USA’s first wine using ‘extinct’ variety recreated

17th June, 2014 by Rupert Millar

A history enthusiast who has revived what is commonly held to be America’s first commercial vineyard hopes to begin selling wine using the “Alexander” variety that was originally planted there and thought to be extinct.

First Vineyard; photo credit: Bonnie Phelps

First Vineyard; photo credit: Bonnie Phelps

“First Vineyard” in Nicholasville, Kentucky is so named as the Kentucky legislature declared it to be the country’s first commercial vineyard in a decree of 1799.

The vineyard was founded by a Swiss immigrant called John James Dufour and the first wine from the vineyards overlooking the Kentucky River were consumed on 21 March 1803 when financial backers were given the first taste of the new vintage, as was President Thomas Jefferson, a well-known wine lover, who was sent two five gallon casks.

A serious frost destroyed the crop in 1806 and Dufour moved his winemaking to Indiana where there was a large Swiss community.

However, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, local man Tom Beall has been buying plots of land on the original site of the vineyard since 1995.

To begin with he was attracted to the beauty of the natural surroundings but a keen interest in history inspired him to look into its past and he chanced upon its background.

The retired former policeman and construction businessman set about restoring the vineyard in 2006, replanting the site with varieties such as Riesling and Chardonnay and more recently the Alexander variety that used to grow there and which was common in early US vineyards.

A crossing of European and native US vines, it was resistant to North American diseases while retaining a more attractive, European fruit character.

Thought to be extinct, Beall obtained cuttings from the department of agriculture and hopes his first small batch of 75-125 bottles using Alexander will be available in 2015.

Admitting he is “more of a historian than a wine connoisseur,” the grapes are sent to Shepherdsville to be vinified but the winery has a strong cellar door business and sees, by Beall’s estimation, 6,000 visitors a year.

More on First Vineyard can be found here.

4 Responses to “USA’s first wine using ‘extinct’ variety recreated”

  1. Byron C Mayes says:

    Alexander is a spontaneous hybrid between European vinifera and North American labrusca varietals. There are no native US vinifera varietals.

  2. winewiz says:

    There aren’t any native US vinifera grapes.

  3. I don’t see where the author stated that there are any native North American V. Vinifera grapes. As far as parentage goes, Lucie Morton states that Alexander is a cross of V. Vinifera with either V. Labrusca or V. Riparia.

  4. Tony Lima says:

    In Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America (vol. 1) he notes that the exact origins of the Alexander grape are uncertain (pp. 117-126). Personally, I’m inclined to believe the American grape was the labrusca, if only because that variety is, um, promiscuous. You can read our review of this article as well as some quotes from Pinney here: http://virginiawinefan.com/2014/07/first-vineyard-u-s-kentucky/ For more information on the labrusca, especially its role in the North Carolina wine industry, see our review in the Journal of Wine Economics here: http://www.wine-economics.org/aawe/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/JWE2011-V6-No2-Reviews.pdf

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