Restless natives

11 January 2010
By Tom Mansell

During the hiatus, I wrote up mini-reviews of some hybrid wines for the New York Cork Report‘s “What We Drank” feature. They were Niagara and Catawba based wines.  I have added them to the growing list in my quest to drink 100 different hybrid grape varieties.

Red cat, red cat...

The reviews can be found here:

Mazza Vineyards NV Niagara
Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Red Cat (Catawba)

I talked a bit about Red Cat when I was at the Finger Lakes Wine Festival (see video clip).

These grapes, along with a few others like Concord and Delaware, are commonly known as “native grapes”.

However, “native grapes” is a bit of a misnomer.

Science!

Ampelography is the study of classification of grape cultivars. Ampelographers trace the ancestry of grapes by looking at similarities in leaf and berry characteristics and more recently by DNA fingerprinting.  For example, ampelographers recently discovered that the mother of the noble Chardonnay was in fact the reviled Gouais Blanc grape, which was banned in France for producing inferior wines.

A perfect grape flower. The stamens (male) are on the outside and the stigma (middle) leads to the ovary. Welcome back to 7th grade science class. Image: Bruce Reisch, Cornell Grape Breeding Program

Niagara, the white grape typically found in Welch’s white grape juice, is a intentional cross between Concord and the white Cassady grape. Catawba’s history is somewhat less clear, but it is believed to be an accidental cross between wild V. labrusca and V. vinifera. Even Concord is widely believed to have vinifera parentage.

Evidence of the vinifera ancestry of these “native” grapes includes the fact that they are perfect-flowered. This means that their flowers possess both male and female parts and the plants can fertilize themselves. Flowers of wild grapes, including wild V. labrusca, are pistillate, meaning they have either male or female parts.

Perfect flowering was likely selected for by growers, since self-fertile grapes produce much more fruit (no need for donor pollen to float over to the flowers).   Of the Vitis species, only cultivated vinifera, which went through thousands of years of selection by humans before meeting up with native American grapes, are perfect-flowered. A few non-perfect-flowered grapes are grown today, but they are largely heirloom varieties and not commercially important.

Anyway, back to the names.  Some people refer to these native-like hybrids as “Vitis labruscana” or labrusca-type grapes.  If you call them “native grapes,” people will know what you’re talking about, but it’s not quite accurate.  I have tasted REAL native grapes, including wild V. labrusca and V. riparia.  They taste like crap.  Wild labrusca grapes are extremely foxy (practically inedible) and riparia, which grow abundantly pretty much everywhere, don’t really taste like much of anything.

More info on grape breeding can be found at Bruce Reisch’s Grape Breeding Site.

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