“And the song of the Wine/This greeting of mine/The wines and the birds shall deliver/To the Queen of the West/In her garlands dressed/On the banks of the Beautiful River.” This Ode to Catawba Wine was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow nearly 150 years ago, when Catawba wine was one of the most popular wines in the United States. The catalyst for Catawba’s rise was Nicholas Longworth who pioneered its development in Ohio and whose sparkling Catawba, America's first champagne, was the object of Longfellow’s poem. The Catawba grape flourished along the Ohio River and in the hills surrounding the city of Cincinnati. By the mid 1800’s, Ohio was producing twice as much wine as California and supplied 1/3 of the U.S. wine market. However, disease and neglect soon after the Civil War lead to the decline in Ohio winemaking and Catawba’s popularity.
Catawba is a hybrid of labrusca and other native species and is thought to have originated by a chance seedling in North Carolina. The grape is named after the Catawba River located in the state’s Piedmont region. It is generally used to create sweet wines and its high acid content is favorable to sparkling wine production. Catawba is also known for its “foxy” aroma - a unique aroma/flavor profile variously described as wild and musky.
In present day Ohio, Catawba is no longer produced in large quantities near its original home near Cincinnati, but is produced on a regular basis by the Ohio wineries located near Lake Erie. Klingshirn Winery, Heineman Winery, Dankora Winery, and Old Firehouse Winery are among these wineries which create several versions of wine from this grape.
In New York State, Catawba is very popular and in 2005 three Catawba wines won Governor’s Cup medals. One New York winery, Barrington Cellars has been growing Catawba for over 50 years and states that the American public has a strong desire for the sweet wines made from this grape.
The most famous winery to produce wine from Catawba is New York’s, Brotherhood America's Oldest Winery. As the name suggests, this is the oldest continually operating winery in the United States. The winery was founded in 1839, survived Prohibition by selling sacramental wine, and was probably the first winery to produce Catawba wines commercially. Cesar Baeza, the winery’s current wine master, possesses an extensive wine background, having studied and worked in such diverse areas as his native Chile, Spain, Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria. From this experience, he recognizes and appreciates that each region should produce wines that will demonstrate these regional strengths. Fortunately for American wine drinkers he has settled in New York to produce wine from Native American varieties. In fact, he has concluded that Catawba grapes are an ideal grape for making New York sparkling wine. The high malic acid in the Catawba grape and its low sugar content make it perfect for the "cuvee" for champagne. Historically, Brotherhood's sparkling wine has been internationally famous ever since the Catawba-based Brotherhood Champagne won a Gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Europeans still consider New York to be one of the best regions to produce "Methode Champenoise" (fermented in this bottle) sparkling wine.
When Mr. Baeza became the winery’s wine master in 1987, he decided to enhance Catawba’s reputation and engineer a premium wine from the grape so he reformulated their "Harvest Blush Catawba" to make it less sweet. In 1998, he entered the reformulated wine in the New York Wine & Food Classic, where it won a Gold medal. Since then, the Harvest Blush Catawba has received recognition in every competition it has entered. Unfortunately, Mr. Baeza is reluctant to enter this wine in more competitions since many wine writers and opinion makers look down upon this grape. Visitors to the Brotherhood winery have a different opinion as they purchase the entire stock of Catawba wine each year it is offered. The wine has a pleasant, tangy apple-like taste and the “foxy” characteristics, usually associated with labrusca grapes, have been minimized. Mr. Baeza strongly recommends serving Harvest Blush Catawba at Thanksgiving as the wine compliments the entire package: turkey, cranberry sauce and the stuffing. He continues, “In fact, if they drank wine at the Thanksgiving Dinner with the Pilgrims it was probably made from the Catawba grape so it should truly be called "The Thanksgiving Wine" - the "Native American Wine". “
Catawba has also found a home in other states such as Pennsylvania, where at least 20 wineries bottle this grape as well as in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Eventually more wineries will be added to this list as Midwestern and Northeastern wines become more familiar to the American public.