It’s almost as if the grape varietal known in the U.S. as Isabella is being hidden, protected, or that the E.U. ban on Fragolino, made from Isabella grapes, is a hint that this North American grape said to have transported the phylloxera to Europe in the early 1800’s, is cursed.
Also known in over 50 aliases including Raisin De Cassis, Fragola, Framboisier, Alexander and Black Cape, it is many times mistaken in Italy for the Clinton grape for a variety of reasons, most importantly having to do with its strawberry oriented taste and immunity to the grape killing pest phylloxera.
All Native American vitis labrusca species are immune to the pale yellow phylloxera insects. The dark purple skinned Isabella grape, necessary in the creation of Fragolino wine, was born out of its cross with an unknown European vitis vinifera. It has a powerful strawberry taste, hence its name Fragolino—fragole meaning strawberry in Italian.
Other vitis labrusca grapes include Concord grapes which account for an estimated 80 percent of labrusca production and can sometimes be mistakenly attributed as the grape component in Fragolino.
In the E.U. fear of phylloxera began with the “phylloxera plague,” which originated in France in the 19th century. That fear remains today. Phylloxera first invaded Europe in the roots of American grapes.
Even though the problem has been largely contained American grapes are still considered reservoirs for the plague. Today, Europeans are still weary of having them around. It is because of this weariness that the once popular Fragolino is slowly becoming obsolete in the modern world.
The difference between vitis labrusca and vitis vinifera species is that one is immune and one is not. Now cultivated in the U.S., vinifera grapes and the reality of phylloxera are not only an E.U. based problem.
Besides steps taken by E.U. officials to secure the health of their highly valued vitis vinifera, the task of securing the entire species against the pest is a challenge that is still being dealt with, especially by experts in the field.
Dr. Mathew Fidelibus who is an Associate Viticulture Specialist in the Cooperative Extension Department of Viticulture and Enology at U.C. Davis explains the effect of phylloxera in simplified terms.
“We brought it over to Europe then they brought it here.” said Fidelibus about the wave of European plant collecting in the U.S. that used to be a fad. “For a while Europeans were forced to grow American grapes.”
The devastation of phylloxera to European grapes resulted in the cultivation of foreign species to vitis vinifera, or as Fidelibus puts it “the solution for phylloxera is in its roots.” This clean up, established through the grafting of European stalks to American, phylloxera immune, roots, did not affect the taste of the grapes Fidelibus said.
Since the resolution of the mass death of grapes to phylloxera, which at one time looked hopeless, E.U. officials seem not to want to make the same mistake twice. Though the vinifera stalks are connected to American roots Fidelibus says that the phylloxera will go to whatever environment is conducive to it. Having
Fragolino around makes for an environment that is very favorable to phylloxera.
Some people feel that the E.U. is being too conscious in outlawing Isabella grapes. Others think that it is well worth the risk. One man from Italy writing on the wine based online forum LetsTalkWine expressed his longing for the days when Fragolino was more readily available.
A lover of fragolino who calls himself Zac wrote that he doesn’t agree with rules that prohibit Fragolino production in Europe and make it almost impossible to attain.
“The Fragolino you find on the market is no longer the real Fragolino: it is a wine produced using European grapes and then chemically flavored. The real Fragolino should be produced with American-origin grapes…I suppose that in America you have identical wine although named differently,” he said.
The Isabella grape may still be in existence, but the fountain of knowledge associated with the production of Fragolino is becoming a lost art. As with all good things that come to an end, the same may be true of the once flourishing drink.
In the words of Mark Shea who writes into the forum about his Fragolino experience on a hot day in Venice, “The bottle had no label. It was cold, sweet, and like NOTHING I had ever had before. It occurred to me that it was strawberry wine.”
Shea has since discovered that the same Fragolino that makes him nostalgic for his strawberry wine sipping days in Italy is the same liquid that “has become an endangered species.”