The American Indians were the first to discover the native grapes of America. This was way before Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were transplanted here from Europe. There are hundreds of Native American grape varieties that have been identified over the last 200 years. But, very few are in cultivation, due to the low demand for these grapes. As a result, there’s low incentive to study these grapes. That means our comprehension of them – their unique aroma compounds, how they must be cultivated, and what special winemaking techniques they require – is sorely lacking.
It’s from one of these native American grape varieties, the Concord grape, of the species Vitis Labrusca that the ‘grape’ flavor we know and love is derived. We use it in grape juice, jelly, jello, grape soda, candy, and even Kosher and church wines. This flavor baffles Europeans who taste our Concord grape juice. The Catawba and Isabella grapes are also a member of the labrusca family. It was these grapes that local millionaire winemaker Nicholas Longworth used in the early 19th century, to make his award winning sparkling and fortified wines. It wasn’t necessarily the flavor that is the reason we don’t drink Catawba wine as much as we do European varieties. It’s that the Catawba was very susceptible to an aphid pest that caused black rot called phylloxera. Most of the grapes used in winemaking are of the species Vitis vinifera.
The distinct Concord grape flavor is caused by a chemical compound called methyl anthranilate. This flavor is disdained in wine, and given the flavor descriptor “foxy.” But this grape makes a fabulous Concord Grape Pie, like the one German immigrant – Margaret Habig – made at her family’s restaurant on the West Side of Cincinnati. This recipe lived on for almost 100 years at the restaurant. Its sweet jammy filling makes a great pie, and the thick black skins are easy to separate from the pulp during the pie making process, which also allows for the removal of seeds.
Texas has its own native grapes, of the species Vitis Mustangensis, called the Mustang grape, that grows wild all over in Hill Country, along the Colorado River. They’re not easy to eat – they’re full of seeds, bitter with tannin, and very sharp with acidity. There were references to Mustang wines before the Civil War. But the Mustang’s unique flavor make it a target for piemakers in Texas Hill country. There’s even a German-American recipe for Green Grape Marmeladenkucken (Marmelade Cake) in the Texas German cookbook, Guten Appetit , published by the Sophienburg Museum. And a green mustang grape pie recipe also exists in the Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio. The trick is to get the green grapes just before they ripen in mid summer, before their seeds develop.
Hill Country German-Texas pressing mustang grapes for wine.
There’s also a pie recipe for the fully ripened Mustang Grape, and ice cream companies, like Justin’s in San Antonio, who integrate it into sorbets and creams. One local Texas company, Fischer & Wieser, is probably the only company that makes a Green Mustang Grape Jelly. But there are probably hundreds of German-American housewives and culinarians who still make this in small batches every year from foraged grapes. I plan to find both pie versions on my upcoming summer food trip to Texas Hill Country.