You can read lot’s about winemaking, winestyles, history of winemaking and wine countries – but this is explained elsewhere. You can even watch videos about famous wines and their history on youtube. Here in this posting I will tell you about the different kinds of grapes used nowadays for winemaking and a short history how they were invented. If you want to read a blog about wines – I recommend Michael’s Wine blog
Wines are made of Grapes
When you read lot’s of literature and wineguides you might think that this is the only truth. Even specialised literature for winemakers skip the whole topic of fruitwines and other wine-like beverages entirely. They are hushed up. In most wine-shops you can’t even find them. There is no knowledge about them and so chefs at restaurants and wine-traders are often not willing to integrate them in their portfolio. They have learned that they are no real wines or they couldn’t learn this because for some pepole in the Wine World they don’t exist.
Winemaking from grapes is very old and grape juice ferments very easily into more or less stable wines with at least 10%Vol. without additives or intervention of humans. When the fruit is fully ripe the sugars and acids are in balance and perfect for winemaking, even the yeast is present on the skins. You only have to wait till it’s ready to drink. Wine was made that way for milleniums of years on earth and it worked well.
A modern phenomenon is the production of Single varietal Wines. In the middle ages and later they produced assemblages and blends, so called field blends. Which means different varieties with different taste, sugar, acid and ripening time. They grew together in a single vineyard. This was calculated risk and a risk management system. Because if there were losses, some varieties yielded and the different ripeness of the different varieties played together to form the average value with little variations. From a winemaking point of view blending is always the wiser way to produce wine. Blending doesn’t stand for poor quality. It depends on what you blend and for what reason you blend. It’s the final product that matters. The whole is more than the sum of it’s parts. Think of Champagne, Bordeaux, Chianti, Edelzwicker from Alsace, Rotling and further Schillerwein from Germany and Gemischter Satz from Austria.
Phylloxera in Europe
In the early 1900 after the vine pest phylloxera devastated Europe and destroyed whole vineyards. The people sought after other sources to make substitutes. Wine was rare and expensive. The Frensh were so afraid of other beverages that they only allowed grape wine to be called wine (vin) and created a new wine law to protect it. Honeywine was called hydromel and wine from apples cidre. So no misconception was possible between real wine and …. well … other inferior alcoholic beverages.
The truth lies between. Most fruitwines can compete with grape wines and even beat them in competitions when it comes to taste and overall acceptance. Fruitwines are more appealing to people and they simply taste good. There is no wine knowledge necessary. Everyone can drink it – not only wine snobs who pay millions of dollars for a bottle of chateau wine. The aromas you are looking for in grape wines you can simply find in fruitwines and there are no strict rules – fruitwines are made to enjoy and for Joie de Vivre!
What happened after the vine pest?
The French cross-bred European vines with American wild vines to make the plants more resistant against phylloxera and the hatred mildew. The so called French-American Hybrids or interspecific Hybrids came into being. The Kuhlmann hybrids like Marechal Foch, Leon Millot but also the Seibel grapes Chancellor, De Chaunac, Chelois, Cascade. Chambourcin by Seyve or Baco Noir from Francis Baco or white grapes like Seyval blanc or Villard blanc, Vidal blanc or Vignoles (Ravat 51). They produced reasonable wines in cooler climate and were resistant to deseases.
But the French didn’t like the taste and foxiness of some cultivars so they used biotechnology and grafted european vines on american rootstocks and defeated the phyllaxera. Since 1930 lot’s of french-american hybrids were annihilated and the vineyards renewed with grafted European vines (on american roots). The law forbid the production of wines from hybrids. At least in Nazi Germany and Austria they wanted no Native American Wines and inferior cross-bred varieties. But some vineyards outlasted and still exist, like in the Midi in France.
In the United States, Kanada and Great Britain, as well as other countries, French-American-Hybrids are still used nowadays – for good reason. They produce wine in very cold climate and they produce reasonable quality and best of all mostly without pest control. The difference between America and Europe is that the Americans don’t differentiate: grape is grape.
Use the best grape for the best job
They have – what we call Uhudler in Austria – native grapes from the Labrusca family. They are used for juice, jelly, pie, soft drinks and candy because they have a very unique taste. But some use them for wines too. Rose wines from Concord and Catawba grape or Dessertwines, Icewines and Sparkling Wines from the Delaware grape.
They have Muscadine grapes in the south – Florida, Delaware, Texas and Oklahoma – which have been used for sweet dessertwines and port wines since 1600
French-American Hybrids are used in the North. Sure they lack quality in some kind but it’s the challange for the winemaker. Some red varieties have lots of colour but no tannins and they are usually more acidic than normal wines. They tend to taste unbalanced and the aroma is sometimes a bit strange. So it’s hard to drink Baco Noir or Marechal Foch when you like Merlot or Zinfandel. Sometimes it’s better to make superb rose wine than red wine or to blend different grapes and wines to smooth out the taste and they are great blenders.
French-American hybrids are not bad nor do they taste bad – you only have to learn to tame them. They can yield very competitive wines, even red wines in the hands of a skilled and experienced winemaker. Nothing for amateurs. Own experience. I tried to make Red Wine from a grape in my garden that was labeled „Regent“ and treated it like the german grape Regent (which is a deep coloured mild, low-acid merlot-like red wine with cherry notes) but years later I found out by online research that they sold Marechal Foch vines. I couldn’t believe that I lost my winemaking skills and being unable to make red wine from the Regent Grape. No Regent. I was very disappointed. At least it was not my fault. The whole description of the Kuhlmann hybrid fitted and underlined my suspicion. No you can’t make easy red wine from this grape – no way. The juice is very dark coloured, even black (normally red European grapes have white juice!) so you would think that this makes a very ripe, mild and smooth wine. Nope. Mine had too much acid but the Gamay Character of a Beaujoulais Noveau was present. I’ve learned much – The Two Winebrothers have interesting things to tell about this grape variety – and then made the wine like the Americans do it. Use the best grape for the best job. I made a Rose Wine from the hatred Marechal Foch grapes and blended it with a red muscat variety called Muscat Bleu. Delicious. I never want to miss that grape ever! And it works well in a blend with different more tannic red grapes also. It’s only a point of view. You can also make Port Wine from this grape. But I recommend Rose Wine, this always works very well especially with the higher acid. The irony of the story – you would never consider making rose wine from a very dark coloured juice. But Marechal Foch loses that colour because it lacks tannins and you get a full coloured Rose Wine. It depends on the grape what kind of Wine or Wine Style it favours.
As I mentioned Regent, the new generation of hybrids from 1970 and later are called fungus-resistant (Piwi). They overcame the poor wine quality of the older french-american hybrids from early 1900. The red wines are way better and more appealing and winemaking is easier. But in general white hybrids make better wines, at least the official opinion. But there are new red varieties which are very promising. I’m a Fan of the Regent Grape. But it’s all a matter of taste.
So much to taste
Remember: there are a lot more grape varieties out there except Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. To be specific they say there exist 10.000 different varieties. Which is A LOT!
There are also a lot of only locally planted vines like Feteasca Alba from Tansilvania, Elbling from Germany, Mavrodaphne and Xynomavro in Greece, or Rotgipfler, Zierfandler and Grüner Veltliner in Austria – to name a few.
If you’re a true wine-lover try them instead of the global players and the big brand names. Buy and taste locally