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Q: Where Did California Wine Grapes Come From?

by David on July 26, 2007

Question from Quincy: We are having a debate about the origin of California wine. We hope you can solve it. Where do California wines originate from? Are there any grapes native to California? I was told that California grapes repopulated the French wine country when the grapes were wiped out about 30 years ago. Did the grapes originally come from France, or were there native grapes that made California notable?

Reply: Thanks for writing! You’ve asked a complicated question, so I suggest that you get yourself a glass of wine and get comfy before you read this!

The species of grapes that are used to make wine in virtually every wine-producing country are of European, or actually Eurasian, origin, called vitis vinifera. Vitis vinifera is thought to be native to the area south of the Black Sea, in what is now Georgia and Armenia, and eventually traveled west. Of course Europe takes the credit for making these varieties famous. The first wine grapes in California came from Spain, via Mexico, and we have the Spanish missionaries to thank for establishing our industry first in southern California, and then bringing it north.

Wild, native California grapes are considered unsuitable for wine, but not other native American varieties. Wine is made of native American varieties such as Concord or Muscadine, but it claims a very small part of the market. American and European grape varieties are of the same genus, but not the same species, so they’re different in appearance, growing habits and, most importantly, flavor. Most of us find the flavors of the American varieties too strong. We seem to prefer the European varieties that have made wine for centuries.

The confusion with American varieties in Europe was created in the 19th century. As European varieties made their way here, American cuttings were also taken to Europe. Some of the American cuttings were infested with a small, aphid-like root pest called phylloxera, to which they are resistant. The French vineyards had never been exposed to phylloxera before and were devastated by it (this was in the 1860s). It took them a long time to identify the problem and then figure out what to do about it. They tried flooding the vineyards; they tried the chemicals that were available at the time. Finally, it was suggested that the non-resistant French variety be grafted on to resistant American stock and it worked! Ever since then the European varieties have been grafted.

Phylloxera proved to be a jet-setter, attacking most of the rest of Europe and other wine-producing regions around the globe including California and so the vast majority of us have to graft. There are some parts of South America and Australia that appear to be phylloxera-free, but most growers consider it prudent to graft European varieties onto American rootstock. These days, we select the hybrid not only for its phylloxera resistance, but also for other attributes such as drought resistance, low vigor, high vigor, etc.

In the late 1980s there was a recurrence of phylloxera here in California. Some blame a rootstock hybrid called AxR1, a French/American hybrid (the French parent being the weak link). Many believe that phylloxera mutated in such a way that rootstock that was resistant isn’t any longer and a “biotype B” phylloxera was identified (there are many biotypes of phylloxera). According to Jancis Robinson, “the AxR1 rootstock was found not to be affected by phylloxera found in New Zealand, but it was affected by German phylloxera.” In any case, here in California, if the vineyard was on AxR1 it was a question of when, not if, it would succumb and a great deal of replanting was necessary.

Now, just to cover all the bases (I hope!), there’s one grape, Zinfandel, that’s often called the “California grape.” That’s because we couldn’t locate its European parent or find the wine produced in Europe. In recent years a great deal of research was done on the subject and DNA fingerprinting has traced Zinfandel and its Italian twin, Primitivo, back to Croatia. Zinfandel doesn’t have the appearance or growing habits of a native American variety, so it wasn’t surprising to find that it came from Europe. But, we still think of it as very much a California wine!

I’m afraid this may have been a 2-glass reply, but I hope it was helpful to you.

Cheers! Nancy

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