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The Catawba Grape, Explained | Wine Enthusiast

The Catawba Grape, Explained | Wine Enthusiast

“It’s important to acknowledge Catawba’s history,” says Tim Benedict, winemaker of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes region, which uses the grape in two of its flagship offerings. “If you get a pink Catawba, it’s a trip back in time.”

The red grape has been used to make a signature bright pink and fruity wine for hundreds of years. It was first introduced in 1823 by John Adlum, an American viticulturist, winemaker and author of A Memoir On The Cultivation Of The Vine In America. Though it likely had been propagated and grown even earlier.

Its origins are somewhat contested, according to J. Stephen Casscles, owner of Cedar Cliff Vineyards and Nursery in Athens, New York. But most concede this cross between American Vitis labrusca (also called Fox Grape) and Sémillon came from North Carolina.

Once it entered the public consciousness, growers realized the grape’s hardy nature and natural resistance to various vineyard diseases and pests. Soon, Catawba became the most widely planted grape in the United States. High concentrations of Catawba vineyards were scattered throughout Cincinnati and the Finger Lakes throughout the 1800s, used for both still and sparkling expressions.

“Before Prohibition, Catawba was one of the most drunk wines in the country,” says Chris Stamp, winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards in the Finger Lakes, which makes a bubbly with the hybrid.

While Catawba is quite hardy, it’s still susceptible to certain ailments like black rot, a fungal disease that, according to Casscles, spread rapidly through the East Coast’s densely planted vines in the late 1800s, destroying acres upon acres of Catawba. At the time, viticulturists didn’t know how to treat black rot. Then, of course, came Prohibition in 1920, which forever altered America’s wine landscape. Though it’s yet to regain its pre-Prohibition footing, Catawba has found a small but devout following in the Northeast.

“You can call it a hybrid,” says Steven Fulkerson, owner and winemaker of Fulkerson Winery & Farm in the Finger Lakes, who uses Catawba in several of their blends. “But it’s considered a native grape, with native characteristics and flavors.”

The wines themselves certainly stand out with their hot pink hue and typically sweet palate filled with vibrant, fresh red fruits. But the grape also has an innate high acidity, making it particularly well-suited to sparkling wine production, says Liz Leidenfrost, winemaker of Leidenfrost Vineyards in the Finger Lakes, who comments, “I love Catawba because it has such a depth and wide array of personalities depending on the winemaker’s choices.” Currently, the winery produces three wines, ranging from a still white to hot-pink bubbly.

In the field, vines tend to be quite productive and require very little tending, which ultimately translates to less expensive bottles. And it’s not just wineries reaping the benefits. Casscles notes that Catawba is becoming a very popular grape for both breweries and cideries in coferments.

In other words, there’s a treasured versatility to the hybrid. But will it ever reach its pre-Prohibition popularity?

“Unlike 10 years ago, sommeliers come up from New York City and are interested in trying hybrids and other American varieties,” says Stamp. “Many have never been exposed to them before and are blown away by the flavor. So maybe Catawba will have its day again.”

Quick Facts

  • Grape: High-acid, late-ripening red wine grape
  • Cross Of: Vitis labrusca and Sémillon
  • Wine Styles: Still white, red and rosé; sparkling and blends
  • Aromas/Flavors: Red fruit and berries, pineapple, peach

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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