A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Moore's Diamond - Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Finger Lakes, New York, USA

When I was first learning about wine, I had a lot of trouble trying to understand what the term "foxy" meant when it was applied to native American grape varieties.  At that time, I had only ever had wine that was made from Vitis vinifera grapes so the use of the word "foxy" to describe wines made from non-vinifera varieties was mystifying to me.  The Oxford Companion to Wine's entry on "foxy" says that foxiness is "the peculiar flavour of many wines, particularly red wines, made from American vines and American hybrids," which isn't really all that helpful.  The entry goes on to state that the Concord grape is the most well known foxy-tasting grape, "reeking of something closer to animal fur than fruit, flowers, or any other aroma associated with fine wine."  This seems to suggest that the term comes from the fact that the grapes and wines taste kind of like fox fur, but that may not necessarily be the case.  Writing in 1908, UP Hedrick, in his Grapes of New York (which you can peruse electronically here), has the following to say about the origin of the term foxy:

"Bailey gives the following interpretation of the word "fox" and its derivatives as applied to grapes: 'The term fox-grape was evidently applied to various kinds of native grapes in the early days, although it is now restricted to the vitis labrusca of the Atlantic slope. Several explanations have been given of the origin of the name fox-grape, some supposing that it came from a belief that foxes eat the grapes, others that the odor of the grape suggests that of the fox - an opinion to which Beverly subscribed nearly two centuries ago - and still others thinking that it was suggested by some resemblance of the leaves to a fox's track. William Bartram, writing at the beginning of this century, in the Medical Repository, is pronounced in his convictions: 'The strong, rancid smell of its ripe fruit, very like the effluvia arising from the body of the fox, gave rise to the specific name of this vine, and not, as many have imagined, from its being the favourite food of the animal: for the fox (at least the American species) seldom eats grapes or other fruit if he can get animal food.' I am inclined to suggest, however, that the name may have originated from the lively foxing or intoxicating qualities of the poor wine which was made from the wild grapes. At the present day we speak of 'foxiness' when we wish to recall the musk-like flavor of the wild Vitis labrusca; but this use of the term is of later origin, and was suggested by the name of the grape."' Bailey, L. H . Evolution of our Native Fruits: 5 1898."  Peter May (whose book on Pinotage I reviewed here) passed along this link which has a thorough and interesting discussion on "foxiness" as well.

All of which is interesting, but unless you know what the "effluvia arising from the body of a fox" smells like, probably isn't really all that helpful.  Judging by the number of threads devoted to the topic of foxiness on many wine message boards, I wasn't alone in my confusion.  Many try to describe it as a musky flavor, which is a little more helpful but is still maddeningly vague enough to not be satisfactory.  Still others describe it as a kind of grapey flavor, like Welch's grape juice or grape jelly, which I've found a little bit more helpful, but not totally accurate. The scientific explanation is that there are two chemicals, methyl anthranilate and O-aminoacetophenone, that are responsible for the taste and flavor perceptions that we regard as foxy. Methyl anthranilate (C8H9NO2) is found in Concord grapes and many other fruits, but is also secreted by dog and fox musk glands and is responsible for the "sickly sweet" smell of rotting corpses.  At full concentrations, its aroma is described as "grapey" and it is often used to flavor grape candies and drinks.  O-aminoacetophenome is apparently another chemical with a particularly grapey aroma that is found in many native American grape varieties, but can also be found in the anal sac of the Japanese weasel (really).

