Food & Drink

Columbia wine-making grape comes back home after more than 200 years

Columbia was once home to a grape known for table eating and wine making, a grape that back in the early 1800s spread across the East, as farmers tried to diversify their crops.

But that grape, the Herbemont, was pulled up and sent to Europe in the mid-1800s, to save European grape vines from withering American diseases.

The grape has not graced Columbia’s soil since – until now.

Historic Columbia and City Roots are teaming up to try to reintroduce the grape to South Carolina’s capital city.

Keith Mearns, a horticulturist with Historic Columbia, received a donation last year of Herbemont cuttings from Texas A&M University. Texas wineries still use the Herbemont today. Mearns planted the donated cuttings at the Robert Mills House, and cuttings taken this year from those donated plants are now at City Roots Farm.

“It’s the first planting of these grapes in Columbia since the 19th century,” Mearns said.

The Herbemont grape was “well known in Southern food heritage and cuisine as one of the most important grapes for both table eating and wine making,” said Eric McClam, of City Roots. “We are working with Keith and Dr. David Shields to get the grapes propagated and back into production.”

In his book, “Pioneering American Wine: Writings of Nicholas Herbemont, Master Viticulturist,” University of South Carolina professor David Shields traces the history of Frenchman Nicholas Herbemont and the Herbemont grape in Columbia in the early 1800s.

According to Shields’ research, Herbemont moved into the Robert Mills neighborhood of Columbia around 1802, where he married English-born heiress and widow Caroline Neylor Smythe. She owned an entire city block bounded by what is now Gervais, Bull, Lady and Pickens streets. In that block, Herbemont planted his first garden.

In 1809, Herbemont began his experiments with viticulture, planting a variety of grapes and other fruits. A few years later, he established an experimental vineyard, Palmyra, on a tract of land in the sand hills along Camden Road, just outside of the city.

“(Herbemont) was extremely interested in the wine industry and wanted to start that in South Carolina. After having terrible, terrible results from the standard European wine grapes here in Columbia, Herbemont found a chance seedling between a European wine grape and an American species. It’s called the Warren grape in Georgia, but is known as the Herbemont in most parts of the country because he promoted it,” Mearns said.

Herbemont was widely considered the finest practicing winemaker in the United States in the 1810s. The wines that Herbemont made from the grapes – a rose, a white and a fortified Madeira-like wine – were quite popular. The grape vines were distributed throughout the eastern United States in the hope of creating an American wine industry.

“We’re really excited to work with a crop that is so important to our Southern heritage,” said McClam. “We grow some heirlooms but it’s really neat to have a part of something that our forefathers grew and was really important to vineyards in the South.”

Mearns and Shields have been working to repatriate some important plants in South Carolina and particularly Columbia. Mearns is using the vines at Robert Mills to educate visitors about the history of the Herbemont and winemaking in 19th century Columbia.

The Herbemont grape, according to Mearns, will be nominated for inclusion in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, an international catalog of heritage foods that are at risk of extinction. The Ark seeks to preserve those foods that are sustainably produced, unique in taste and part of linked to the community that produces them.

Drink Pink Rose Festival

Rose was one of the wines made with the Herbemont grape. Columbia has its own festival for Pink Rose wine in the spring.

When: Noon-4 p.m. May 21

Where: at City Roots, 1005 Airport Blvd

Tickets: $45, includes tasting of close to 100 rosé wines, food and live jazz. Local artisan products, bottles of wine will be for sale.