"What makes a grape illegal?"
Clue: It has American ancestry
a prequel to Vitis prohibita.
By voyaging across the Atlantic and taking root far from home, a few lucky American vines survived extinction and thrived in new places. Like refugees everywhere, their ability to adapt to a foreign landscape and culture was critical. First viewed as exotic curiosities, these American castaway grapes ended becoming an important part of vineyard landscapes around the world.
Before European colonization in North America in the 16th century, numerous native species of Vitis —botanically classified as labrusca, aestivalis, riparia, etc.— wild American grapevines were used by Indigenous people for food and not wine. European immigrants brought with them cuttings of their own grapes in hopes of growing wine in the new world. These European varieties all belonged to a single grape species Vitis vinifera that, along with wheat for bread, has travelled with humans since the dawn of agriculture.
These vinifera vines did not find hospitable conditions and soon died off from cold, disease and predatory insects. However, some were able to survive long enough for their flowers to send pollen into forests lined with American Vitis species. These chance encounters resulted in the birth of an entirely new class of European-American hybrid grape.
Pico island, Azores
Back to the future
Let's follow viticulturist and ampelographer Lucie Morton aka “the grape sleuth” on her journey to repatriate the Cunningham grape back to its birthplace in Tidewater Virginia. Her initial curiosity about the only other native-to-Virginia grape, besides Norton, to survive into the 21st century got personal when she discovered that her history and theirs were intertwined.
Her 6th great-grandmother Suzanne Rochet Michaux (1679-1744) was smuggled out of France in a wine barrel by her father to escape the King's Catholic police and ended up in a Hugenot enclave in Prince Edward County, VA.
Grapevines have a genetic history that, like Lucie’s, informs their cultural background as well. So-called American grapes in fact all have European (Vinifera) genes. DNA matching recently found the Vinifera in the ubiquitous Concord to be Bordeaux varietal Sémillon.
Lucie’s ancestors Col. Theodorick Bland and Samuel Venable were forefathers to this historic grape born in Virginia in 1812. Alas, grapes were quickly eclipsed by tobacco as a cash crop and the favored alcoholic beverages—beer, cider and whiskey—needed no vineyards.
Lucie Morton celebrates the Vitis diversity in Eastern America
Although Cunningham is extinct in the US, we have found it in the Cevennes Mountains of France and the Portugese islands of Madeira, Santo Porto and Pico. There may be other places it has found to call home.
Today Virginia has a vibrant wine industry and Norton is now Missouri’s most planted red wine grape.
Surely, the long lost Cunningham will be welcomed home after two centuries abroad.
Note of intent
Finding our roots
This is a “finding-my-roots” documentary featuring grapevines and the people who have cultivated them for the past 200 years on both sides of the Atlantic. It will bring the audience a back-to-the-future look at American and French cultural exchange in an original and unique way.
For Lucie, whether growing wild on the forest fringe or constrained to a garden trellis, grapevines are a beautiful gift of nature and sustenance.
Beyond the grapes, if the documentary Vitis prohibita is about resistance to oppression (religious, foreign, bureaucratic), Odyssey of Forbidden Wines is about assimilation and adaptation to new environments.
Pierre Galet takes a trip around the globe with American heritage vines