Knowing all of the information above can get you part of the way to understanding what "foxiness" is, but the only real way to get a handle on what that term means is to try a foxy wine.  Several years ago, still not knowing just what "foxy" meant, I found myself at Truro Vineyards in Truro, Massachusetts.  My wife and I were going through a tasting of some of their wines, most of which are made from traditional Vitis vinifera varieties, when they poured me a wine from a blue bottle shaped like a lighthouse which they said was made from a grape called Moore's Diamond.  When I stuck my nose in the glass, I knew immediately what "foxiness" was.  I grew up in rural Georgia and my grandparents had a grape arbor in their back yard that was planted with Scuppernong grapes.  Scuppernongs belong to the Vitis rotundifolia species which is also known as "muscadine" because they're very musky and have a very distinctive kind of taste which, it turns out, is what people mean when they talk about foxiness.  It was a moment of great revelation as so many things suddenly became clear to me.  I wasn't doing this blog at the time, but I recently came across another bottling of Truro's Diamond and decided to write a little bit about the grape.

Moore's Diamond was bred by Jacob Moore around 1870 by fertilizing a Concord vine with pollen from an Iona vine.  Iona is itself a hybrid of Diana (or possibly Catawba) and an unknown Vitis vinifera vine, which makes Diamond a Vitis vinifera x labrusca hybrid.  It was once very highly regarded and in 1908, UP Hedrick writes: "Diamond is surpassed in quality and beauty by few other grapes. When to its desirable fruit characters are added its earliness, hardiness, productiveness and vigor it is surpassed by no other green grape."  He goes on to say: "We usually accord Niagara first place among green grapes but Diamond rivals it for the honor. The former attained high rank not only through merit but by much advertisement while Diamond has made its way by merit alone.  If we consider the wants of the amateur and of the wine-maker as well as those of the commercial vineyardist, unquestionably Diamond must be accorded a high place
among the best all-around grapes."  Hedrick was a fan of Diamond because he likes "the refreshing sprightliness of our native fox grapes," and feels that the introduction of some vinifera into the lineage gave Diamond a "touch of the exotic."  The vine is also relatively cold hardy and carries many of the same resistances to disease as the other native American vines, but it is thin skinned and thus susceptible to many fungal diseases.  Its popularity was never as high as Hedrick might have hoped, and today it is planted on less than 100 acres in New York state and in minuscule quantities across the northeastern and Midwestern United States.

Truro Vineyards way out towards the tip of Cape Cod makes a wine that they call Diamond White from the Moore's Diamond grape.  This wine is non-vintage and comes in a blue tinted bottle shaped like a lighthouse.  It cost me around $18 at a local wine event I recently attended.  In the glass, the wine was a fairly light lemon gold color.  The nose was very intense and smelled like the Platonic ideal of foxiness (meaning it was very musky and grapey).  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity and was medium sweet.  There were flavors of fresh picked grapes with a little bit of white pear, sweet peach and green apple flavors.  As with most wines that I try from native American grapes or hybrid grapes with predominately native American parentage, this wine tasted mostly like grape juice and very little else.  It's not that most of these wines are bad, but rather that they're not very complex and many wine drinkers avoid them because they're simple and you almost always know what you're going to get.  If you like sweet wines that taste like grape juice, then you're going to love this wine, but the price tag on it is pretty steep for what you're getting.

If you drink a lot of wines made from labrusca varieties or from foxy grapes, chances are that nearly all of them are sweet.  I don't drink wines from these grapes habitually, but I can say that every wine that I've ever had from a foxy grape was sweet except for one.  Arbor Hill in the Finger Lakes region of New York not only makes a dry wine from Moore's Diamond grapes, they age the wine in oak barrels for awhile before bottling too.  They release the wine as a NV and it costs about $10.50 directly from the winery.  In the glass this wine was a very pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was explosively perfumed and was 100% musky grapes.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and was bone dry.  There wasn't a lot of fruit to the wine, but what was there was a little musky and grapey with a little bit of vague citrus as well.  It was a really weird wine with a kind of salty, tangy nuttiness to it as well.  The dominant flavor was still foxy grapes, but I think that because I have such a strong association of sweetness with that foxy grape flavor, this wine just ended up coming off as weird to me.  Of all the wines I've tasted for this site, this was definitely one of the most bizarre and while I'm glad that I got to try it, I don't think it's something that I'll be seeking out again anytime soon.

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