When the first wine was produced in North America isn’t certain. Certainly not Virginia, where attempts to plant European vines in the early 1700s failed dismally. Spanish monks planted the first European grapevines in 1629 near what is now Socorro in New Mexico, USA. The first winery growing European vines in Mexico, Casa Madero, was founded in 1597. Wine production by Huguenot settlers in Florida using native American scuppernongs was recorded in 1562. However, maybe there was even earlier winemaking,

But what is “wine”? A general definition involves grapes grown on vines. But what about fruit wines, involving berries, apples, pears and the like? Or even more unlikely starting materials – pea shucks is one that I know of. To make a fruit wine needs a fruit starting point, yeast (which may occur naturally on the fruit), plus the know-how. Sugar or honey is needed if there is not enough natural occurring sweetness. The concept is not new. Recent excavations in China revealed evidence of fermented liquors based on rice, berries, honey and grapes produced 8,000 years ago. Over the millennia, wine making became more sophisticated and the Roman Empire then spread this expertise across Europe.

So where do Vikings come into this? Wheat beer and strong mead were their tipples of choice. Scandinavia is not prime grape growing country, but there are many tasty berries found in the wild from which fruit wines and spirits have been made for centuries. From the 900s onwards, Viking traders had exposure to grapes and wine in Spain and the Eastern Mediterranean. So fermented drinks were common amongst the Vikings a millennia ago, and they knew about using grapes too.

In about 992, Leif Eriksson led an expedition from Greenland to establish the first European colony in North America. They built stone longhouses in a base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Then they explored further south and stayed in America for two winters before returning home. Tyrki, Leif’s foster father, found abundant supplies of wild grapes. In the subsequent history of their travels, Leif Eriksson’s Saga, they called the place Vinland (Wine Land).

The Viking explorers found source materials for wine making, they had the technical knowledge of fermentation, they had the time to make a wine during two long winters. They even named their discovery Wine Land. It is not unreasonable to think that theirs was the first wine making in North America, more than 400 years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.

It seems possible that wine (though perhaps not of the quality of Cavender Creek) was made in America far earlier than the average history book tells us.

Robin Hall

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