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American Grapes








Few other plants in the New World grow wild under such varied
conditions and over such extended areas as the grape. Wild grapes are
found in the warmer parts of New Brunswick; on the shores of the Great
Lakes; everywhere in the woodlands of the North and Middle Atlantic
states; on the limestone soils of Kentucky, Tennessee and the
Virginias; and they thrive in the sandy woods, sea plains and
reef-keys of the South Atlantic and Gulf states. While not so common
west of the Mississippi, yet some kind of wild grape is found from
North Dakota to Texas; grapes grow on the mountains and in the canons
of all the Rocky Mountain states; and several species thrive on the
Mexican borders and in the far Southwest.

While it is possible that all American grapes have descended from an
original species, the types are now as diverse as the regions they
inhabit. The wild grapes of the forests have long slender trunks and
branches, whereby their leaves are better exposed to the sunlight. Two
shrubby species do not attain a greater height than four or five feet;
these grow in sandy soils, or among rocks exposed to sun and air.
Another runs on the ground and bears foliage almost evergreen. The
stem of one species attains a diameter of a foot, bearing its foliage
in a great canopy. From this giant form the species vary to slender,
graceful, climbing vines. Wild grapes are as varied in climatic
adaptations as in structure of vine and grow luxuriantly in every
condition of heat or cold, wetness or dryness, capable of supporting
fruit-culture in America. So many of the kinds have horticultural
possibilities that it seems certain that some grape can be
domesticated in all of the agricultural regions of the country, their
natural plasticity indicating, even if it were not known from
experience, that all can be domesticated.

Leif the Lucky, the first European to visit America, if the Icelandic
records are true, christened the new land Wineland. It has been
supposed that this designation was given for the grapes, but recent
investigations show that the fruits were probably mountain
cranberries. Captain John Hawkins, who visited the Spanish settlements
in Florida in 1565, mentions wild grapes among the resources of the
New World. Amadas and Barlowe, sent out by Raleigh in 1584, describe
the coasts of the Carolinas as, "so full of grapes that in all the
world like abundance cannot be found." Captain John Smith, writing in
1606, describes the grapes of Virginia and recommends the culture of
the vine as an industry for the newly founded colony. Few, indeed, are
the explorers of the Atlantic seaboard who do not mention grapes among
the plants of the country. Yet none saw intrinsic value in these wild
vines. To the Europeans, the grapes of the Old World alone were worth
cultivating, and the vines growing everywhere in America only
suggested that the grape they had known across the sea might be grown
in the new home.

That American viticulture must depend on the native species for its
varieties began to be recognized at the beginning of the nineteenth
century, when several large companies engaged in growing foreign
grapes failed, and a meritorious native grape made its appearance. The
vine of promise was a variety known as the Alexander. Thomas
Jefferson, ever alert for the agricultural welfare of the nation,
writing in 1809 to John Adlum, one of the first experimenters with an
American species, voiced the sentiment of grape experimenters in
speaking of the Alexander: "I think it will be well to push the
culture of this grape without losing time and efforts in the search
of foreign vines, which it will take centuries to adapt to our soil
and climate."



Alexander is an offshoot of the common fox-grape, Vitis Labrusca
(Fig. 2), found in the woods on the Atlantic coast from Maine to
Georgia and occasionally in the Mississippi Valley. The history of the
variety dates back to before the Revolutionary War, when, according
to William Bartram, the Quaker botanist, it was found growing in the
vicinity of Philadelphia, by John Alexander, gardener to Governor Penn
of Pennsylvania. Curiously enough, it came into general cultivation
through the deception of a nurseryman. Peter Legaux, a French-American
grape-grower, in 1801 sold the Kentucky Vineyard Society fifteen
hundred grape cuttings which he said had been taken from an European
grape introduced from the Cape of Good Hope, therefore called the
"Cape" grape. Legaux's grape turned out to be the Alexander. In the
new home the spurious Cape grew wonderfully well and as the knowledge
of its fruitfulness in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana spread, demand for
it increased, and with remarkable rapidity, considering the time, it
came into general cultivation in the parts of the United States then
settled.

The Labrusca or fox-grapes.

