The Cynthiana grape is only marginally successful in Iowa because it has a very long growing season and in some years we get a hard freeze early enough in the fall that it is not yet ripe when the vines shut down for the winter. We put this vine in our vineyard because we're pretty optimistic that we are far enough south in Iowa that we have a good chance of getting it to ripen in most years. This is the first year these vines have produced a decent crop as it has taken a while to get them established in our vineyard. We think it is worth trying to grow this grape here because it makes a very good, full-bodied red wine when fully mature, and fills a niche that most of the cold-climate hybrids are not able to fill. It ages well, responds well to oak, and has lots of tannins, which smooth out as the wine ages.
Cynthiana is considered to be a genetically true American grape (Vitis aestivalis) as opposed to the more familiar European grapes of the genus/species (Vitis vinifera), such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. It was grown extensively in the Eastern US, particularly in Virginia where it was first noted, and also the Midwest prior to Prohibition, which pretty much wiped out the wine industry east of the Rocky Mountains for decades. It is grown extensively in Missouri and parts further south, and is actually the state grape of Missouri. It is often made into a high quality dry red which is aged in oak barrels, and once bottled, some additional aging is usually recommended before drinking.
Wines made from cold climate hybrid grapes (the majority of the grapes grown in the Upper Midwest) tend to be a little thin when it comes to mouth feel so being able to grow the non-hybrid Cynthiana in this area really fills an important space in a cold climate winery's repertoire. New hybrid reds are coming along and eventually grape breeders will come up with other combinations of cold-hardiness, good disease resistance, and good red wine qualities, maybe knocking Cynthiana of its perch. In the meantime, Cynthiana, also known as Norton, is holding down the fort for cold climate winemakers looking to make a dry, red wine.
This is an exciting time in cold climate grape breeding and research. There are interesting crosses being made with obscure Eastern European and Russian grapes that have just recently made their way across the Atlantic. There is a huge blank canvas out there, with lots of room for new grapes to take their places in the cold-climate viticulture lexicon.
The more, the merrier!
It comes at the perfect time because more and more wine drinkers seem to be in the mood to try new things. That's great news for winemakers in areas of the country not considered traditional wine regions, as it allows for the development of regional signatures or fingerprints, so to speak. It's a fun time to be learning the ropes. Things are certainly moving quickly as more research and breeding produces better hybrids with the characteristics necessary to succeed in the challenging conditions in the Upper Midwest. It also fits nicely into the Local Food movement. The State of Iowa has been out in front in trying to support and demystify the wine experience by getting out of the way and allowing wineries to do tastings and sell wine at farmer's markets, treating wine as the agricultural product it is, and enabling the public to really get to know their local winemakers and grape growers. It's benefited the wine industry here in a big way (as well as wine drinkers!!!).
Here is a closeup of our Cynthiana grapes as they approach ripening. We are probably still at least three weeks from these being ready to harvest. Greg will be checking the brix (soluble sugars) with his refractometer in the next several days to determine where things stand. We'll need to net these vines soon because the birds will start grabbing them as sugar content goes up.