History of the World Part III

If you aren't catching the not so subtle reference, do the following: go to the video store (or the netflix website), rent 'History of the World part II', and watch it over a good bottle of wine. That should prep you well for part III.


A long time ago, up until the Triassic period or so (there is considerable debate on this, as no one was actually around to document the time line), there existed the great super continent from which all other continents eventually descended. At that time, North America and Eurasia were land linked, and one of the many many plants to evolve was the grapevine. By the end of the Jurassic period, Europe and North America had separated, and initially the same grapevines existed on both continents. Over 150 million years or so, these grapevines evolved in very different circumstances. In the Georgia region of the Soviet Union, a species of grape now known as Vitis vinifera evolved, and this grapevine showed such promise for the production of wine that it followed trade routes and soon spread across the entirety of Europe. In Europe's dramatic geographic areas, the grapevine underwent dramatic genetic change. Areas like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Mosel, Tuscany, Piedmont, etc. are all separated by geographic boundaries, notably rivers and mountains. As the genetic influence was limited by these boundaries, Vitis vinifera, with its very unstable genetic code, began to evolve differently. Mutations began adding up, but they exerted their influence on small pockets of geographical distinction so that Vitis vinifera expressed itself as Pinot Noir in Burgundy but in Bordeaux manifested itself as Cabernet Sauvignon (among others).


Here in the United States, the original grapevine descended into many species, some of which made for great table eating grapes, which were highly sought after by aristocratic circles and their elaborate gardens in Europe. Unfortunately, these exported native American grapevines brought with them another unique American: phylloxera. Phylloxera is a root louse that when unleashed on Europe completely devastated the wine grape industry. Native American grapevines (three of which are notable: Vitis riparia, Vitis rupestris, and Vitis berlandieri), having co-evolved with phylloxera over thousands of years, showed a natural resistance to this pest. Soon, American grapevines were again being exported to Europe, this time to rescue the floundering Vitis vinifera vines. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, European-American hybrids were used as root stocks to 'trick' the pylloxera. This plan worked well until the hybrid of choice, AXR1, finally succumbed to phylloxera, ruining a large portion of California's wine grapes in the 80's and 90's. Almost all grapevines are now Vitis vinifera grafted to a cross of 100% American root stocks.


Grape vines have been imported in to the United States for far longer than we have been a country. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most famous early American vintner, but Spanish missionaries brought wine grapes with them as they founded their missions from San Diego to Sonoma in the 1800's. Now of course, most of the famous wine grapes of Europe can be found here in the US. Unlike Europe, however, we have no geographic constraints as to which varieties can be grown where. If you want to grow red grapes in Burgundy, for instance, you are generally limited to Pinot Noir. In the US, however, you can grow Pinot anywhere it will survive, and you can certainly grow Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah all right next to you if you choose, a choice you don't have in France!