Drink Like a Pilgrim this Thanksgiving

November 23, 2010 5:30 pm - Posted by Roland Hulme in Eat

Thanksgiving is one of the quintessentially American holidays – and the Thanksgiving Day table is normally laden with quintessentially American foods. From succulent roast turkey to mashed potatoes and tart cranberry saucy, the staples of a good Thanksgiving spread are all foodstuffs that originated in the ‘New World’ –  and might well resemble what the Native Americans once served to our starving forebears.

But while sweet potatoes and fluffy cornbread are true ‘American’ foodstuffs, what most of us drink on Thanksgiving probably won’t be. Even wines produced in the United States tend to be from European-style grapes like Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – making them something of a contrast to our “all-American” menu.

For some, this is deliberate. I used to live in Paris, so I often crack open a bottle of Bordeaux on Thanksgiving to  toast my family back in Europe. Likewise, my Italian-American in-laws like to drink Chianti and other classic Italian wines to inject a bit of their own culture and heritage into what’s typically an all-American celebration.

But an equally common reason for drinking European-style wine on Thanksgiving is the fact that American grapes have never made particularly popular wines. This is no coincidence – when settlers first came to the shores of the ‘New World’ they found winemaking here was a lot more difficult than they’d anticipated.

The shores of the east coast were literally teeming with native grapes, and thirsty colonists anticipated brave new vintages to enjoy in this brave new world. However, they soon discovered that the native vines produced largely unpalatable wine and were also singularly unsuccessful in attempting to grow European grape varieties in American soil.

It took almost a century for American winemakers to finally crack the secret of making decent wine – largely thanks to Kentucky winemaker John James Dufour, who crossbred and cultivated the first strains of a native American grape that was suitable for wine production.

Once this strain had been discovered, it let to a golden age of American wine. On the eve of the American Revolution, the Royal Society for Arts in London even recognized two New Jersey vineyards for their fine vintages. In turn, vineyards cropped up throughout the thirteen colonies and beyond.

But while some excellent native wines are still produced today, their popularity has been dwarfed by the demand for more common European-style varieties.

Perhaps then, this Thanksgiving is the opportunity to try a uniquely American bottle of wine to pair with such uniquely American food. Here are some suggestions:

  • Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) is one of the most popular native American grape varieties grown today – with production extending from upstate New York all the way down to Florida and across to Texas. Muscadine has been used to make wine in America since the 16th century, and several varieties exist. Most commonly, you’ll find sweet Muscadine dessert wines, produced using the green Muscadine grapes known as ‘Scuppernongs.’
  • Niagara (Vitis labrusca) is a grape even your kids will be familiar with – almost all white grape juice is produced from this variety. It’s also frequently used to make wine in cooler parts of the country, like upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Washington. The result is a flowery, sweet white wine with a characteristic ‘foxy’ aroma. It’s very different to most commercial white wine, but has an aroma not unlike Riesling and will be a treat for those willing to remain open-minded.
  • Concord (Vitis labrusca) is another grape variety most commonly used for grape juice – the red variety is even offered as an alternative to communion wine in church. Concord’s most notable use in wine making, however, is in the production of Kosher wine. Popularized by the Manischewitz winery in New York, Concord is often considered ‘the’ Kosher wine.

If none of these all-American grape varieties appeal to you, don’t panic. You can still ‘drink American’ no matter where your favorite wine is made.

That’s because all the wine we drink today has a bit of America in it. During the 19th century, a horrific blight called the ‘phylloxera plague’ practically ended European winemaking – caused by a species of American root louse called phylloxera vastatrix that had inadvertently been brought to Europe in samples of American grapes.

It was a Texan horticulturalist, Thomas Munson, who found the solution. He grafted European grape varieties, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, onto American rootstock that was resistant to the louse. In doing so, he literally saved whole species of European grape varieties – not to mention the entire European wine industry.

But as a result, almost all of the typically ‘European’ wine we enjoy today is grown on American rootstock. That means there’s a little bit of the red, white and blue in every bottle we import – whether they’re from France, South Africa, Australia, Argentina or beyond.

So this Thanksgiving, when you raise a glass, give a little thanks to the humble, often unappreciated grapes of North America. The wines they produce might not be very popular, but if it wasn’t for those hardly little vines, we might not have any wine to enjoy at all!

One Response to “Drink Like a Pilgrim this Thanksgiving”

  1. Kevin says:

    Roland, you’ve really nailed this. Not only are there some fun suggestions but it is nice to see Thomas Munson some of the credit he so richly deserves.