Today’s popular varietals, from Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, derive from the same species of grape, Vitis vinifera, the wild ancestors of which were cultivated around the Black Sea thousands of years before their arrival in central Europe. While vinifera produces magnificent wines, its grapes are finicky about terroir — the genus thrives abundantly, in the moderate maritime climate and gravel-and-limestone soils of Bordeaux, but when transported to the U.S. it fails miserably.
Outside the west coast viticultural areas, summers are just too hot and humid and winters too frigid for the vines to survive, and excessive rainfall can cause root rot and fungal diseases. Early growers like a thoroughly frustrated Thomas Jefferson simply gave up trying to cultivate vinifera here.
In the mid-19th century a solution appeared. The Vitis genus encompasses over 60 species of grape, most native to eastern and central North America and easily able to endure freezing weather, soaking rainstorms, plant diseases and grapevine pests. In 1860, when the root-sucking aphid louse Phylloxera laid waste to European vineyards, French vintners turned to America, importing Phylloxera-resistant Vitis rootstocks upon which to graft their time-honored vinifera varietal vines. Hybrids (crosses between two species of the same genus) were born, and the French wine industry recovered. Soon the concept was adopted by growers on the East Coast and in
Today, dozens of French-American hybrid grapes exist, many engendered in vineyards at Cornell University and University of Minnesota, producing red wines low in tannin and reinforced by significant acidity. The aromatic, black cherry-driven, dry Chambourcin is one example, as are the cherry-and-black currant-laden Frontenac and the medium-bodied, spicy and earthy Marquette. White hybrids are powerfully aromatic with notes of flowers and citrus and flavor profiles of stone and tropical fruits. They include the bracingly acidic Vidal Blanc, with a palate of grapefruit, lemon-lime, melons and mangoes; and the tart Seyval Blanc with flavors of grapefruit, peaches, bananas, melons and nuts.
EXPERT WINE RECOMMENDATIONS
• Scott Lawlor
Galena Cellars 477 S 3rd St, Geneva (630 323-9463)
- NV Galena Cellars Viognier (Ill.) $17. Round and lush, highlighting succulent layers of ripe peaches, pears and honey with delicate aromatics of violets and honeysuckle.
- NV Galena Cellars "Eric the Red" Marechel Foch (Ill.) $18. This smooth, medium-bodied red brims with exuberant flavor notes of cherries, blackberries and plums along with a nice touch of chocolate. The tannins are minimal and the acidity abundant.
Lynfred Winery 13 S Roselle Rd, Roselle (630 529-9463)
- 2016 Lynfred Vidal Blanc (Ill.) $22. Pale straw in the glass with an opulent nose of mangoes, honeysuckle and lychee nuts with currents of lemons, limes, and honeydew melons on the palate. Bone-dry and steely.
- 2015 Lynfred Seyval Blanc (Ill.) $22. The Sauvignon Blanc of Illinois, this beautiful white boasts aromas and flavors of grapefruit, pineapples, and pears underscored with hints of thyme, peppermint, and lemon peel, along with a nice minerality.