Friday, September 19, 2008

America's Classic Grape: The Catawba

The 2008 grape harvest is approaching in Ontario. I get a sense of excitement this time of year, anticipating the first ripe bunches. Even if the grapes I'm waiting for happen to be ones I've known all my life (like Concord and Niagara) it nevertheless remains an exciting moment the first time I pop one of those ripe juicy berries into my mouth and re-live that awesome bold flavour all over again. You might liken the anticipation to that which accompanies France's annual Beaujolais Nouveau release!

There's a grape that I feel is far too overlooked in our day, especially in the province of Ontario: Catawba. This is without doubt a classic American grape.

Just the other day a friend picked some bunches of backyard Catawba, and I was simply amazed at the beautiful aromatic and flavour complexity of this much-overlooked variety. The grapes could probably hang a bit more and ripen more evenly, but because it was a backyard vine and not properly pruned that's to be expected. Still, the awesome flavour must have lasted a good 15 minutes after I ate the last grape (they were tangy but quite sweet as well): rosewater, Muscat-like spice and some wild-strawberry musk all danced on my palate. What a great flavour profile, and what a perfect classic wine grape that should be a household name in our day and age all across Eastern North America.

Here in Ontario, I know of no vineyards growing Catawba - even though it could easily ripen in the Niagara Peninsula. Commercial wineries moved away from labruscana-type grapes because their wines are not recognized under the VQA (Vintners' Quality Alliance) scheme. This, however, seems more about conforming to what the rest of the world is doing (i.e. growing grapes with famous, marketable names!) than judging the grape for what sort of wine it can yield when given strict hands-on management in the vineyard and winery. The fact is that labrusca grapes can be used for quality aromatic wines; it's just that previous to their large-scale removal from Ontario's vineyards, they weren't used to make such wines: it was the manufacturing process and kitschy marketing applied to them, and not the grapes themselves, that deserve unfettered scorn. This fact is easily seen when one contrasts the poor wines labrusca used to be associated with with quality estate-grown labrusca wines, such as Chaddsford's very fine Niagara from Pennsylvania.

Catawba is of course still grown in the eastern United States, though I believe that it deserves an image makeover for our times. The grape shouldn't simply be associated with overly sweetened kitschy touristy wines; given a flavour profile as complex and lively as it has, it could be used for some very powerful, concentrated dry table wines, dry sparklers or even slightly off-dry table wines that speak of pure-fruit aromas and lively, unencumbered acidity. That's the style that would resonate with wine lovers today: it's a style that simply isn't being dared, yet should be.

Let's get away from plonk and focus on small-lot production of hands-on artisanal wine from our North American heritage grapes.

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