Of the several species of American grapes now under cultivation, the
Labrusca, first represented by the Alexander, has furnished more
cultivated varieties than all the other American species together, no
less than five hundred of its varieties having been grown in the
vineyards of the country. There are several reasons why it is the most
generally cultivated species. It is native to the parts of the United
States in which agriculture soonest advanced to a state where fruits
were desired. In the wild, the Labruscas are the most attractive,
being largest and handsomest in color; among all grapes it alone shows
black-, white- and red-fruited forms on wild vines. There is a
northern and a southern form of the species, and its varieties are,
therefore, widely adapted to climates and to soils. The flavor of the
fruits of this species, all things considered, is rather better than
that of any other of our wild grapes, though the skins in most of its
varieties have a peculiar aroma, somewhat pronounced in the well-known
Concord, Niagara and Worden, which is disagreeable to tastes
accustomed to the pure flavors of the European grapes. All Labruscas
submit well to vineyard operations and are vigorous, hardy and
productive, though they are more subject to the dreaded phylloxera
than are most of the other cultivated native species. Of the many
grapes of this type, at least two deserve brief historical mention.

Catawba, probably a pure-bred Labrusca, the first American grape of
commercial importance, is the most interesting variety of its species.
The origin of the variety is not certainly known, but all evidence
points to its having been found about the year 1800 on the banks of
the Catawba River, North Carolina. It was introduced into general
cultivation by Major John Adlum, soldier of the Revolution, judge,
surveyor and author of the first American book on grapes. Adlum
maintained an experimental vineyard in the District of Columbia,
whence in 1823 he began the distribution of the Catawba. At that time
the center of American grape culture was about Cincinnati, and an
early shipment of Adlum's Catawbas went to Nicholas Longworth of that
city and was by him distributed throughout the grape-growing centers
of the country. As one of the first to test new varieties of American
grapes, to grow them largely and to make wine commercially from them,
Nicholas Longworth is known as the "father of American grape culture."

Catawba is still one of the four leading varieties in the vineyards of
eastern America. The characters whereby its high place is maintained
among grapes are: Great elasticity of constitution, by reason of which
the vine is adapted to many environments; rich flavor, long-keeping
quality, and handsome appearance of fruit, qualities which make it a
very good dessert grape; high sugar-content and a rich flavor of
juice, so that from its fruit is made a very good wine and a very good
grape-juice; and vigor, hardiness and productiveness of vine. The
characters of Catawba are readily transmissible, and it has many
pure-bred or hybrid offspring which more or less resemble it.

The second commercial grape of importance in American viticulture is
Concord, which came from the seed of a wild grape planted in the fall
of 1843 by Ephraim W. Bull, Concord, Massachusetts. The new variety
was disseminated in the spring of 1854, and from the time of its
introduction the spread of its culture was phenomenal. By 1860 it was
the leading grape in America and it so remains. Concord furnishes,
with the varieties that have sprung from it, seventy-five per cent of
the grapes grown in eastern America. The characters which distinguish
the vine are: Adaptability to various soils, fruitfulness, hardiness
and resistance to diseases and insects. The fruits are distinguished
by certainty of maturity, attractive appearance, good but not high
flavor, and by the fact that they may be produced so cheaply that no
other grape can compete with this variety in the markets. Concord is,
as Horace Greeley well denominated it in awarding the Greeley prize
for the best American grape, "the grape for the millions."

The histories of these two grapes are typical of those of five hundred
or more other Labruscas. Out of a prodigious number of native
seedlings, an occasional one is found greatly to excel its fellows and
is brought under cultivation.

The Rotundifolia or Muscadine grapes.

Long before the northern Labruscas had attained prominence in the
vineyards of the North, a grape had been domesticated partially in the
South. It is Vitis rotundifolia (Fig. 3), a species which runs riot
from the Potomac to the Gulf, thriving in many diverse soils, but
growing only in the southern climate and preferring the seacoast.
Rotundifolia grapes have been cultivated somewhat for fruit or
ornament from the earliest colonial times. It is certain that wine was
made from this species by the English settlers at Jamestown. Vines of
it are now to be found on arbors, in gardens or half wild on fences
in nearly every farm in the South Atlantic states. That the
Rotundifolias have not been more generally brought under cultivation
is due to the bountifulness of the wild vines, which has obviated the
necessity of domesticating them. The fruit of its varieties, to a
palate unaccustomed to them, is not very acceptable, having a musky
flavor and odor and a sweet, juicy pulp, which is lacking in
sprightliness. Many, however, acquire a taste for these grapes and
find them pleasant eating. The great defect of this grape is that the
berries part from the pedicels as they ripen and perfect bunches
cannot be secured. In fact, the crop is often harvested by shaking the
vines so that the berries drop on sheets beneath. Despite these
defects, a score or more varieties of this species are now under
general cultivation in the cotton-belt, and interest in their
domestication is now greater than in any other species, with great
promise for the future.



The AEstivalis or summer-grapes.

