Catawba is a North American “hybrid” grape that was the most-planted variety in the United States until the 1850s. The grape’s exact origins are disputed, but it seems most likely that it was discovered in the eastern states (probably North Carolina) in the early 19th Century. The genetic structure of the hybrid is also unclear, Vitis Labrusca is accepted as one parent with a range of other native species, being potentially involved. Catawba is a late-ripening grape and like many vinifera varieties, it can be susceptible to fungal grape diseases such as powdery mildew.
Catawba played an important role in early American wine history. During the early to mid-19th century, it became the most widely planted grape variety in the country, not only used to produce wine but also jams, jelly and juice. Catawba was the grape behind the acclaimed Ohio sparkling wines of Nicholas Longworth.
The Catawba grape is named for the Catawba River in North Carolina. The history of this grape variety is a bit of a mystery. It was first documented to have been grown by Major John Adlum in Georgetown, Washington D.C in 1823, but where he got these cuttings is still not clear.
One of the early champions of this grape variety was Nicholas Longworth. He planted Catawba along the Ohio river and used the grapes to produce still and sparkling wines. His wines, particularly the sparkling which was modelled after the wines of Champagne, became very successful and were distributed from California to Europe, receiving numerous press accolades. This success led to a huge increase in the growing and cultivation of the Catawba grape, and up until 1850 it was the most grown grape in the country.
The 1860's bought an end to the dominance of this grape when powdery mildew decimated crops. Growers replaced Catawba with Concord grapes and this marked the end of it's dominance of the American wine growing industry.
The Catawba grape can still be found throughout the Eastern and Midwest United States, though its numbers are not very large due to the prevalence of more recent French-American hybrid varieties and increased plantings of Vitis vinifera in areas suitable for its cultivation. The areas with the largest concentration of plantings are the Lake Erie and Finger Lakes wine region but Catawba can also be found in North and South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania,
Catawba red wines are usually light in color, medium bodied and low in tannins. They tend to have the foxy earthy, musky aromas which are commonly associated with Vitis labrusca Varieties. The “methode Champenoise” sparkling wines tend to have floral aromas, with muted, fruity undertones. The pink Catawba wines tend to be sweet, with a lot of light fruit flavors.