Let’s Be Honest About Labrusca Wines
Vitis labrusca wines are big sellers for many wine regions in the United States. The snobbery against any wine producing region, variety or style of wine, including native American wines, can be annoying, especially in the retailing of these products.
I’m not sure why the industry and distribution business won’t let consumers drink what they want. Hey, Lambrusco sells in Italy, which is similar enough to our V. labrusca wines like Concord, Niagara and Catawba in terms of style and appeal.
Also, I’m not sure why the industry as a whole cannot accept the differentiation of various wine styles, and appreciate them for what they are.
Let’s call it how it is: V. labrusca wines are simple, fruity, appealing (when made properly), meant to be consumed quickly after bottling and also relatively easy to make into wine.
Yes, all varieties and wine styles have their own production hurdles, and native American wines are not immune to challenges. But in the grand scheme of winemaking, production of V. labrusca wines is relatively simple.
What’s the problem with acknowledging V. labrusca-based wines as simple, quality wines? Other countries and well renowned regions have simple, introductory wines at inexpensive price points to appeal to the mass market: France’s Languedoc-Roussillon, La Mancha in Spain and the Central Valley of California. There is nothing wrong with that. The production of good-tasting, pleasant wines does not replace or challenge production and sale of more complex wines.
Most consumers can connect with these native wines because they do taste like grapes -usually sweet to some degree- and they are easy-drinking. We see similar trends with beer (e.g. light beers and pumpkin ales) and distilled spirits (e.g. flavored vodkas).
In the craft brewing industry, some of the pumpkin ales most liked by the mass market add ‘natural” or ‘artificial” flavors of pumpkin and/or spice to emphasize that the beer tastes like pumpkin spice or pumpkin pie. Similar flavor additions are popular in the distilled spirits industry. I think this flavor enhancement phenomena can also be applied to how people relate to different styles of wine, especially considering the prominent grape flavor associated with many V. labrusca varieties (although that flavor occurs naturally).
While the mass market may like these obvious flavors, and I can see the appeal, there are other consumers who will always favor hand crafted, complex beverages, whether its beer, cider or wine. Blatant addition of flavors to beers (or to vodka) is not for someone who appreciates nuanced flavors and complexity in alcohol-based beverages.
Furthermore, there is no comparison between the amount of effort that goes into viticulture practices and winemaking affiliated with V. vinifera and some French-hybrids compared with V. labrusca varieties. Again most V. labrusca wines are produced, bottled, and sold within a year of production.
While we should recognize the value and quality of V. labrusca wines, and be more open about their contribution to the wine industry, we should also accept the fact that many V. vinifera wines are more complex. V. vinifera wines may not be appreciated by the labrusca drinkers, but that is not to say that they are lower quality or don’t deserve the respect they may rightfully gain.
Artisanal, terroir-driven, vinifera or hybrid varieties are often fermented and matured for years, maybe decades, before being released to the market. While it may require certain taste preferences to appreciate these wines, the art, craft and skill that goes into making wines of this style is something to appreciate as well.
I think the wine industry should accept that there is a preference for native wines amongst many consumers and acknowledge that they are tasty wines with market appeal. Let certain consumers drink these sweet and basic wines, if that’s what they prefer. Getting people to drink wine regularly is half the battle, after all.
I do appreciate wines of place, or wines that are exceptionally unique, and I enjoy nuanced flavors. I do not drink labrusca wines regularly, but I can tell a ‘good” one from a ‘bad” one. I do not avoid labrusca wines because I believe it’s beneath me, but because I appreciate the complexity associated with other wines styles that may not appeal to many labrusca drinkers.
If I want a unique wine that evokes discussion or thought amongst wine connoisseurs, I do not look for obvious flavor or dependable results that are associated with V. labrusca wines. Instead, I look for a wine that is complex, terroir-driven or somehow interesting. I think this phenomena eventually happens to most wine drinkers/connoisseurs/experts/snobs/writers/etc. — their taste preferences just want something different.
That being said, I’m happy to drink a labrusca wine if my host prefers it, or if my friends want to drink it. I’ll even provide a good one for a party or evening dinner if I know that it will please people in attendance. I simply enjoy that people are drinking wine, regardless of my preferences. I have recruited new wine drinkers this way.
We don’t have to be judgmental about V. labrusca wines or the people who prefer them. On the other hand, we also don’t have to act like they are the best wines out there or that native wines surpass the quality and attention of all other wines on the international market. But the wines, and the professionals who produce them, deserve some attention, too.
See related story: Labrusca Wines Deserve More Respect
Denise Gardner is an enology extension associate in the Deparment of Food Science at Penn State University. Denise recently received the Certified Specialist of Wine designation.