Little known outside America and generally looked down on by wine snobs, American vines play a valuable role in enabling wine to be made in regions not suitable for the European wine vine, Vitis Vinifera.
The following are the five American varieties I think make the best and most interesting dry red wines.
1) Norton. I travelled to Missouri specifically to taste Norton, which is also known as Cynthiana and is the official ‘State grape’. It’s a true American variety, species Vitis Aestivalis, found as a seedling by Dr D N Norton of Richmond, Virginia around 1820. Norton makes a terrific dark fruity red wine that could be mistaken for vinifera. There are many Missouri wineries making wonderfully drinkable Norton. Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia have the largest plantings of Norton and their Reserve is excellent. Throughout the USA it’s Virginia’s Horton Winery Norton that seems to be distributed more widely. If you haven’t yet tasted Norton, do so.
2) Noiret. A fairly new black variety, bred in 1973 at Cornel University’s Agricultural Research Station at Geneva in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region. It is a complex hybrid with seven different species in its parentage. I have only tasted two examples of this variety, and I really enjoyed its ripe berry flavoured wines.
3) Baco Noir. A French-American hybrid bred by Francois Baco in France in 1902 but long since outlawed by French anti-hybrid regulations. At home in New York State and Canada, Ontario’s Henry of Pelham winery makes a terrific reserve. Baco Noir is a powerful black soft wine so intensely black coloured that it dyes drinker’s tongues black. Incredibly dark. Black pepper nose, fruits of the forest. Tastes like spicy blackcurrants, unusual, but not unpleasant aftertaste that just goes on and on.
4) Black Spanish. A native American vine, also known as Lenoir and Jacquez, whose origin is not known but some believe it might have some Vinifera in its parentage. Was used as a rootstock in the years following phylloxera, but also for wine production. Make a big bold distinctive wine, often made sweet to suit local tastes but dry versions are truer to the variety. Dry Comal Creek in Texas also make a fine Madeira-like fortified wine by leaving out barrels of Black Spanish for more than a year in the blazing Texan sun to cook.
5) Frontenac. Commercially available since 1996 this was bred by the University of Minnesota in 1978 and is a complex hybrid suitable for cold climates. Although it has high acidity, it makes an invitingly soft warm dark red wine redolent with cherry and chocolate flavours.
Talk about wine on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.