I am not a wine connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, when it comes to wine, I can generally take it or leave it. I've nothing against it, mind you, and I've found that the right wine can often make a good meal even more blissful. But I can also leave a wine bottle in the refrigerator for weeks before even thinking about having another glass. (Heresy, I know.)
Over the years, I've been trying to understand what it is about wine that leaves me unmoved most of the time. The taste, even of so-called "full-bodied" wines, seems thin to me, hitting a high astringent note in my mouth and leaving me unsatisfied. I like deep flavors that fill my mouth, like plump and juicy grapes themselves -- flavors that roll around in a lazy, soothing, familiar way.
It's a personal idiosyncrasy, I admit. But up until this summer, I didn't know why I had developed this preference. And then, I discovered the reason at the farmers market.
For the past couple of years, I've bought Concord grapes at the market to make juice for the winter months. Last year the pickings were slim where grapes were concerned, but this year I've been dazzled by the variety of lesser-known grapes. Long before the Concords came in, I found Niagara, Venus, Fredonia, Isabella, and a handful of other varieties, all fragrant and altogether inviting. Grapes have never been my favorite fruit for eating out of hand, but this year... wow! I stocked up on several quarts, and over the season, I've put up a total of eight quarts of juice for the freezer and the pantry, more than doubling previous years' efforts. I've even been able to find seedless varieties for making raisins, and I've dried four quarts of Glenora, Reliance, Himrod, and Lakemont for winter baking.
But as I succumbed to the lure of that heady, musty, sun-ripened scent each week, I found the answer to my wine dilemma. These grapes, native to my home state, had become the baseline by which I judged all other grapes, and the Chardonnays and Cabernets of the world didn't stand a chance against those lusciously perfumed memories.
Because I'm a research and library geek at heart, I looked into the matter. While the usual suspects in winemaking belong to Vitis vinifera and come from European rootstock originally, the Concords and Niagaras and others I love so well come from hardy American stock, Vitis labrusca or the "fox grapes." Their aroma is described by many as "foxy" (and yes, I'm singing along with Jimi Hendrix in my head, too), a reference to the musky, full flavor that forms the basis of what we tend to think of as "Grape" flavor. (You might even find that there's a vaguely chemical edge to the scent, just as in artificial grape flavoring, depending on your own childhood memories.)
That "foxy" scent and flavor is, I regret to say, not held in high esteem among most wine experts. The grapes themselves have very sweet flesh that slips easily from the bitter skins (hence their other moniker, "slip-skin" grapes), and whether it's from that reason or from the strong muskiness, they tend not to make great wines. (Great juice, yes, but not great wines.) Some people have expressed uncharitable opinions about the wines made from Concord, Niagara, and Catawba grapes — some of them undoubtedly deserved — and those wines are not often available outside their home markets. (A number of disease-prone European varieties brought to the United States were grafted with the Vitis labrusca varieties in order to develop resistance to those diseases, so a snub is hardly in order.) A recent Culinate article attempts to change people's minds by featuring a number of wines made from fox grapes, often with less sweetness and acidity than are normally found in these varieties.
As for me, though, I like my wines on the sweeter side. On a recent trip up to Lake Erie, I stopped by one of the oldest wineries in the state, Mon Ami Winery (located on Catawba Island, a sign of the importance of grapes to the local economy over the years). When I left, I carried a bottle each of Niagara and Pink Catawba wines for a taste-testing and for inspiration in the kitchen.
The Catawba grape itself originated in North Carolina but found an ideal home on the Lake Erie shoreline, and its high acid profile makes it a good choice for sparkling wines. The Pink Catawba, a semi-sweet blush wine (not sparkling), possessed a full flavor, like a lighter version of Concord juice, and despite the mildly astringent finish, it reminded me of summer berries. It paired harmoniously with a double-cream Brie, enhancing the richness of the texture and flavor.
I decided to try the Catawba wine in a preserve recipe I found a couple years ago in Christine Ferber's "Mes Confitures": a pumpkin preserve with spices and wine. I altered the recipe to fit the wine, dropping the original cinnamon and cardamom and using nutmeg and candied ginger to result in an almost old-fashioned sweet/tart combination. (It would be even better if I could find pumpkins that really had a good pumpkin flavor, as the ones I've found this year have been bland. Perhaps I'll use butternut squash the next time.) Aside from slathering this on whole-grain toast, I haven't yet decided what I might use it in, but I'm sure another experiment will occur one of these days.
Niagara grapes, developed as a cross between Concord and white Cassady, have become the leading green grapes grown in the United States. The Niagara (pictured at top), a semi-sweet white wine, has a lighter body and smoother finish than the Catawba, with hints of apples and peaches along with a darker underlying edge that I can't quite define. It loses some sweetness and adds a bit of a bite when paired with a tangy aged goat cheese, but it softens when served with a well-spiced Indian meal and deepens the flavor of nuts like filberts.
Like the fresh Niagara grapes from the market, the wine reminds me very strongly of jasmine, and when I compared it to my tin of jasmine tea, I knew I had to use the two together somehow. Adding a hint of lime to bring out both flavors, I ended up developing a new cake recipe that made a refreshing change from the usual spice and streusel coffeecakes I usually enjoy.
After I made a batch of juice from some of the Niagara grapes, I also experimented with savory combinations, ending up with a confit made from carmelized red onion, skinned grapes, and balsamic vinegar that added the perfect touch to a favorite squash dish. (I think I'll be making more of that very soon!)
Don't forget the much-maligned Concord, though. If you find the taste a little too cloying, I suggest mulling homemade unsweetened juice with spices (two cardamom pods, two peppercorns, two cloves, and a small piece of candied ginger per cup of juice). Allow the juice to simmer for about ten minutes and then strain it. Sweeten it with honey if you like, or just sit back and sip this surprisingly sharp brew on a cool autumn night.
Many of the fox grapes can only be enjoyed locally, as they are too delicate to travel well, and you may find it difficult to find wines made from these varieties outside your region. On the other hand, you may find (as folks from California to Kansas have discovered) that your local grape varieties and local wines hold some pleasant surprises.
As for Ohio, there are nearly 100 wineries in business and over 2,200 acres of grapes in production, from the labrusca varieties to the European vinifera grapes and a number of French-American hybrids. I don't expect to visit them all any time soon, but I hope to be able to report on some other vineyards and wines in the not-too-distant future.
Pumpkin-Pink Catawba Preserves
Makes 2 pints
In a non-reactive saucepan, combine all ingredients and heat just to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Puree, using blender, immersion blender, or chinois. Pack into sterilized jars, running a knife around the edge to remove air bubbles. Adjust lids and refrigerate.
(You may be able to process these safely in a boiling-water-bath canner, but I haven't tested it. I also don't know how long these will last in the refrigerator, but a month seems to be a fair guess.)
Niagara Grape-Red Onion Confit
Makes 1/2 cup
In heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, saute onion in olive oil until carmelized. (Take your time; it may take close to half an hour.) Add garlic and saute until fragrant. Add vinegar, thyme, salt, pepper, and grapes, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is a rich dark reddish-brown.
Serve as a condiment for a wide variety of dishes; use your imagination!