Herbemont hybrid grape cultivar is the most ancient Madeira Jacquez clone: 200-yr old mystery solved

It is interesting that neither the names 'Jacquez' nor 'Black Spanish' are permitted as type designations for American wines made from those grapes. It appears that the only permitted designation for the wines produced from those same grapes is the name 'Lenoir', even though we are now well aware (from recent DNA fingerprinting analyses) that ALL three grapevine cultivar, although related, can be differentiated via DNA analysis.

In the USA, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) implements and enforces a broad range of statutory and compliance provisions to ensure that alcohol products are created, labeled, and marketed in accordance with Federal laws and regulations.

Well, I suppose that we are not all perfect…

However, one consolation is the fact that another important American grape cultivar known as Herbemont has been placed on the permitted list of designations for Herbemont wine even though there exists two types of Herbemont varieties, namely the original Brown Herbemont and the rarer White Herbemont (this latter cultivar was actually derived from a seedling of the former).


The Lenoir (previously a.k.a. Black Spanish) grape (a teinturier variety known for its highly red-coloured pulp and skin) was one of the American vines which Thomas Volney Munson, the prolific grape breeder, experimented with in the late 19th Century in Denison, Texas. However, prior to its use by TV Munson, the Lenoir variety had already been grown and used in wine making in the 1830's by Mr. Nicholas Herbemont, the master viticulturist from Columbia, South Carolina. He was also a well-known outspoken critic of slave-based cotton culture.

In addition to his breeding experiments in selecting the best Lenoir for eventual propagation, Nicholas Herbemont also experimented with a very 'similar' lighter-skinned grape variety called 'Warren' (a.k.a. Brown French) which soon became known as 'Herbemont' because of his promotion of that variety. It is noteworthy that this variety was originally named Herbemont's Madeira.

The Herbemont grapevine certainly became the fulcrum around which revolved the resistant varieties in southeast Texas. In addition to it being an historic wine grape, Herbemont is also a fine table grape variety. It is, without a doubt, the signature grape of Southern viticulture in the USA. Historically, it has been made into a fortified Madeira-like wine, a light white wine, and rosé wine.

It all began when Nicholas Herbemont, propagated some old vines which had been known since 1798.  He had noticed an old vine growing in Judge Huger's plantation in Columbia (South Carolina) which he predicted to be indigenous. Later, in 1834, Herbemont began doubting the indigenous nature of that grapevine because a very 'patriotic' Frenchman assured him in no uncertain terms that his French Huguenot ancestors had imported the original grapevine (a.k.a. Brown French) from France more than 100 years previously. Herbemont became almost convinced by that information given him by that gentleman. However, the close scrutiny of the known characteristics of the Herbemont cultivar itself tended to debunk that gentleman's theory. For example, dormant Herbemont cuttings are notoriously difficult to start rooting (a characteristic of the wild Vitis aestivalis inheritance); there is fairly good resistance against the Phylloxera and Pierce's Disease (characteristics of wild Vitis species) and finally, 'wild' vines that were similar to the one growing in Judge Huger's plantation were soon discovered growing far away in Warren County, Georgia, USA.

After serving as a Union officer in the Civil War, George Husmann began a serious investigation of American viticultural possibilities. Husmann predicted that the Herbemont grape would supplant the Catawba and Isabella. He reiterated: “…This grape is delicious and will be the leading Southern vine as soon as the abolition of slavery has enabled the wine to take its real boom.” He added: "If you have a warm southern exposure, with slightly calcareous subsoil, plant Herbemont, you will not be disappointed.”

Herbemont requires a long growing season to mature and reach perfection; it is also reasonably cold tolerant. Herbemont is certainly a prime example of a vine belonging to the 'Southern aestivalis group' and many seedlings of Herbemont have produced mostly good resistant varieties in some breeding experiments.

It is also worth noting that Herbemont together with Jacquez was originally introduced into South Africa (around 1891) to be used as potential rootstocks for grafting our sensitive grapevines.

Microsatellite DNA fingerprint analysis (Simple Sequence Repeats or SSR's)

From preliminary SSR analyses performed on the four related cultivars, namely, Madeira Jacquez (a.k.a. Barbera paesana in Italy), Black Spanish, Lenoir and the Cévennes Jacquez, and recently on the Herbemont cultivar, it now appears that the Herbemont is simply a very ancient clone of the Madeira Jacquez cultivar. Herbemont was most likely originally selected from a Madeira Jacquez cane which displayed a somatic mutation resulting in grapes with a lighter skin colour. Whoever discovered that somatic mutant of Jacquez would have subsequently propagated such a mutant cutting. It is now fairly obvious that the Madeira Jacquez and Herbemont have almost identical genomes.  For a long time now it was assumed that both Jacquez and Herbemont were, somehow, hybrids of Vitis vinifera x Vitis aestivalis x Vitis cinerea.

Pierre Viala and Louis Ravaz in their famous work called American Vines (Resistant Stock) reported that on a scale of 0 (susceptible to Phylloxera) to 20 (immune to Phylloxera), both Jacquez and Herbemont are equally resistant and they gave a value of 12 or 13 for either cultivar.

Finally, there is a further implication which follows as a result of this DNA revelation of the near identity of the two cultivars, namely the Madeira Jacquez and the Herbemont.

This is in connection with another well-known American cultivar originally called 'Blue Favorite' and is now (after a careful selection process performed by John Niederauer of Brenham, Texas) referred to simply as 'Favorite'. Favorite is also presumed to be a Vitis vinifera x Vitis aestivalis x Vitis cinerea hybrid cultivar. It has been reported that Favorite was the result of an hybridization between Herbemont and the Lenoir cultivar. However, this is disputed by some who claim that Favorite is simply a Black Spanish clone or its seedling (mentioned by Lon Rombough in his book called The Grape Grower, 2002). I think that neither assumption is actually correct.

Although we don't have available the SSR analysis data for 'Favorite' just yet, it should be safe enough to predict that Favorite will turn out to be simply another seedling of the original Madeira Jacquez, bringing the total number of Madeira Jacquez seedlings to five, so far!

For those interested in reading the background to the microsatellite DNA method, please follow my short article which appeared in MyNews24 on the 3 August 2016 at the following URL address:


Dr Jerry Rodrigues (PhD, Biochemistry)

9 November 2016

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