Having read Sandra Silfven's article in the Detroit News titled "3 tales from the front lines: Making wine in Michigan and Indiana" in which she discusses Oliver Winery's double-gold winning Catawba, I am once again buoyed by the welcome news that at least some winemakers in Eastern America are trying new things with our continent's heirloom labruscana grape varieties. Catawba, in particular, has a long history in the Eastern U.S. and varietal Catawba wine really deserves a complete re-invention of its image to suit our modern times. Today, winemaking techology and knowledge are more precise perhaps than ever before ... why not make use of the excellent vineyard practices and cellar know-how that have been applied to vinifera wines - quality being a key objective in their production! - and apply that same quality-driven vision to wines made from the grapes that grow best in the challenging Eastern North American climate? Here we read about Catawba specifically, but there are other grapes that stand to benefit from a similar approach: Delaware, Niagara, (Moore's) Diamond, Steuben ... and let's not discount Concord.
My experience as a home winemaker specializing in dry labrusca wines has shown me the importance of acquired tastes in shaping public reaction to a given type of wine. Most people who have tried my crisp, floral, musky Niagara wine have been pleased with it. They do not instinctively react with negativity as they were never taught to think any particular way about the strong musky/floral aromatics in the wine: their reactions are completely natural ones. This should be something that wineries keep in mind when thinking about whether to plant climatically suitable native grapes in our times. This is sorely out of vogue but it deserves a reasoned approach from entirely new, untried angles. Why does it deserve that new look? Because chances are good that consumers without pre-formed notions of what native grape wines are all about will actually enjoye well made, native grape wines. That's good for local wineries, and good for our viticultural heritage.
Steuben, for example, makes a fruity, rosewater-scented wine that has some similarities to varietal Catawba. Catawba, in its own right, makes a beautifully spicy golden (sometimes pink) wine redolent of pears, roses and wild strawberries that has a fine streak of healthy acidity. Niagara, too, has an oily, floral nose with pineapple-like musk on the finish - e.g. Chaddsford's in Pennsylvania makes an extremely fine example with minimal residual sugar.
May these times be good times for our heritage American grapes and their rebirth onto the local wine stage in new and worthy forms!