Friday, March 2, 2012

Wine 101: Isabella

The origins of Isabella grape, a native Vitis Labrusca, are still unknown. Perhaps it originated in the Carolinas by random pollination of a labrusca grape and an unknown vinifera. Others have claimed that the grape was cultivated by the Cherokee Indians or that it is a cross between an unknown vinifera and muscadine grapes. Regardless of its origin, it was quickly adopted in New York and New England. In 1824, Deacon Elizah Fry successfully planted the first grapes in New York State – Catawba and Isabella. William Prince of Flushing, Long Island also acquired the grape, purchasing vines from Mrs. Isabella Gibbs, the wife of George Gibbs, a Brooklyn merchant; hence the name, Isabella. Originally the grape displayed the standard "grapey/foxy" taste and flavor associated with Labrusca grapes, but modern winemaking techniques have succeeded in removing this characteristic, resulting in a strawberry/boysenberry-like flavored wine.

Over time, Isabella began to be replaced by Concord or other hardier and more productive vinifera varieties, but has survived in a few eastern vineyards. Ironically, while production of the grape is virtually non-existent in the United States, it remains very popular in the rest of the world, where it has over 50 aliases. In Hungary and Georgia it is known as Izabella, Seksarda in Croatia, Fragola in Italy and Australia, and Albany Surprise in New Zealand. Large acreages of this grape are grown in Brazil, Russia, and in Columbia where it is that country’s most widely planted variety.

Goose Watch Winery is one New York winery that continues to utilize Isabella. The winery decided to cultivate Isabella because of the grape’s long history in New York and the fact that the variety creates a distinctive Boysenberry-like aroma which separates it from other native varieties that are just “grapey”. As a bonus, the Isabella grape retains strong name recognition in the Finger Lakes region, so visitors to the winery do not need to be cajoled to taste the wine as with other non-mainstream grapes. The winery produces a semi-sweet style Rosé of Isabella wine named after a popular wine that used to be produced by the Great Western Winery (now the Pleasant Valley Wine Company). Every vintage of this wine has won at least one gold medal and the 2004 vintage won Gold and was named “Best Native American Varietal” at the 2005 NY Wine Classic.

Isabella is also produced at a few other American wineries that specialize in producing wine from labrusca grapes. Also in New York, Barrington Cellars produces a semi-sweet rosé wine and an Ice wine from Isabella. And a little southwest in North East Pennsylvania, Heritage Wine Cellars produces several labrusca wines which include Isabella.

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