Pennsylvania is, and long has been, a land of great agricultural diversity, as well as natural fertility.
One of the signs of this bounty is the proliferation of more than 200 wineries across the commonwealth. Here, grapes are converted into wine of all types, from sparkling to table to dessert.
A visit to any of these local tasting rooms may be quite an eye-opener. European varietals are in plentiful supply but so are native grapes. With names such as Concord, Niagara and Catawba, these grapes were made into wine for years before the modern era of gentleman oenophiles bottling the fruits of their vines.
The botanical name for European grapes is vitis vinifera, while American grapes are known as vitis labrusca.
Vikings, landing in a place they called Vinland, first told of wild grapes growing in the northern climes of the New World. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and his peers first cataloged the natives.
Among the cultivars, an obvious difference is that labrusca is a “slip skin” grape, in which the skins slide off easily when squeezed, as opposed to crushing the pulp to extract the juice. The other characteristic is the strong musky aroma of the fruit, which is how it received the name “fox grape.” It has nothing to do with the sly mammal, but has become a catchall for distinct descriptors that separate it from the vinifera flavors.
Concord is one of the most popular of our native grapes and is used to make jelly, juice and soft drinks, as well as wine, most notably kosher wine. Many wineries in Pennsylvania bottle Concord as a solo quaff or blend it with other grapes. It is very hardy in the winter and quite prolific. Try a glass, and you’ll immediately be reminded of its role in providing one-half of the classic PB&J sandwich.
The Niagara grape was developed in Niagara County, N.Y., and first sold in 1882. It’s a beautiful white grape that is good as a table grape and as wine and juice. The wine from this fruit is very popular and can be found in local wineries, as well as in Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores. Blended with other grapes, it makes for a refreshing summer quaff with its distinctive high-toned, candied muskiness.
One of the native grapes known to many a wine-drinker is pink Catawba. Technically a red grape, the juice produces a pink color not unlike a rosé wine. Its history goes back to 1850, when sparkling Catawba wine was compared to French Champagne, the first native grape to receive accolades from the European vintners.
The popularity of Catawba in the states took off when the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned his “Ode to Catawba Wine.” Since then, it has been the backbone of wine production in the eastern states. Local wineries produce variations of this grape solo and blended with a few sparkling examples. Sample some history!