Paul, Are any of the domestic wines that we are accustomed to made from native grapes, or do they all have their origins elsewhere?” M.M., Temple City, CA
Any grape, really, can be made into wine, but few indigenous grapes have achieved any degree of success as raw wine materials. Native grapes, botanically of the vitis labrusca species, have a kind of wild taste (termed “foxy” in the trade).
The grapes of Europe (mainly France, Italy and Germany) of the vitis vinifera strain, are far more suitable to the production of superior, elegant tasting wines. Vinifera (the word is Latin for “wine bearing”) varietals have been grown in the U.S. since the mission padres began planting them with enthusiasm, over 200 years ago. Today, nearly all grapes grown in the U.S. for commercial winemaking purposes are vinifera, with the exception of a few labrusca stragglers and a proliferation of labrusca x vinifera hybrids planted along the East Coast and in the Great Lakes regions. These hybrids inherited labrusca’s resistance to the harsh eastern winters (which can kill viniferas), and that is the basis of rationale for their popularity there, not quality!
Here’s the breakdown, then, by region of origin, of what we generally see here:
FRANCE: Bordeaux red grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Whites are made predominantly from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle de Bordelaise and Colombard.
In Burgundy (the province of Bourgogne) red wines come from Pinot Noir and Gamay, while the whites are made mostly from Chardonnay, and, infrequently, Pinot Blanc.
The Loire Valley grows Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscadet (a.k.a. “Melon”) for the whites, and Cabernet Franc for the reds. The Rhone valley is our source of Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Grenache Carignane and Petit Sirah (a.k.a. Durif) in red, and Viognier, Rousanne and Marsanne in white.
GERMANY: Riesling, Sylvaner and Gewürztrarniner are the big winners here, with an occasional vinifera x vinifera hybrid (example: Scheurebe) yielding good fruit; basically all white wines .
ITALY: Sangiovese rules for Tuscan reds, Nebbiolo in Piedmonte (also probable home to Charbono). Moscato (“Muscat”) is the Piedmont’s sweet white. The dry white, Trebbiano is cultivated almost everywhere from tip to toe of the boot. Zinfandel is known in Puglia (in the heel) as the Primitivo di Gioia, although many authorities believe the grape originally came from Hungary.
Each of the above varietals is grown here, to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon the acceptance of the wines they produce.