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Tales of Catawba (and other Hybrids)
By Christy Frank
Mar 23, 2022
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A long, long time ago, on an island far, far away, I used to drink wines made from the Catawba grape.

Alright, that’s only sort of true.

It wasn’t all that long ago (but I won’t say how long, for fear of dating myself.)  And the island wasn’t that far away – it was Put-in-Bay, off the northern coast of Ohio in Lake Erie.  And I really didn’t drink that much Catabawa because I really didn’t like it.  It was sweet and a little funky in a very grapey way — a headache waiting to happen in a plastic cup.  I preferred weak, watery beer as my island tipple.

This funky/grapey flavor actually has a name: foxy.  And no, that’s not “foxy” in the sense of the cute boy who sits behind you in math class.  Catabawa, and other vitis labrusca family members like Delaware, Niagara, and Concord, are the vines that grew wild throughout the northeast (and yes, I know labrusca is a species, not a family.)  Now this time of wild-growing vines truly was a long, long time ago — as early as the 1600’s, when they were called “foxgrapes.”  What the name or flavor has to do with actual foxes is as raging a question as what the fox says.  (That’s a reference to a creepy/strange dance song by a Norwegian comedy duo, in case you’re not up on your ten-year old viral videos.)

Weird word entomology (and creepy Norwegian music videos) aside, these foxy grapes were distinctly different from their tamer, cultivated vitis vinifera cousins (European grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Poulsard).  But different isn’t a bad thing – and these labrusca grapes were once used as a force of good.

Back in the 1800s, Catawba vine cuttings gathered in the wilds of North Carolina were making their way from Washington, DC to the Ohio River Valley, near Cincinnati, and into the hands of Nicholas Longworth, a New Jersey transplant.  A very successful lawyer, he decided to do what successful lawyers have done for ages – plant a vineyard and open a winery.  This wasn’t just a vanity project – Longworth established a thriving wine industry in the region, making some of the world’s most well-regarded sparkling wines, considered on par with proper Champagne.

But the glory days were short-lived.  Labor shortages due to the Civil War and bouts of crop disease hit the region hard, and by the late-1960s, the grape-growing in southern Ohio had come to a halt.  German immigrants had brought Catawba vines north, to the Finger Lakes and to the shores and islands of Lake Erie, but at this point, the grapes were primarily used to make sweet wines and fruit juice.  Not exactly the dark side, but certainly not a bright spot in the wine universe.

Skip forward to sometime in 2016, when I arrived late for a drink meeting at Rouge Tomate.  My drink meeting mates were already sipping from two glasses – blind wines had been poured.  They were both sparkling, with the more-foamy-than-full-on bubble that signals “petillant naturel,” the newly cool old-school method of getting bubbles into bottles.  I took a sniff and a sip.

No way!  Could it be?  It was grapey, a little funky, floral and fruity…some might even say “foxy.”  But delicious.  Definitely floral, in a way that reminded me of Muscat family varieties, but Muscats, even the dry ones, are more about peach and orange blossom.  This one was all green grape blossom.  And much more delicate, almost lacy.  And there was a wildly racy streak of acidity and those happy, foamy bubbles to balance the fruit.

So was it?  Was it Catawba?  Why yes, it was.

It was a pre-bottling sample of a project of Pascaline Lepeltier and Nathan Kendall.  Intrigued by those stories of the famed sparkling wines of the 1800s and interested in working organically and locally, they managed to track down a source for organically grown labrusca grapes up in the Finger Lakes where Nathan makes his own wine and turned them into petillant naturel using low-tech/no-tech winemaking.  It was sort of a throwback to the glory days of Catawba.  At the time of the tasting, the wine didn’t have a name, but they eventually decided to call the project chepika, derived from the Lenape word for “roots,” the Lanape being the Native American people indigenous to that area.

Chepika catapulted a widely grown grape like Catawba into a spotlight of respectability, but it’s just one project of many inspired by Deirdre Heekin’s La Garagista in Vermont.  Heekin’s wines proved that organic- and biodynamic-influenced farming was feasible even in cold climates – as long as you chose the correct grapes, which in Vermont are cold-hardy “Minnesota hybrids” such as La Crescent, Marquette, and Brianna.  She treated the wines with the same respect and attention that their vinifera cousins were used to – and the results were a slow-burn sensation.

That first vintage was in 2010 and twelve years later, the hybrid love continues to spread beyond the Vermont community that’s sprung up around La Garagista.  In Wisconsin, Erin Rasmussen’s American Wine Project in Wisconsin is focusing strictly on hybrids while Hudson Valley Wild Arc Farm and Hudson Chatham are working with a mix of hybrid and vinifera varieties.  There are just a few names to watch out for.

Most of these grower-winemakers seem to lean to the natural wine side of things – or just call them “low interventionist” if that term sits more easily.  It’s a happy marriage of medium and message: when these hybrid varieties are allowed to just be themselves, they turn out wines that are compelling, vibrant, and delicious.  Sure, they require a bit of handselling, but shops and sommeliers are already doing this for grapes from Assyrtiko to Zlahtina.  Adding hybrids to the mix simply extends their repertoire.
Who knows, maybe the next time I make my way to that island far, far away, I’ll find an organic, island-grown petillant naturel Catawba in my glass.  Or my plastic cup.

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