by Larry Moore
I had often heard the comment, "She's a foxy lady," while growing up in the Midwest. I never knew if they meant she looked like a fox or acted like a fox or was as sly as a fox. This confusion in phraseology was brought to a new level one crisp sunny morning while attending my first Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA) Fall annual vineyard tour at the University Horticulture Research Center in Chanhassen, MN. Dr. Peter Hemstad, Head Grape Researcher, was providing expert commentary on various clusters of grapes grown in the vineyards of the Research Center. One variety's description went something like this, "The plant has good resistance. Clusters are medium sized, loose, with some green shot berries. The berries are blue, medium size with a distinctive, foxy flavor." I nudged the person next to me and asked if he knew what Peter meant by 'foxy.' They replied, "Oh you know, like Concord grape jelly!" With that knowledge I became an expert, often using the description 'foxy' when tasting wines and grapes. I found, in questioning others involved in the MGGA and Purple Foot Club, a lot of confusion and a wide range of views on just what 'foxiness' meant and it's origin.
In researching 'foxiness,' I discovered a lot of variation in early derivation and usage. The term foxiness and Fox Grapes evolved early in American history as settlers used the abundant wild native grapes. Vitis Labrusca was associated with fox grapes in the North, whereas Muscadine likewise was in the South. Writings in Virginia in 1622 described a grape "that runne upon the ground and maketh deepe red wine, which they call a Fox-Grape." William Penn in 1683 wrote, "The Fox-grape ... in itself an extraordinary grape." He used the term fox-grape as if it were common knowledge. There are various theories as to the derivation of fox-grapes and foxiness - from odor, to appearance, to animal attraction: to some things other than fox.
Some theories as to the use of "Foxiness" in reference to odor or taste, come from a variety of early references:
"The Foxe Grape ... smelleth and tasteth like unto a Foxe": John Parkinson, Theatricum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants (London, 1640). The "fox grape of Virginia is of "a rank Taste when ripe, resembling the Smell of a Fox, from whence they are called Fox-Grapes": Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia (1705). "A strong scent, a little approaching to that of a Fox, whence the name of Fox-grape": Humphry Marshall, Arbustrum Americanum (1785). "Musky," that is, "having a musky taste or smell, like a fox-grape": Funk and Wagnalls, Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1895). "Whatever the original intention of the name, the preponderant current usage holds that an aroma or taste peculiar to the labrusca grape is what foxiness refers to": Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America (1989). The referenced "fox- like odor" comes from the skin of the grape.
One of the main ingredients of this odor and taste comes from an ester called methyl anthranilate. It has been synthesized and used in grape soft drinks. Peter Hemsted tells of a fellow Researcher, whose work has shown that this ester is found in both the musk gland of the fox and the Vitis Labrusca grape. When Peter first got involved with the University of Minnesota viniculture program, he eliminated many varieties containing foxiness from the research. He instead put his efforts into developing cold hardy varieties, which could produced wines emulating the great wines of vinifera, found growing in California and Europe. Having gotten involved in retailing of wine, Peter has seen a segment of wine drinkers with a taste for wines with some foxiness. His change in attitude about foxy grapes came with the realization that there is a significant economical place for this type grape. His research is now in the process of reintroducing foxy varieties as a cross, as well as other unique aromatic grapes, such as muscat. One of these new research varieties that includes foxiness is MN 1197. Peter also feels juice and table grapes are accepted best by the public if they contain some foxiness. John Marshall (MN commercial grape grower and MGGA board member) stated: "Contrary to the established wisdom, Labrusca grapes represent a valuable niche in the huge American table grape market.", MGGA newsletter, Notes From the North (Aug 1998).
Foxiness may become an even more familiar term in our vocabulary as we see a greater development and usage of the Fox Grape in the future. So when you're enjoying that next glass of wine with a fellow wine club member and he suggests, "She's a bit foxy don't you think", he's probably not talking about the lady just passed by, but rather the musky, fox-like odor of your home made Concord wine.
1. John Bonoeil, His Maiesties Gracious Letter to the Earle of South-Hampton (London, 1622), p.49 2. Albert C. Myers, ed., Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, (new York, 1912), p.227