by Fred McMillin
for October 12, 1998


What Was the Best Grape in 1492?

Columbus Landing Site
Mrs. McMillin at the shore where Columbus first set foot in the New World.


When Columbus reached the New World, he discovered corn, sweet potatoes, and peppers, but no winemakers. There were plenty of wild grapes. North America alone had more species of grapes than anywhere else in the world. Yet no wine was made from them until the French arrived in Florida in 1564.

     ...from my Wine History lectures.


The Rest of the Story

New World Museum
Entrance to the New World Museum of San Salvador island.

On this Columbus Day I'm pouring a wine made from the best varietal of 1492. Let's run through some candidates.

Sangiovese—A native of Italy like Christopher, this grape became the backbone of Italy's best- known red wine, Chianti. However, my 1775 edition of Sir Edward Barry's Wines of the Ancientscontains a warning: "We feldom meet with any good Wines imported here [London] from Italy. The Chianti was formerly much efteemed in England, but entirely loft its character...Florence reds [now] have a difagreeable roughnefs." So, very early Sangiovese is a possibility.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauignon—These magical Bordeaux red grapes had not achieved fame in 1492. The Medoc was still a swamp, where the Romans had cultivated oysters, not vines. Bulk Bordeaux claret was popular in England, but individual producers were not recognized until Samuel Pepys (peeps) named the "Ho Bryan" chateau in the 1660's. As for Merlot, all indications are that it did not exist in 1492. Thus, we have Cabernet Sauvignon as another weak candidate.

Pinot Noir—Some 150 years before Columbus' lookout shouted "Tierra, tierra" as he sighted San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, the Papacy was located in Avignon. The series of Popes coveted the Pinot Noir Burgundy reds above those of the Rhone, or of Italy. Later, large volumes were shipped to Rome when the Popes were back in the Vatican. I agree with the Popes. Tonight I'm having a California Pinot...the best one my panel has tasted so far this year.

Chef Benson
Chef Benson preparing a meal using ingredients from 1492.

The Wine

1995 Pinot Noir, Du Pratt Vnyd., Mendocino
Steele Wines, Ph. (707) 279-9475, $28


What may the friendly islanders have served Admiral Christophoros Columbus when he set foot on land and named it after the Savior, i.e., San Salvador? We visited the New World Museum on San Salvador, where Chef Mervin Benson taught my wife early island dishes, including conch chowder and a coconut turnover. Archaeologits have established other ingredients available in 1492 included sugar cane, cassava and corn. It appears there were at least three varieties of vines, some up to 50 feet long...but alas, none bore grapes.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.



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