Pennsylvania Wine School: What is a Catawba?

Chambour-huh? Vidal who? Need some help demystifying some of Pennsylvania’s most essential wine words? The PA Wine Land Post is at your service, schooling you on the grapes you need to know.

Varietal: Catawba (pronounced kuh-TAW-buh).

Grown: Primarily in the northwest region, but it can be found across Pennsylvania.

Similar to: White Zinfandel.

If you’re interested in the history of American winemaking, Catawba is a great place to start — it was one of the earliest native grapes used in wine production.

The purplish-red fruit was the main crop at the country’s first commercially successful winery, run by Nicholas Longworth in Ohio. He made sparkling wines that were distributed as far away as California and Europe. Thanks to the wild popularity of these wines, Catawba was the most widely planted varietal in the country from 1825 to 1850. Unfortunately, in the 1860s, a powdery mildew blight decimated the vines. Add in the turmoil of the Civil War and many vineyards were abandoned or switched to other crops. Another native grape, the Concord, soon eclipsed Catawba.

Grown predominantly on the East Coast of the United States, Catawba is a cross between native Vitis labrusca grapes and imported Vitis vinifera. It is a hardy vine and thrives through humid summers and cold winters.

Though Catawba is a red grape, it produces wines that are lighter in color. A favorite style is “Pink Catawba,” a rosé similar to White Zinfandel. Instead of doing full fermentation with the whole grapes, winemakers remove the skins after a short period. This means fewer tannins — and less color — come out of the skins into the wine. Pink Catawba is often on the sweeter side with medium-body and moderate acidity.

One word you might hear tossed around with native grapes (Vitis labrusca) is “foxy.” It refers to a distinctive note found in these wines — a sort of wild, musky smell. It’s an intriguing aroma and one that can be balanced by sweetness or grape-y flavor. Overall, Catawba has mild berry and fresh fruit notes, with a bright, smooth finish. Catawba wines made in the “methode Champenoise” — which produces sparkling wines like those made in Ohio almost 200 years ago — tend to have floral aromas and muted, fruity undertones.

Pair a sweeter Pink Catawba with fresh melon or strawberry shortcake. It also makes a great picnic wine, served chilled alongside barbecue or cold fried chicken. When it comes to semi-sweet and off-dry Catawba wines, aged cheeses with some earthiness — for example, a sheep’s milk cheese like Manchego — are lovely companions.

Below is a sampling of Catawba wines for you to try from all across PA Wine Land:

NorthWest:
Arrowhead Wine Cellars, Pink Catawba
Mazza Vineyards, Pink Catawba

NorthCentral:
Bee Kind Winery, Pink Catawba
Flickerwood Wine Cellars, Pink Catawba

NorthEast:
Pickering Winery, Catawba
Tolino Vineyards, Catawba

SouthWest:
Christian W. Klay Winery, Pink Catawba
Stone Villa Wine Cellars, Pink Catawba

SouthCentral:
Broad Mountain Vineyards, Catawba
Olivero’s Vineyard, Catawba

SouthEast:
Benigna’s Creek Vineyard & Winery, Liberty White
Franklin Hill Vineyards, Catawba

To learn more about other varietals that are grown across PA Wine Land, visit our Wine School library.

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