Wine Education 101: Pour Me Another Glass of Vitis Vinifera

Grapes that are made into wine are often referred to as “Vitis vinifera”.  But are all wine grapes Vitis vinifera?  Can wine be made from grapes that are not Vitis vinifera?  To understand what Vitis vinifera means, we should first understand the basics of Taxonomy, the science involved with the classification of organisms.  We can thank Aristotle for first creating the classification of things as either animal, plant or mineral and further subdivisions based on how they looked or behaved.  However, it was in the 1700s that Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus developed our current binomial system of Taxonomy.  The Linnaean Classification system has every animal, plant or microbe given a two-part name.  The first part is Genus (broad) and the second part is Species (specific).  Some familiar binomial names you may be familiar with include:  Tyrannosaurus rex, Gorilla gorilla, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Oenococcus oeni.  Linnaean taxonomic ranks further divided all living things into increasingly more specific divisions such as:  Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.

So, with this basic understanding of Taxonomy we know that Vitis is the genus (grapevines), and vinifera is the specific species of this grapevine. Vitis vinifera is a member of the Vitaceae family of woody, climbing vines and is native to the Mediterranean, Central Europe and southwest Asia.

Vitis vinifera is known as the “wine grape” because it is believed to produce some of the best tasting wine.  Most of our well-loved varietal wines belong to this Genus/species:  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Syrah, Malbec, Grenache, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, etc.  Our favorite table grape, Thompson Seedless, is also of the Vitis vinifera species and while it doesn’t produce a favorable wine, is great for snacking and dried to raisins.

While the Mediterranean and Europe have their native Vitis vinifera, North America has its own native grape varietals.  The “genus” is the same Vitis, however, the “species” are different from the European vinifera.  Unfortunately, these native American vines often produce a less favorable wine, having an unpleasant “foxy” taste. Because the wines from native American vines are not as pleasant tasting as the European Vitis vinifera, there is less demand and popularity among wine connoisseurs for these varietals.  However, many of these wines are still found in the East Coast or Midwest, where the vines originated from.

The main native American vine species include:

  • Vitis labrusca – produces Concord, Niagara, Cayuga, Catawba and Antoinette varieties.
  • Vitis riparia – a Midwestern variety that produces Bacchus, Baco Noir, Elvira, Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Triomphe d’Alsace.
  • Vitis rotundifolia – a Southeastern variety that produces the Muscadine grape.
  • Vitis aestivalis – a Midwest favorite that produces the Norton grape – possibly the best tasting wine of the native American varietals.
  • Vitis rupestris – an Eastern variety with high disease resistance and produces Vignoles, Vidal Blanc, Aurore, DeChaunac, Chancellor (French-American hybrids)

While Vitis vinifera wines may taste better than other Vitis species, they also have roots that are susceptible to the root-damaging louse, phylloxera.  In the late 19th century, phylloxera devastated the vineyards in Europe when they were accidentally brought in from imported American grapevines.  These American grapevines had long ago adapted to phylloxera and became resistant to the root-damaging louse.

To overcome the damaging effects of phylloxera, many grape growers experimented with cross-breeding of Vitis vinifera and the phylloxera-resistant American varietals.  These varietals became known as “French-American hybrids”.  While these hybrids were successfully phylloxera-resistant, they didn’t match up to the same high quality taste of the European Vitis vinifera

To solve this problem, grape cultivators found that they could graft the Vitis vinifera vine onto the rootstock of the phylloxera-resistant native American varietals.  This solution produced the same high-quality tasting European Vitis vinifera grapes on phylloxera-resistant native American rootstocks.  To this day, this is still common viticulture practice for Vitis vinifera vines in Europe, America, and other areas where phylloxera is a problem.  In sandy soils where phylloxera is not a problem, you may still find Vitis vinifera grapevines on their own rootstock (some connoisseurs believe this results in better tasting wine).

So, enjoy your glass of Vitis vinifera, while giving thanks to the native American varietals that saved this great-tasting species from extinction!

Irene Scott, WSET-3, CSWS

UC Davis Winemaking Certificate

OCWS Wine Education Chair