It’s time to explore the 1,000 year history of American wines.
Let’s start with my last article where my cat Bandit taught us about the Catawba grape, a grape that played a big role in the history of American wine making.
Surprisingly, it turns out that the history of American wines date back over 1,000 years. One thousand years? Really? Well, sort of. The oldest European explorers, the Vikings, discovered “vins” on what is believed to be Newfoundland.
There is no evidence that the Vikings actually made wine from the grapes, but later settlers would try. Their attempts failed for the most part, until 500 years later when the persevering French Huguenots, who settled in Florida, made the first evidenced wine from native Scuppernongs (circa 1564).
Given their native French heritage and the exquisite French wines to which they were surely accustomed, it’s very likely that the Huguenots were not thrilled with their creation.
Thankfully, the desire, custom and traditional habit of wine consumption motivated the immigrant Europeans to continue to search for a good wine source in the New World. It was a slow road, confounding a population accustomed to a particular taste of wine, and now attempting to forge something similar and familiar from an alien climate, soil and strange native plants.
The settlers who occupied Virginia and the Carolinas even made wine a part of their official Charter. Being nothing if not persistent (and possibly a little desperate to recreate something from “back home”), they continued to experiment, specifically with the European imported Vitis vinifera, which failed due to pests and plant diseases.
William Penn of Virginia is credited with creating the first successful hybrid of Vitis vinifera with the native, pest- and disease-resistant Vitis labrusca to create the “Alexander” grape. This grape was the basis for the first original commercial wine production begun in Indiana in 1806.
As we have come to see repeatedly, geography and climate are the basic factors contributing to what can and can’t be grown, and how well it turns out. Many East Coast wines are made from East Coast native grapes and hybrids like the Alexander that thrive in the colder, damper climes. It should come as no surprise that the part of the United States that most closely resembles temperate France, Italy and Spain should emerge as America’s wine capital: California.
I hope you enjoyed this brief history on the start of American wines.
Next week, we’ll go into more depth on the growth of the California wine industry. Until then, I hope you have a WINEderful week!