Hybrid Vines: A History of Wine Snobbery

Learn how crossbred grape varieties survived the wrath of rigid French vineyards to alter wine production across America.

| Fall 2019

Unsplash/Kym Ellis

One recent rainy morning, I posted a photo on Instagram of the items I was taking to a friend’s for brunch: a bounty of colorful eggs from my hens; a loaf of fresh coriander and raisin sourdough from my oven; and a bottle of 2018 Lupo in Bocca from the La Garagista Winery just 20 miles from my home in Barnard, Vermont. The label bore a quick description of the bottle: “Rosé Wine of Vermont.” The very first comment on my post was by a dear friend from Paris who quipped, “Rosé from VT? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry ... Or just drink.”

Of course, such a gut reaction about a New England wine isn’t surprising. Long have the wines of the region been bedraggled by such epithets as “jelly jar juice” and “foxy.” Unsophisticated wines for an unsophisticated palate. So while the comment didn’t surprise me, the wine did. This rosé was one of the most original, nuanced, and delightful wines I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. We drank the whole bottle eagerly. The dichotomy of the comment and the bottle made me wonder: Where did this widespread snobbery against New England wine originate?

Adobe Stock/PNPImages

In order to understand how and why New England wines are assumed inferior, we must first understand the history of the American grape versus the European grape. An American grape (likely Vitis labrusca) visited its European cousin, V. vinifera, on the heels of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. The American vines were brought to be planted as curiosities in gardens and on private estates, not to make wine. One was showcased in the Jardins de Luxembourg. Unfortunately, V. labrusca brought an uninvited friend: the aphid known as grape phylloxera. These aphids enjoy the leaves of V. labrusca, but they love the roots of V. vinifera. They fed off the roots of European vines, and, in combination with the resulting fungal infections, left V. vinifera plants girdled and dying. American rootstocks were immune to the aphid, but within a few decades a vast majority of European vines had been destroyed by phylloxera. By the 1870s, half of French wine production had ceased.

It took decades for the French government to come to terms with the discovery, but it was Jules-Émile Planchon who correctly identified the aphids in the late 1860s. The French government attempted a program known as la défense, in which an incentive of 300,000 francs was offered for insecticidal or nonchemical treatments that would cure V. vinifera of the accursed phylloxera. Many different cures were proposed, from flooding entire vineyards to using goat urine. Ultimately, the government gave up on la défense and moved, begrudgingly, to la réconstitution.



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