I’ve been in the Finger Lakes region of New York for the past month, enjoying the “gorges” views, waterfall hikes, and, of course, wine. While I love the Rieslings for which this region is known, on the 4th, I will not celebrate with Riesling. Didn’t the Hessians fight against us in the war? Rather, I will celebrate with wines that reflect America’s heritage and our melting-pot culture. If we can have Korean tacos and fusion cuisine, why not hybrid grape varieties? On the 4th, I will sip and serve wines made from our native American grapes and French-American hybrids.
European, native and hybrid wine grapes
Riesling, like nearly all of the world’s best-known wine grapes, is a variety of Vitis vinifera. Vinifera varieties originated in Europe and were brought over to the United States by missionaries and immigrants. The Americas, however, already had grapes. There are the muscadines (or scuppernongs) of the southeastern U.S. and the labruscas, of which Concord is one variety. Having evolved in the U.S., these grapes adapted to the diseases, pests, and climate of their homeland.
European varieties, those viniferas, aren’t quite as well-adapted. Over the years, we’ve figured out how to grow them successfully in the U.S. Grafting was a big breakthrough. We also breed varieties which marry the renowned oenological characteristics of European grapes with the tolerance of our native species.
Thanks to American ingenuity and perseverance, a bit of help from the French, and traditional selection and breeding techniques, we have a number of grape varieties that grow well in U.S. wine regions from Minnesota to North Carolina and from which we can make some pretty tasty wines.
For red wines, hybrid varieties include Chambourcin (very popular in NJ for table, dessert and fortified wines), Marquette (developed in Minnesota to tolerate cold winters), and Baco Noir (credit for this one goes to a Frenchman; they’ve helped us out once or twice). Wines made from these varieties often have soft tannins, making them perfect for chilling and serving with burgers, barbecue or a giant pot of chili with melting cheese on top.
The heavy hitter of our native grapes, at least in the Northeast, is Concord. Concord was first grown in Massachusetts and has since made its flavor known to American palates through the distinctively grapey flavor of jam, juice and Manischewitz, a wine that finds itself on many Jewish Americans’ tables during holiday celebrations. Concord wines are often sweet. This summer, especially when day drinking, mix Concord wine with seltzer water or club soda – you’ve got a patriotic grown-up grape soda.
There are numerous hybrid white varieties as well. Popular in the Finger Lakes, Cayuga is a variety developed by breeders at the Cornell experiment station in Geneva at the top of Seneca Lake. Often made in an off-dry style, it’s a fantastic complement to Mexican food. The United States is a melting pot. It also makes a great base for white sangria – keep it extra-local with farm market-fresh berries, peaches and nectarines.
For something sweet to wrap up the celebrations, find a Vidal ice wine, and, if you see fresh peaches at the market, make a cobbler to serve with it.
Yes, blue! Blueberries are a major U.S. crop and the state fruit of New Jersey, where they were first domesticated. The berries themselves are in season about now. Blueberry wines are always in season. Lighter styles can be sipped, and dense dessert styles poured over vanilla ice cream for dessert.
This 4th of July, celebrate with local fare and patriotic wines. I hope you have a happy and healthy holiday with friends and family, too much food, and never-empty wine glasses.