Monday, August 21, 2006

Pennsylvania Wines Getting Good Press Too!

French-American Hybrid Grapes Make Tasty Wine
August 20, 2006
Centre Daily Times (Pennsylvania)
Jo and Tom Chesworth are AWS Certified Wine Judges and can be found in the winecellar@7ms.com.

In the latter part of the 19th century, after the American Civil War, a group of grapevine diseases from North America arrived in Europe. They probably hitchhiked on North American vines taken there for cross-breeding experiments and for specimens in botanical gardens. In any case, they escaped and began growing wild in Europe. Among them were a variety of fungal and viral diseases, including powdery mildew and downy mildew which are controlled by chemical fungicides, notably Bordeaux Mix. But the worst of these plagues was the phylloxera epidemic of the 1870s in French vineyards.

Phylloxera is a plant louse that sucks a bit of the sap from the grapevine, primarily from the roots. North American grape species roots heal after the insect feeds, but European vinifera roots are soft and fleshy and do not heal. They subsequently become infected, and these infections kill the plant. The French wine industry was destroyed in the 1870s and a frantic search began to find a way to save the vineyards.

One of the methods tried was to cross the European VITIS vinifera with various North American species of grape including VITIS aestivalis, rupestris, riparia and berlandieri. The best of the resultant plants were winter hardy, disease resistant and made tasty wine. That was the problem. Although the wine was tasty -- meaning tasted good -- it didn't taste like vinifera wines and different is bad. Right? In 1934 the French government outlawed several hybrids: Isabella, Noah, Othello, Jacquez and Herbemont. We get the impression that if the market does not discourage a type of wine because of its taste, outlawing it is not in the consumer's interest and is inspired by some sinister political motive. In France, several others of these hardy hybrids are still grown, although the EU discourages the practice.

In the Northeastern U.S., the government also almost stamped out these vines and their wines -- prohibition did in this country what the phylloxera did in Europe. It killed most of the grapevines. Because VITIS vinifera is not cold-hardy nor disease-resistant, it has a hard row to hoe in eastern North America, but the French hybrids do very well. A resurgence in the wine industry in eastern North America at the very end of the 20th century is partly based on the white hybrid wines, Vidal and Seyval Blanc, and the red hybrids, Chambourcin and Baco Noir to name a few.

These wines are available mostly from small vintners in Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Try a Mazza Vineyards Vidal Blanc at $8 a bottle. Or in case you feel that Vidal produces an inexpensive and therefore inferior wine, buy an Inniskillen Icewine Vidal at $54 for half a bottle. Seyval Blanc is grown widely in England where it is the second most planted grape after Muller-Thurgau (a German hybrid). Because it is winter-hardy, it does well there, and is made into outstanding wines. Or you can get Lone Oak Vineyard Estate Seyval Blanc (from Michigan) at $9. From Bully Hill winery in New York, you can get Lighthouse White, a blend of Vidal and Seyval at $10, or from Allegro in Pennsylvania you can get Susquehanna White, also a Vidal/Seyval blend, at $10 a bottle.

There are red French hybrid wines available, too. Try a Bully Hill (the old Taylor winery in New York still in business even though the name was sold) Bulldog Baco Noir or a Bully Hill Chambourcin, each at $10. Or try some Pennsylvania Chambourcins: Mazza makes one costing $10 a bottle and Clover Hill produces one that costs $15 a bottle. You can even get a White Chambourcin, white wine made from a red grape, from Lone Oak Vineyard Estate in Michigan for $10.

Many of the French-American hybrids are still grown in various countries around the world, including France and other countries in Europe. They have a distinct advantage over vinifera in that they are cold-hardy and much more resistant to diseases. If you try some of the wines mentioned here, you will find that they taste no more different from vinifera grape wines than various vinifera grape wines taste different from each other.

Jo and Tom Chesworth are AWS Certified Wine Judges and can be found in the winecellar@7ms.com.