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A Brief History of Vitus Vinifera in the Americas

The heritage of grapevines goes back 20,000 years and grapes are man’s oldest cultivated crop. The Bible notes that Noah was the first to plant a vineyard. Grape seeds have been discovered in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs and in ancient cave dwellings.

All grapes belong to the genus Vitis and the most important species of this genus for fine wine is Vitis vinifera (often referred to as the European or wine grape). Wild grapevines are actually weeds, and differ from cultivated (European) vines by having flowers that are either all male or all female and cannot self-pollinate. The majority of cultivated grapevines are hermaphroditic (also known as ‘perfect” because each flower contains both male and female structures) and fertilize themselves. It is estimated that there are 10,000-15,000 different Vitis vinifera grape varieties.

Early explorers spread Vitis vinifera to the Americas. Columbus brought the vine on his voyages which are said to have thrived in Haiti. In 1607, English colonists arrived at the shoreline of Virginia and found wild grapevines growing profusely. The first wine in the New World was made at Jamestown in 1608 with native scuppernong grapes. (I have also read that the first wine made in American was in Jacksonville, Florida about the same time). It was described as “foxy” and not compatible with British palates. Captain John Smith said, “(There are) “vines in great abundance in many parts that climbe the toppes of the highest trees. Of hedge grapes, we made neere 20 gallons of wine, which was neare as good as your French British.”

Lord Delaware introduced the first European grapevines to the North American mainland in 1619. The colonists had abandoned efforts to make palatable wine with native grapes, and the French grapes could not be sustained in the colonies. Several obstacles presented themselves including the warm Virginia summers and the grapevines’ susceptibility to phylloxera and other diseases.

In the early 1700s, new efforts in York County indicated that native grapes were the best choice for Virginia wines. Thomas Jefferson, after his purchase of Monticello, planted native grapes and spent more than 30 years producing wine, believing that it was good for both health and the enjoyment of dining. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Peyton Randolph and George Mason were among the thirty-seven original subscribers of American’s first wine company - The Virginia Wine Co.

The first European varietals were brought into California in 1767 by Spanish Padres from Mexico who established a chain of missions from San Diego to Sonoma from 1767 to 1833. It is thought that the first grapevine planted in California was the Criolla or Mission grape which produced wines of only modest quality. Extensive importation of European cuttings in the 1850s and 1860s created a home for European grapevines in California.

Nearly all Virginia vineyards were neglected and abandoned during the Civil War of the 1860s. Prohibition effectively killed all remnants of a Virginia wine industry. In 1976, an Italian winemaker sent his vineyard manager to Charlottesville to produce European wines and the modern renaissance of Virginia wine began at what is now Barboursville Vineyards. There are now 119 wineries in Virginia, double that of ten years ago. Virginia has had success with Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Norton. Norton grapevines, discovered in the 1820s by Dr. Daniel Norton of Richmond, are the oldest cultivated American grape in this country.

Hybrid grape varieties were introduced in the northeastern part of North America in the 1950s to solve the viticultural challenge of cold and humid wine regions. Hybrid grapes are for the most part created artificially by crossing two different Vitis species (Vitis vinifera varieties are a result of crossings between grape varieties of the same species). Examples of hybrid grapes include Concord and Niagara (species Vitus labrusca), Chaunac, Baco Noir, Morochal Foch, and Videl.

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