This weekend we celebrate America’s 240th birthday. From its birth as a nation, the United States has had a huge and long lasting impact in world affairs. One of America’s least known contributions to the world’s economy and culture involve wine and how America saved French and European wine from an almost certain extinction.
Grapes are a rustic plant, a bushy vine native to a wide number of environments mostly in the northern hemisphere. Early civilizations were quick to notice the uncanny ability of grapes to turn into alcoholic spirits and soon they domesticated this plant. Its most successful clone has always been “vitis vinifera”, widely planted in its native Europe and around the Mediterranean for thousands of years.
European settlers coming to the Americas made the trip across the ocean with just enough wine to keep them safe and drunk for the passage, but wine importation from Europe was so expensive they needed to find a way of making local wines pronto. So they turned to local grapes. It turns out that four of the six known genus of vitis are native to North America and “vitis rupestris” the most common of all grew literally everywhere. Tough and ubiquitous this little grape provided enough wine to keep settlers happy. Vitis rupestris found itself moving from obscure corners in forests and from the edge of sandy meadows, to the vineyards of Spanish missions from Oregon to Patagonia.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to the late 1700’s, back in Europe an unusually aggressive clone of phylloxera began to spread across vineyards, destroying crops and leaving farmers broke and perplexed. Word of American stock’s ability to resist disease had long reached Europe. It was a matter of time before European wine growers decided to try and save their grapes using the ancient method of grafting. Luckily for everyone it worked! In a short few decades, the little plant that could, made its way through the Old World, providing a strong, healthy stock to grow Europe’s finest grapes.
Today, as vitis rupestris numbers dwindle in the US, it has become the most widely planted stock in France bringing European wine from the brink of disaster for the sake of all of us, wine geeks.