To most wine drinkers, wine is a function of: picking grapes, crush, put in tank to ferment, store for a while in wood barrels, and when finished aging put the Portuguese red wine in a bottle and sell. But when the government gets involved, the seemingly simple tasks get a little more complicated. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), within the Department of the Treasury, oversees and ultimately must approve most everything that happens before the wine, beer and spirits are sold to the consumer; even approving the name of the grapes used on the wine label.
In March 2014, the TTB announced they had approved two new grape varietals for use on wine labels. It was puzzling, after thousands of years, there was a need for two more grapes to make wine? A quick search of the internet indicated there are 5,000 wine grape varietals in the world; 1,500 varietals have been used to make wine. (Some estimate there are 20,000 varietal grape vines, not just wine grapes.) Today, approximately 150 varietals (considered to be mainstream) are planted for the sole purpose of making wine. Currently, the TTB has approved 349 specific grape names for wine labels with 44 still pending. The questions that beg asking are: Why must grape varietals be approved for wine labels and where do new varietals originate for wine?
The two new grapes just approved for wine label naming are: Jupiter and Caprettone. The Caprettone seems to already have a century’s long history in Italy as a wine grape and the Jupiter is very new, and is American in origin; having been in the making for 35 years. The Jupiter grape (a dark purple color) was developed and released by Dr. John Clark and Dr. James Moore at the University of Arkansas. Interestingly, the Jupiter grape is a real hybrid that comes with a U.S. plant patent #13,309. Jupiter was developed as a seedless table grape and has now found its way into the wine industry. Most importantly, this Muscat style/flavor grape, with bold aromas, has a pedigree that is purely American; a lineage of parents going back more than 120 years, starting in Geneva New York.
This new grape, designated for wines, came about because the TTB is involved in approving wine label content and format. And they are involved because they are protecting consumers from fraudulent advertising statements about grapes in wine. If a grape is to be noted on a label it must be approved as a varietal by the TTB. In essence, the Jupiter has been shown to be a new varietal with a traceable lineage and DNA that can be proven not to be specific to any other varietal grape. The University of Arkansas invented a new grape (Jupiter) with a whole new personality that is becoming increasingly viable as a commercial grape. Actually, it was found to be ideal for wine by a vineyard in Oregon; more on that later.
As mentioned previously, in addition to the TTB being responsible for consumer protection, they ensure that only qualified persons engage in the alcohol beverage industry. Since 2003 they are responsible for enforcing the laws regulating alcohol production, importation, and wholesale wine/beer/spirits; tobacco manufacturing; and alcohol labeling and advertising. With 11 field offices, the TTB has 470 employees that oversee enforcement and approval processes of wine, beer and spirits. In addition, the TTB has a lab operation that does product testing.
Lately, there is an evolving interest, on the part of consumers, in the terroir/AVA impact on wine flavors, aromas and mouth-feel. Thus, AVA’s are becoming more of an interest in people’s selection of wines. The TTB looks very closely at AVA designation applications for elements that make a grape growing region very unique-soil, weather, elevation, etc.
Aside from the ever present exploration of the impact on wine’s flavors and aromas from the terroir/AVA, there are efforts to get the best grapes for each terroir/AVA. The Jupiter vine is now being looked at relative to how it ripens and its yields, based upon its heritage and terroir/AVA adaptability. However, like any product, a market for wine utilizing the Jupiter grape must be created. This is no easy task, especially when there is no wine history with Jupiter.
Now that the TTB has designated Jupiter as a varietal, it is being tested in small lots of wine for evaluation as a varietal used in blending or as a standalone varietal based wine. The intrigue is how or who decided this table grape, targeted at the Midwest market, was suitable for wine; at least enough to petition the TTB for an approved grape for wine?
An experimental nursery in Oregon bought some Jupiter plants to experiment with the grape, as a table grape, to be grown in the Northwest climate. Due to the characteristics of the Jupiter, this nursery found that the early ripening and high yield of the Jupiter would be ideal as a new regional fruit. In 2012, when Neil Shaw experimented with the vines for his farm, he was impressed with the muscat flavor of Jupiter. The powerful aroma of Jupiter wine; surely its finest and most memorable feature is due to its American DNA. That is when things started changing relative to looking at the Jupiter grape as a potential varietal for wine and potential for use in blending.
Now, Mr. Shaw has visions of a new red wine with robust aromas, great mouth-feel and a nice balance of tannins and acid. Armed with few cases of the finished wine (without a label) he took it to some wine critics he knew in Oregon’s wine country to get their input. “Although necessary aging remains incomplete at only ten months, local wine merchants and winemakers have expressed a favorable opinion and interest in marketing this new varietal wine,” said Neil Shaw-owner of Yamhalis Vineyard.
This initial reception to the wine and the adaptability of the grape to the Northwest pushed Mr. Shaw into going to the TTB for a new varietal designation. As the old saying goes, “that my friends” is how it came into being-the Jupiter wine grape.
Not all applications for varietal designation of wine grapes are for a vine that was invented as totally new. For example, the Caprettone grape has been used for wine in Italy for many years and just recently attracted enough attention that someone wanted to use the Caprettone grape in the U.S. for a wine and that required the TTB approval. As the wine consumers palate changes, some vine nurseries or vineyards will experiment with new vines and, if they like the results, an application will be made to the TTB for a new grape coming to the U.S. market.
Many universities in the U.S. work with grape vine development to solve any number of problems facing the wine business. Concerns about the wine grape in general that foster new development work is: hardiness, ripening profiles, drought tolerance vines, and vines for specific soil conditions/climate/altitude, yields, flavors, and resistance to diseases.