A Signature Grape for the Hudson Valley?

By The Glass

A Signature Grape for the Hudson Valley?

Seyval Blanc (Hudson-Chatham)
Courtesy of Hudson-Chatham Winery

ONE OF THE issues I floated in a brief talk at the regional Beer, Wine & Spirits Summit late last year was whether the Hudson Valley—and the Hudson River Region American Viticultural Area (AVA)—could extend its reach into new wine markets by identifying and promoting a "signature grape." Riesling has done much for the stature of the Finger Lakes, and Merlot, undeniably Long Island's signature wine, has put that region firmly on the quality-wine map.

The Hudson Valley's burgeoning wine industry certainly includes a number of highly regarded, perhaps even world-class, wines. Some local winemakers focus on wines made from grapes such as Charonnay, Pinot Noir, or Cabernet Franc—all of them household names among wine drinkers around the world, and all of them members of the vine species vitis vinifera. Other Hudson Valley winemakers focus on wines made from grapes such as Seyval Blanc, Traminette or Baco Noir—genetic crosses of vitis vinifera and wild, native vines, that is, hybrids. If the region is "ripe" for adopting a signature grape, the question naturally becomes "Which one?" Should it be a vinifera? Should it be a hybrid?"

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Hybrids are cold hardy and do well in Hudson Valley vineyards. In addition, yields typically are higher than vinifera, so growing hybrids also makes economic sense. Though some hybrid grapes yield wines best described as "foxy" (meaning the flavors range all over the place and the wines, therefore, don't pair well with most foods), two of the region's most popular hybrids—Seyval Blanc (white) and Baco Noir (red)—offer good to very good flavor profiles; in the hands of our talented local winemakers they produce wines that are quite food friendly.

No fan of hybrids would argue against Seyval Blanc as the region's signature white grape. It is a genetic cross of Seibel 5656 and Seibel 4986 (commonly known as Rayon d'Or), first released in France in 1921. Albert Seibel (1844-1936), a French physician and viticulturist who specialized in crossing vinifera vines with native North American vines, crafted more than 16,000 hybrids in an attempt to create new vines that were resistant to phylloxera, the louse that destroyed the vineyards of Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. More than 500 of Seibel's hybrids were developed for commercial use around the world.

Seyval Blanc is widely planted in the Hudson River Region AVA, where it's produced both as a single-varietal wine and as an important constituent in blends. As a varietal, it is light-bodied and crisp, with flavors similar to Sauvignon Blanc and/or Riesling when processed in neutral stainless steel vats. It's a terrific wine to pair with spicy foods, especially many salty/spicy Asian dishes. When aged in oak barrels, Seyval Blanc can express another dimension of creaminess and richness, reminiscent of oaked Chardonnay—it pairs with grilled fish, rich risottos or roasted white meats. Seyval Blanc seems to be ubiquitous in the valley; the overall quality is good and getting better. Fine examples are produced by Clinton Vineyards (in still and sparkling versions), Benmarl, Whitecliff, Glorie Farm, Hudson-Chatham, Stoutridge, Cascade Mountain, Brimstone, Applewood, Clearview and Adair, among others.

There is a major issue, however, with choosing Seyval Blanc to represent the entire valley's wine industry: There is a tremendous learning curve to surmount (call it "brand recognition"). While Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and the other usual vinifera suspects are instantly recognized by wine lovers, how many people have even heard of Seyval Blanc? On the local level, most sales of Seyval Blanc take place at the wineries (at the "cellar door," as the Aussies say). It's an easy wine to sell there, especially when a tasting is coupled with meeting the owners and/or winemakers. (Every good wine has a good story, and when winery owners and winemakers get to tell the story of their wines, a sale is sure to follow.) Seyval Blanc is a "hand-sold" wine, which is not a bad thing, but brand acceptance in the greater New York metro area beyond the wineries is a challenge that will take the attention of local producers, restaurants, sommeliers and wine merchants both near and far—a tremendous effort that may or may not be successful.

Some extraordinary Cabernet Franc wines have emerged over the last five years...and the potential for making world-class wines from this vinifera is exciting.

The argument for a vinifera-based signature grape is an easier one to make, as brand recognition shouldn't be a problem. One grape already has a reputation in both the Old and New Worlds and is closely identified with some of the best vineyard estates in Bordeaux, France. Add to this the fact that it is the basis for some amazing wines made by the region's best wineries, and Cabernet Franc becomes a strong candidate for the Hudson Valley's signature grape.

Ampelographers (botanists who identify and classify grape vines) tell us that Cabernet Franc is an ancient vine that actually is the parent of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is an important blending grape throughout Bordeaux; on its own it creates wines that are dramatically aromatic and somewhat softer and crisper than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Franc can thrive in the Hudson River Region because it ripens more fully than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in our cold climate. Berries are small—its high skinto-pulp ratio allows for a healthy dose of tannin in the wine, extending its life and its complexity. Producers in the Hudson Valley tend to make their Cabernet Franc wines in the Old World style, emphasizing its earthy but near-delicate nature—the wines pair beautifully with roasted white meats, complex pasta dishes, game and red meats.

While it may not be the best-known red vinifera grape, Cabernet Franc is on the radar of wine lovers everywhere. The wines produced by our local wineries are getting better and better, and the potential for making world-class wines from this vinifera vine is exciting. Some extraordinary Cabernet Franc wines have emerged over the last five years or so from Millbrook (especially its Block Three East bottling), Palaia, Bashakill, Whitecliff, Hudson-Chatham, Robibero, Glorie Farm, Tousey, Benmarl (look for the Ridge Road Estate bottling), Brimstone Hill, Stoutridge, Clearview, Warwick Valley and Cereghino-Smith.

Winemakers in the Hudson Valley put their labor and money on the line to produce wine in a challenging environment, both climatic and financial, and they all deserve tremendous respect. In the end, if the valley's wine producers want to work together on identifying a signature grape—or grapes—for the region, it could be a beautiful thing. It's their call.

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