What makes an heirloom grape? How do hybrid grapes, crosses between European and American vines, measure up? A recent webinar discussion hosted by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and hosted by author, blogger, and former winery owner Carlo DeVito, explored the topic through case studies of five wines from New York State
Carlo kicked off the discussion by noting that the term heirloom grapes was used at Hudson-Chatham Winery, which he owned until early 2020, for two or three dozen grapes bred in the Hudson Valley that were perfectly good, but discontinued. He said they brought some back for their Heirloom Red and Heirloom White blends, such as Empire and Iona, which are “older varieties not grown anymore.” He added that “in some instances in the past, hybrids were used to make inexpensive or sweeter wines.” Vinifera, he continued, exploded on the East Coast after Dr Konstantin Frank. “Now people are going back and making really quality wines with hybrid grapes,” Carlo said, concluding, “wines here are restaurant worthy.”
Dan Gobush, winemaker at Fulkerson Winery & Farm on Seneca Lake, started off describing their 2019 Vincent. The Vincent grape came from the Vineland Research Institute in Ontario grown for its super dark red color and used a lot in blending. Dan said they decided to make Vincent, for which they have three acres planted and which grows on their farm in a gravely soil base, as a varietal. Fulkerson, he noted, is in their 30th year after starting as a juice provider. They grow hybrid, vinifera, and native grapes of about two dozen varieties on their 105 acres. Their goal, he said, is to make “real fruit forward, easy-drinking wine.” Carlo said that the Vincent is “a really soft red wine, super easy to drink,” adding that Chelois is one of its parents. After Carlo called this a “great food wine,” Dan said it would pair well with heavy, rich stew with beef or lamb because “the lightness of the wine and acidity would pair well with heavy foods.”
Winemaker Brad Martz, from Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery in the Hudson Valley, discussed the winery and their 2019 Vidal Blanc, a grape developed in the 1930s originally bred in France for Cognac. Brad said Whitecliff Winery has been around for 20 years, and he has been the winemaker for eight. The vineyard has 26 acres with vinifera and hybrids, with other acreage in Hudson and New Hope. They have around 24 different varietals at their estate vineyard, although some are experimental. The vineyard is “located in a hole” and is “one of the coldest in the Hudson Valley,” Brad noted, adding that it gives them “great growing days, but also cold winters.” On the 2019 Vidal Blanc, he said it is a mix of some of their grapes, but others were sourced from within the Hudson Valley. He said on average it is “getting around 21 brix, but can get to 23,” adding that he likes an acidity around 9 for a full taste and palette balance’ Vidal is “pretty easy to work with,” he noted, saying that “the key is getting to brix levels you want. For a food matching Brad suggested roast duck as it has the minerality to cut through the fat of the duck, as well as hard cheeses.
Kim Marconi and Paige Vinson, winemakers at Three Brothers Wineries & Estates, talked about their Stony Lonesome Wine Cellar 2019 Valvin Muscat. Carlo started the discussion noting that this is “a really unique wine” from a relatively new hybrid released by Cornell in 2005. Kim said they have Valvin on their property, and it was “found by accident.” She said it is typically used in a sweet iteration but they wanted something mid-level. This wine came in 2018 and is now in their standard line-up. Paige said the 2019 vintage was in a high-acid year. She said they knew from 2018 that lass contact with variety is the best way to build palette. They currently have 1.3 acres in the vineyard with another 1.4 planted. She said this variety started in their pilot series, a series that gives the opportunity to play with wines for something different. Wines from the pilot series may or may not graduate to their standard line-up, but do afford the chance for slightly different iterations. Kim added that “the pilot series is a hard sell, and case production is still small.” She added that Valvin grapes “are like Trix serial if eaten in the field.” For food pairings fruity and earthy things work, such as poached pears or orange chicken. Carlo wrapped up, calling it a “really astonishing, fabulous drinking wine.”
Carlo introduced the Estate Diamond, from Black Willow Winery on the Niagara Escarpment, as a dry wine from a grape bred from a Concord/Iona cross usually used for a sweet wine. Cynthia West-Chamberlain, owner/winemaker of Black Willow, which is located between Rochester and Niagara Falls, said Diamond grapes are the only ones they grow. She said they made a sweet Diamond until two years ago, when they decided to try to make it dry. She said they harvest at around 19 brix, and noted that they have 250 cases of this production. “Once people do try it,” she said, they find they have “never had anything like it” and that it “has its own profile completely.” She said the Estate Diamond was the first estate wine she decided to try, and takes much pride in it> “It was a new adventure to do it,” she said, nothing that Black Willow previously had been know primarily for meads, but that she “wanted to break the notion that Niagara region is all sweet.” There are 22 wineries in the region, and Lake Ontario doesn’t freeze, so due to the thermal inversion that comes through there is not as hard a frost in the region. She noted that Pinot Noir, Traminette, and Diamond are grown in the area. For a food pairing she said chestnut ravioli with brown butternut and sage went very well together. Carlo concluded that this wine has really surprising acidity and really big aromatics. “The nose is just out of this world,” he said.
The 2019 Traminette from Fox Run Vineyards came next for discussion. Winemaker Peter Bell said they buy this grape from well-known Finger Lakes grower, who grows the grapes on The Bluff on Keuka Lake, where grapes have been grown for 150 years. The Bluff is the Y in the shape of Keuka Lake, and has the only real southern exposure in the region.He described Traminette as an interesting grape and drew contrasts between it and Gewürztraminer, which he called “the most polarizing grape in the rest of the world.” Gewürztraminer, he said, “is really hard to sell around the world,” adding that “it is really hard to grow.” Traminette, on the other hand, has interesting qualities that don’t constitute a compromise, and gets rid of most of the polarizing issues of Gewürz. In contrasting the two, he said Traminette has higher acid, no need for skin contact in process (which Gewürz requires), can be handled almost hands-off in growing, and has good brix at harvest. He concluded that it is “much more consumer friendly that Gewürz.” For a food pairing, Peter said “anything that works with Riesling works.” He said it makes a good predinner drink to most foods, and can stand the heat of chili. Carlo concluded by noting that this is a French-American hybrid with a big nose, and that he is seeing a lot more of it.
In the end the discussion was summed up beautifully by Brad, who said these wines are “very drinkable wines,” and should not be thought of as hybrid wines, but “as good New York wines.” Carlo agreed and said “as long as you’re making a good quality wine, that’s really what the game is about.”