where Norton is the official state grape.
“Right now, we’re ‘deconstructing’ Norton, to see what it’s made of, so to speak,” he continues, noting that at Vox, Norton has found its way into two rosés, as well as regular bottlings and a fortified wine.
“All,” he says, “to try to get a better understanding of the component parts.”
While French-American hybrid Chambourcin was first produced in the 19th century, it was only rediscovered and commercialized in the 1960s. This teinturier, or dark-colored grape, stands out from vinifera and from other hybrids because of its juice, which is red rather than clear. The resulting wines are often deep in color, with relatively low tannins and high acidity.
Chambourcin affords brightness with notes of plum and pomegranate, and seeing as the grape is often aged in oak barrels, varietal wines can also take on earthy, vanilla aromas and luscious complexity.
6 American varieties to try:
La Crescent is Ferguson’s favorite grape, thanks to its intense aromas of honeydew, pineapple, and orange blossom. This wine marrying sweetness and acidity is made in very low temperatures to avoid oxidation. After 13 days at 60℉, the fermentation is arrested early to preserve all of its natural aroma.
Grown on sandy loam on a southeast facing slope, these Baco vines are farmed by hand and without the use of any fungicides or herbicides whatsoever. By combining carbonic fermentation, whole cluster inclusion, and destemmed fruit in American oak, the resulting wine boasts ripe blackberry and herbal notes, bright acidity, and a long finish.
For Simon, Marquette is an indispensable part of the vineyard’s primeur wine Novembre — a blend of 30% Marquette, 35% Frontenac Noir, and 30% Petite Pearl. In this cuvée, Marquette offers “a lovely roundness, dazzling fruit, and a fairly low level of acidity for a hybrid.” The grapes for this wine are harvested in early October and, in the case of the Marquette and Frontenac, whole bunch fermented, while Petite Pearl is destemmed and foot-crushed. All three grapes are fermented naturally and then blended one week before bottling.
The Ci Confonde Rosso from La Garagista is a red pét-nat made from Marquette grapes grown on a west-facing clay and limestone slope. The grapes are destemmed, foot-crushed, and pressed within 36 hours, before being fermented naturally and bottled under cap. A Champlain Valley answer to Lambrusco, it boasts berry notes and soft bubbles with a lovely depth and a balanced acidity.
This wine won the San Francisco Chronicle’s Best of Class for non-vinifera red wines two years running. Lightly aged in oak for six months, this pure expression of Norton boasts cherry, raspberry, and plummy notes with a lovely acidity and a hint of spice.