"Elegant Labrusca Wine" Doesn't Have to Be An Oxymoron

© Paul Bulas

My love of native North American labrusca grapes took root long before I became interested in wine. Childhood memories of times spent playing under a friend's trellised grapevines where the heady, almost "winey" aroma of ripening Concord and Niagara grapes would waft about in the late September breeze and accentuate the arrival of Autumn, have always made for pleasant reminiscing.

When I started learning about wine, I would occasionally think back to the grapes of my childhood and wonder why there were so few commercial table wines made from them. Sure, these grapes were used for wines -- but the scant few examples were usually sacramental wines, and even these wines were usually spoken of as being unpleasant. While I never found the aromatics of these wines disagreeable, I did find them too sweet for my taste.

Once I thought about the first time that I had tried an Alsatian Gewürztraminer. I could remember the interplay between the rich lychee-and-spice aromatics of the wine and its highly taut, acid-driven and acid-defined structure. Powerfully forward on the nose, yet firmly elegant and refined on the palate -- this became, in many ways, my ideal style of wine. Aromatic grapes like Gewürztraminer or the Hungarian Irsai Olivér when vinified dry, yielded a lively style that I came to really enjoy.

Then the thought came to me: What sort of wines could result if highly aromatic labrusca grapes were vinified dry in a style similar to that of the aromatic vinifera grapes? Due to the lack of dry labrusca on the market, the answer to this was not immediately clear. But it was a question yearning for an answer.

Given that labrusca is generally grown in short-season (and often cool-climate) viticultural regions, it can be inferred that wines made from it should be able to display a taut, acid-driven backbone if vinified dry. And with the grapes being strongly aromatic, it follows that the well-structured wines would be aromatic -- even monochromatically so. A highly aromatic, structured, texturally elegant labrusca wine therefore seems to be within the realm of possibility, at least as a concept.

Admittedly, labrusca grapes aren't going to produce wines according to the European model of aromatic elegance and finesse. They're simply too brash for that, and there's the question of whether one actually enjoys the wines' so-called "foxy" flavours. But can these grapes produce idiosyncratic wines that are expressive of their North American origins in a texturally elegant vein? Intuition so far tells me that the answer to this should be a definite yes.

October 2001

Return to main page