Most of the world’s wine drinkers know about vinifera grapes: Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling. Folks living in east of the Mississippi recognize regional wines made from Catawbas and Concords, but the importance of French American winegrapes here and abroad is much less understood and appreciated.
In the midst of the 19th century, vines on the European continent became infested with a plant parasite called phylloxera. This louse devastated thousands of French vineyards by attacking the vines’ root systems. In an attempt to save their lucrative industry from extinction, French researchers followed two paths: grafting onto disease resistant root stock — and cross breeding with American grapes, which were largely immune to the plylloxera attack. Ultimately, the European grape-wine community settled on grafting to protect their precious industry.
However, through several decades — before a best-practices decision was made — large tracts of vineyard land on the continent were planted with hardy, disease resistant hybrid grapes. Today, across France, much vin ordinaire — that wonderful “bistro wine” available across the Gallic countryside — can trace its history to vines originally planted following those early hybridizing experiments.
When a group of innovative winemakers in the Eastern United States (led primarily by Phillip Wagner of Boordy Vineyards in Maryland) sought grapes to produce more sophisticated wines than those from the native varieties, interest in these French American varietals was rekindled.
Through the 1960s and ‘70s, researchers at Cornell and the Geneva, New York, Experiment Station determined several hardy varieties could thrive in a climate too severe for some of the more tender viniferas. Additional research on extremely cold hardy grapes took place in Minnesota under the tutelage of Elmer Swensen. Many of these varieties were also found to produce some pleasant table wines. The result is that tens of thousands of acres of hybrids are planted in our region, adding to the world total also planted on the continent, in New Zealand and in Great Britain.
Several popular French American varietals include:
• Vidal Blanc: This beautiful, large clustered white grape was originally called Vidal 256. It was not awarded its current “official” name until the late 1970s. As a table wine, it is frequently finished in a soft semi-sweet style. However, its true future potential may be realized as the primary regional grape used for luscious ice wines, now garnering tremendous national attention.
• Seyval Blanc: This vigorous vine produces a popular white in many Ohio wineries and is the most widely planted hybrid in England. Since is ripens fairly early in the fall, winegrowers seldom need to worry about losing a crop to an early frost. It is frequently finished as an off dry table wine, sometimes with a hint of oak.
• Chambourcin: This red grape is one of France’s most widely planted hybrids. There are more than 8,300 total acres, mostly in the Loire region. Janis Robison, noted international wine authority calls it one of the world’s better hybrids. Among new vineyards being established in northeast Ohio, chambourcin is a top choice for local viticulturists. As a light, dry table wine, it compares favorably to Beaujolais style wines with its “nose” of black currents, cherries and other delicious fruit aromas.
• Traminette: This variety is a cross between Gewurztraminer and a rather obscure white French hybrid. It was developed at the New York Experiment station and has many of the spicy attributes of Gewurztraminer but is more winter hardy and disease resistant. It is usually finished in an off-dry style.
• Chardonel: This grape is a late ripening white, which was crossed, again, at the New York station, between Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay. It yields a large crop with big green clusters and is much more winter hardy than its Chardonnay parent.
• Marquette: This is one of the most hardy Minnesota varietals. It is deep ruby red in color and purports to be winter hardy to temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It has light, but pleasant tannins and lots of fruit. In blind tastings it has held up very well.
DONNIELLA WINCHELL is executive director of the Ohio Wine Association. She can be reached at dwinchell@Ohiowines.org.