Why Delaware, Ohio? Because that's where the grape is from, you might guess. But, no, the Delaware grape is thought to have originated from the garden of one Paul Provost in Frenchtown, New Jersey. The story goes that in the early 1800's, a Mr. Warford brought the grapes from New Jersey to Ohio and planted them in his own garden. At some point, a Mr. Heath also got his hands on cuttings of the grape and both farmers were growing it in 1849 when Abram Thompson, who was editor of the local newspaper in Delaware, Ohio, became aware of it and decided to try to figure out what it was and where it came from. In 1851 he brought the grape to the attention of the Ohio Pomological Society whose investigations into the grape's origins led them back to Provost's farm, but Provost had passed away in the interim, taking the story of how he acquired the grape with him. Some claimed that it was brought over by one of Provost's brothers who was living in Italy, which caused the grape to be known as the "Italian wine grape" for awhile. Others believed the grape came from a German who had spent some time with John Hare Powell in Philadelphia who was an agriculturist as well as a state senator. Some believed that the German had brought the grape with him from Germany while others believed he picked it up from Powell on his travels. At the end of the day, though, none of the theories had any evidence to support them, and Occam's Razor ultimately came into effect. If we can trace the grape back to Provost's farm and no further, it stands to reason that it originated there as a spontaneous field crossing that was grown from seed.
When Thompson first came across the grape, it was generally referred to either as Powell or Heath by the locals. Thompson sent some of the grapes to AJ Downing, editor of The Horticulturist magazine, who dubbed it Delaware since the samples he received were from the town of Delaware, Ohio. The grape was added to the American Pomological Society's grape list as a "new variety which promises well." Two years later it was included in their list of recommended varieties. The grape was a sensation and was the subject of several articles in the horticultural journals of the time which delighted in debates over its origins and its parentage. People were so pleased with the quality of wine made from the grape that many thought it must be a 100% vinifera plant at first, but this theory was quickly abandoned. Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet, one of the leading French horticulturists of the time, believed that the grape was likely a hybrid with vinifera, labrusca, cinerea, and aestivalis in its background. TV Munson, the Texas horitculturist and grape breeder, believed that it was a hybrid of labrusca and bourquiniana grapes with a bit of vinifera thrown in as well. He further believed that one of the parents was likely a grape called Elsingburgh which was from an area not far from Frenchtown, NJ. Today, the VIVC indicates that Delaware was likely the result of a vinifera vine crossed with a labrusca x aestivalis hybrid, but no specific grape names are given.
All of the information above is from The Grapes of New York published in 1908 (which you can read in its entirety here). The section on Delaware begins:
"Delaware is the American grape par excellence. Its introduction raised the standard of quality in our viticulture to that of the Old World, for there is no variety of Vitis vinifera more richly or more delicately flavored or with a more agreeable aroma than the Delaware. This variety is rightly used wherever American grapes are grown as the standard whereby to gauge the quality of other grapes."
The grape was prized for its "constitution which enables it to withstand climatic conditions to which all but the most hardy varieties will succumb, and so elastic as to adapt it to many soils and conditions, and to bear under most situations an abundant crop." It was considered second only to the Concord grape in terms of its quality as a grape for home gardeners, as a table grape and as a wine grape. Today, though, Delaware is not held in nearly such high esteem (though it is called "one of the highest quality American varieties for white wine" in an Iowa State horticulture program publication, which is a bit like being called the most beautiful pig at the slaughterhouse). It is very cold hardy but is also susceptible to a large number of diseases that make it less desirable than some of the newer hybrids. It is still grown in the Midwest and in some of the cooler regions of New York and used to make wine there, though it is probably most popular in Japan where it is used as a table grape.
During my trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York a few months back I was able to pick up two bottles made from the Delaware grape from the same producer but in two different styles. The first wine was the 2009 "Long Stem Pink," a semi-sweet rosé from Lakewood Vineyards on Seneca Lake which set me back about $8 at the winery. The Delaware grape has pink skins, as you can see from the photo above, which can impart a pinkish hue to the wine if left in contact with the juice for a short time after pressing. In the glass, the wine was an orangey salmon pink kind of color. The nose was moderately aromatic with a simple, one-note grapey kind of aroma. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity and a sweetness level somewhere north of off-dry but not quite medium sweet. There were flavors of candied apples, strawberries and wild grapes. There was a slight bitter edge to it on the finish, but overall it was simple, sweet and fruity which is generally all these kinds of wines aspire to be. I drank this with a cheddar and chipotle sauced pasta with sausage and broccoli and it performed admirably against the spice and fat of the dish. If you like sweet table wines with those grapey, "foxy" aromas and flavors, you'll like this a lot, probably, but if you despise and revile those kinds of wines on principle you're probably better off giving this one a pass.
The second wine that I tried was the 2008 "Glaciovinum" from Lakewood Vineyards, which is an ice wine made from Delaware grapes. It comes in half bottles (375 mL) and costs about $16 at the winery. In the glass the wine was a fairly deep gold color. The nose was very aromatic with honey and grapefruit that turns towards those characteristic grapey notes as the wine warms up. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and a very high sweetness level. There were flavors of honey, ripe grapefruit, apple pie and mandarin oranges when I served the wine right out of the refrigerator. As the wine warmed up a bit, the grapey labrusca flavors showed up though they never really took over. Temperature was the key as the second glass I poured myself from the open bottle right out of the fridge showed the same kind of progression. I was pretty impressed with this wine overall. I thought it was fairly well balanced and had enough going on to keep me interested in it. The price is what ultimately enticed me into buying a bottle for myself as it can be very difficult to find ice wines for less than $20. While I probably wouldn't buy the rosé again, I would definitely give this wine another try if I ran across it somewhere for around this price. I think this wine's labrusca flavors are muted enough that even seasoned labrusca haters might find something to like here.