The first time I came across the idea of foxiness was when I was reading about the battle against Phylloxera. One proposed strategy was to switch to American grape species, which were resistant to the disease, or perhaps hybrids between them and the better known European grape varieties. But the problem was that the grapes, and the resulting wine, had what the French thought to be an unpleasant foxy flavour. Now foxiness certainly does not sound like something you would want in your glass of Bordeaux, but I had no idea what it was like, or what foxes had to do with it. Here is what I have managed to glean from the interweb in the meantime.
Firstly, let’s try to tie down which grapes smell foxy. They are usually grapes of the species Vitis labrusca. In particular, the Concord variety is often cited as being particularly foxy, which is convenient because most Americans are familiar with the flavour of Concord as it is widely used in their grape jams and juices. So, even if Concord is not so familiar in Europe, it seems reasonable to use that variety as some sort of reference point.
Another fact we can be sure of is that the chemical in Concord that gives its distinctive aroma is methyl anthranilate. That chemical is usually described as fruity and musky, and is often used to flavour soft drinks and sweets, which is another possible way we might be familiar with it. There are also quite a few mentions on the interweb that methyl anthranilate is to be found in the musk glands of foxes and dogs. On the face of it that seems to tie the story up, providing a nice link between foxy musk glands and the grape. But I am not convinced. Even if foxes may smell musky, the only hint I could find of science linking methyl anthranilate to fox musk glands is given here, where “Peter Hemsted [Head Grape Researcher] 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”. Did this unnamed researcher’s findings ever get published, I wonder? Not as far as I know, and it could have even eventually proved to be incorrect. Unless anyone can dig out some harder evidence, I feel we should dismiss the chemical link to fox musk glands.
So setting aside the contents of fox musk glands, why else might we call these grapes foxy? Frankly, nobody really knows, and I don’t intend to go into it further here. But if you are interested in the speculation I can recommend this discussion of the topic.
However, what I really wanted was to taste foxiness for myself, and it was only after buying some Concord grape juice in the UK for another reason that I realised that this was exactly what I needed. It was Welch’s 100% Concord grape juice, and for comparison purposes I also bought a carton of Sainsbury’s own-brand grape juice, made from Spanish and Italian red grapes.
There was a marked difference in the appearance of these two juices. In wine terms, I would describe the European juice as a medium pale ruby, while the Concord was intense purple. The Concord was very sweet. It had intense aromas of berry fruit, distinctive yet difficult to describe. It reminded me of boiled sweets from my childhood – Blackcurrant Spangles I’m tempted to say, even if some other sweets may have had more of the musky element. I am not particularly familiar with musky smells in general, but the juice certainly had a slightly unpleasant animal note alongside the fruit. For some reason, it made me think of vomit, but I’m not sure if it is vomit-like or vomit inducing, and I’d like to stress that it was not nearly as unpleasant as that may sound. Anyway, it was largely masked by the sweetness when drinking, but seemed stronger on the finish, even if the sweetness also lingered. The word sickly seems appropriate in its ambiguity. In comparison, the European juice tasted very much like red table grapes, and was slightly oxidised, even though it was well before its best-before date. It was also very sweet, but the aromas were neither intense nor distinctive, at least when compared to the Concord juice.
Overall, I think I liked the Concord juice better, especially when diluted with an equal quantity of water, which is how I usually take fruit juice. On the other hand, when I used the Concord juice to make the Georgian dessert pelamushi, which involves reduction of the juice, I found the distinctive flavour to be far too dominant in the end product, and if I make it again I will try another type of grape juice. Sadly, I fear it really needs freshly pressed Saperavi. I must ask at Waitrose.