I was fortunate enough to be invited to an East Coast-centered Wine Tasting at Shone Farm in Santa Rosa, CA a few days ago. The tasting, held by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association, highlighted lesser-known grapes from lesser-known wine regions of America, including Virginia, Georgia, Vermont, and New Hampshire, to name a few. Where historically only native grapes have been used to create wine (or, more commonly, native fruits such as strawberries or blackberries), efforts are being made to include grapes we’re all more familiar with: those from the Vitis Vinifera species. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Vitis Vinifera represents the majority of wine grapes grown in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay; all are in the same species of grape known as Vitis Vinifera. Grapes grown originally in the United States fall under the species Vitis Labrusca, and include Concord and Delaware grapes.
Since the 1970s, efforts have been made to produce American wine using Vinifera grapes rather than Labrusca grapes. One of the most influential voices for this change was Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Russian viticulturalist who insisted that Vinifera could grow in the cold wine regions of Northern New York. The winery bearing his name is now one of New York’s finest, creating superb Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The Pinot Blanc in particular, as one of the first wines I tried at the tasting, has beautiful notes of nectarine, lavender, simple yet remarkable acidity and an all-around lovely palate and finish.
The biggest treat of the night, however, was a Virginian Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is perhaps the most suitable Vinifera grape to be grown on the East Coast of the United States given its ability to grow and prosper in continental climates. Taking a sip from my glass, I was delighted to discover that the flavor was exactly what I would expect from a Cabernet Franc. The fact that it came from Virginia was hardly noticeable past the excellent, woody flavors and the aroma of damp forest floor.
Not all the grapes tasted were pure Vinifera, however. A complete surprise from the tasting was a Vermont Marquette. Marquette is a hybrid of Vitis Vinifera, the much more obscure Vitis Riparia and a few other species, produced by the University of Minnesota. The aromas were unlike anything I have ever smelled in a wine, like pumpkin, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. The flavor of this dark red wine was not unlike the aromas, with flavors of blackberry and creme brulee caramelized sugar joining the pumpkin spice on the back palate.
The trend of developing Vinifera-based wines on the East Coast is proving to be an encouraging one and one that I look forward to seeing develop.