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Friday, September 10, 2010

Wines from indigenous North American grapes

Over the last two years I've been getting acquainted with locally produced wines. Before Prohibition, North Carolina was one of the nation's major wine-producing states. Only in the last 15 years has the wine industry here began to flourish again. North Carolina is back on the top ten.

The western part of the state grows the familiar European varietals of Vitis vinifera. Slowly but surely their wines are improving in quality and diversity. California, Oregon, and Washington don't have anything to fear yet, but it's nice to be able to visit a good winery in the foothills of the Appalachians and have a pleasant experience touring, tasting, and dining. No an all-day airplane ride is required, and it's cheaper and less pretentious too.

European grapes simply won't grow in the eastern part of the state. Happily, Vitis rotundifolia is making a comeback. You know it as the muscadine, whose most common varietal is the scuppernong. The most common cultivars of scuppernong for wine-making are Magnolia, Noble, and Carlos.

I've visited three wineries between Raleigh and the beach that produce muscadine wines. I like them. It's a different taste and smell experience from Vitis vinifera, but different is not necessarily bad. Given the number of so-so $8 and $10 wines from the west coast that flood our groceries -- not to mention "three-buck Chuck" -- the local wines are quite competitive for everyday use, and it's interesting to learn about them. There are gradations in sweetness and color, for example.

Two other native North American grapes are worth mentioning. Vitis aestivalis has a varietal called Norton from which a decent dry red can be made. And of course there are the Vitis labrusca grapes from the midwest and New York. I definitely prefer muscadines over those.

The next opportunity you have to visit a local winery -- they're popping up all over Virginia, too -- I commend it to you. Nothing here has displaced my favorite wine, a Pinot Gris from Oregon, but they're a luxury.