The South has another grape of remarkable horticultural possibilities.
This is Vitis aestivalis (Fig. 4), the summer-grape or, to
distinguish it from the Rotundifolias, the bunch-grape of southern
forests. There are now a score or more well-known varieties of this
species, the best known being Norton, which probably originated with
Dr. D. N. Norton, Richmond, Virginia, in the early part of the
nineteenth century. The berries of the true AEstivalis grapes are too
small, too destitute of pulp and too tart to make good dessert fruits,
but from them are made our best native red wines. Domestication of
this species has been greatly retarded by a peculiarity of the species
which hinders its propagation. Grapes are best propagated from
cuttings, but this species is not easily reproduced by this means and
the difficulty of securing good young vines has been a serious
handicap in its culture.

There are two subspecies of Vitis aestivalis which promise much for
American viticulture. Vitis aestivalis Bourquiniana, known only under
cultivation and of very doubtful botanical standing, furnishes
American viticulture several valuable varieties. Chief of these is the
Delaware, the introduction of which sixty years ago from the town of
Delaware, Ohio, raised the standard in quality of New World grapes to
that of Old World. No European grape has a richer or more delicate
flavor, or a more pleasing aroma, than Delaware. While a northern
grape, it can be grown in the South, and thrives under so many
different climatic and soil conditions and under all is so fruitful,
that, next to the Concord, it is the most popular American grape for
garden and vineyard. Without question, however, Delaware contains a
trace of European blood.



Another offshoot of this subspecies is Herbemont, which, in the South,
holds the same rank that Concord holds in the North. The variety is
grown only south of the Ohio, and in this great region it is esteemed
by all for a dessert grape and for its light red wine. It is one of
the few American varieties which finds favor in France, being
cultivated in southwest France as a wine-grape. Its history goes back
to a colony of French Huguenots in Georgia before the Revolutionary
War. Very similar to Herbemont is Lenoir, also with a history tracing
back to the French in the Carolinas or Georgia in the eighteenth
century.

The other subspecies of Vitis aestivalis is Vitis aestivalis
Lincecumii, the post-oak grape of Texas and of the southern part of
the Mississippi Valley. Recently this wild grape has been brought
under domestication, and from it has been bred a number of most
promising varieties for hot and dry regions.

The Vulpina or river-bank grapes.

The North, too, has a wine-grape from which wines nearly equaling
those of the southern AEstivalis are made. This is Vitis vulpina (V.
riparia), the river-bank grape, a shoot of which is shown in Fig. 5,
the most widely distributed of any of the native species. It grows as
far north as Quebec, south to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic
to the Rocky Mountains. Fully a century ago, a wine-grape of this
species was cultivated under the name Worthington, but the attention
of vineyardists was not turned to the Vulpinas until after the middle
of the last century, when the qualities of its vines attracted the
attention of French viticulturists. Phylloxera had been introduced
from America into France and threatened the existence of French
vineyards. After trying all possible remedies for the scourge, it was
discovered that the insect could be overcome by grafting European
grapes on American vines resistant to phylloxera. A trial of the
promising species of New World grapes showed that vines of this
species were best suited for the reconstruction of French vineyards,
the vines being not only resistant to the phylloxera but also vigorous
and hardy. At present, a large proportion of the vines of Europe,
California and other grape-growing regions are grafted on the roots of
this or of other American species, and the viticulture of the world
is thus largely dependent on these grapes.



The French found that a number of the Vulpina (Riparia) grapes
introduced for their roots were valuable as direct producers for
wines. The fruits of this species are too small and too sour for
dessert, but they are free from the disagreeable tastes and aromas of
some of our native grapes and, therefore, make very good wines. The
best known of the varieties of this species is the Clinton, which is
generally thought to have originated in the yard of Dr. Noyes, of
Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, about 1820. It is, however,
probably the Worthington, of which the origin is unknown, renamed.
There are possibly a hundred or more grapes now under cultivation
wholly or in part from Vulpina, most of them hybrids with the American
Labrusca and the European Vinifera, with both of which it hybridizes
freely.

Domesticated species of minor importance.

In the preceding paragraphs we have seen that four species of grapes
constitute the foundation of American viticulture. Nine other species
furnish pure-bred varieties and many hybrids with the four chief
species or among themselves. These are V. rupestris, V. Longii,
V. Champinii, V. Munsoniana, V. cordifolia, V. candicans, V.
bicolor, V. monticola and V. Berlandieri. Several of these nine
species are of value in the vineyard or for stocks upon which to graft
other grapes. The domestication of all of these is just begun, and
each year sees them more and more in use in the vineyards of the
country.


a vineyard in the orchard region of central California; bottom, a
vineyard in southern California.]





Next: Grape Regions And Their Determinants

Previous: The European Grape



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