The Herbemont grape is named for Nicholas Herbemont, who popularized the variety in South Carolina in the 1820s. It is a cross between Vitis aestivalis var. bourquiniana (native to the Southeastern United States) and Vitis vinifera (native to the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, and the species most commonly used to produce wine). It may also contain genetic material from Vitis cinerea (another American native grape). The leaves of this variety are about 12 centimeters across and distinctly lobed, and the vigorous vines can climb to great heights. The grapes themselves, which form compact, shouldered clusters, are medium-small (just over a centimeter in diameter), spherical, pale reddish-brown to almost white, with very thin skin and juicy pulp. They have an excellent balance of sugar and acidity and are intensely flavorful. This variety flowers and fruits relatively late and is quite prolific. The plants are drought and heat tolerant. One of the variety’s foremost distinctions is its resistance to phylloxera and other diseases.
The Herbemont grape, though small, was deemed so succulent that it was often used as a table grape in the early 19th century. However, it was most famous for producing quality wines. From South Carolina it spread throughout the Southern and Eastern US and became an important wine variety in Missouri and Texas. Herbemont grapes were sometimes made into a fortified wine modeled on Madeira (indeed, some called the variety “Herbemont Madeira”) because their flavor was said to resemble that of verdelho, one of the principal Madeira grapes. Usually, though, Herbemont was used in the production of pale red or white wines.
When phylloxera broke out in Europe in the 1860s and 70s, many of the resistant hybrid vines in North America were uprooted and shipped across the Atlantic to save the European wine industry. The unfortunate consequence was that most plantings of Herbemont (and several other American varieties) were destroyed. In the 1920s, Prohibition disrupted winemaking in the US. When the industry took off again in the 1930s, tastes had changed and high-quality dry wines had fallen out of favor. When high-quality wine started to become popular again, in the latter half of the 20th century, European Vitis vinifera varieties were often emphasized at the expense of American varieties such as Herbemont. Just a handful of producers still make Herbemont wines. Thankfully, efforts are now underway to reintroduce and promote the Herbemont grape in several states across the South.