Natives and Hybrids: Should They Co-exist With Vinifera?

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Here’s a fall activity: drive through the vineyard-lined roads of the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York, preferably during early harvest with the windows down. Why? To inhale the hypnotic aromas radiating off the native Vitis labrusca vines like a hot-out-of-the-oven grape pie on the window sill. The scents you’ll be enjoying are those of Concord, Isabella, Niagara and too many more grapes to list.

“We love grape flavor,” says Finger Lakes winemaker and master sommelier Christopher Bates. “So, why is it so strongly seen as a negative in a wine?”

Bates is describing the flavor in wines often referred to as foxy, a pejorative adjective, the origin of which is unknown or folklore, used to describe the louche, sweet flavor of wines made typically from the native North American labrusca and French-American hybrid grapes (a crossing of two or more grape species). These grapes still make up the majority of vine acreage in New York, and today there is a resurgence of interest in farming and treating these wine grapes with the same care as the European vinifera grapes.

Do these efforts make sense? Is this a path worth following?

Bates has been part of a contingent of young winemakers who have made a push into New York City as a new Finger Lakes guard of sorts along with Ian Barry of Barry Family Cellars, Nathan Kendall of Nathan K. and Hickory Hollow Wine Cellars, and Kris Matthewson of Bellwether Wine Cellars. Most of them have valuable memories of growing up in and around the Finger Lakes, hearing about the award-winning regional wines with international acclaim made from the native and hybrid grapes of their parents and grandparents past. And as assistant winemakers, they would have worked with these varieties at the larger houses, whose tasting room sales still depend on consumers with sweet-tooth palates.

This is important, as there is no definitive text documenting New York’s statistical history of these wines (Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s Wine and Champagne Encyclopedias are probably the best, but only a beginning). Better are the oral histories from the legacy families, though that is the subject of a different story, because today Bates, Kendall, and a new team are again producing buzzed about wines made from native and hybrid grapes.

The Finger Lakes is just one of several regions where exciting wines are being produced from natives and hybrids. Deirdre Heekin’s winery la garagista in Vermont has New York City sommeliers hooked on her hybrids, and Henry of Pelham, a premium producer of almost exclusively vinifera wine on the Niagara Peninsula, has produced a still red from baco noir as their flagship wine since their founding.

With what’s happening in the Finger Lakes, plus having partially grown up in Ontario, often with a black tinted smile from the dark purple baco noir of Henry of Pelham, and recently having worked with Heekin’s wines as a sommelier, I knew it was time to become more familiar with the many labrusca and hybrid grapes that overflow in the Finger Lakes. But walking the vineyards and tasting the grapes wouldn’t be enough.

“You need to visit Derek Wilbur at Swedish Hill,” my friend Dan Bissell, a wine and cider maker and also the owner of Kashong Creek Craft Cider in Geneva, New York, told me. “You can taste tank samples of all of them there.”

I was familiar with Swedish Hill, a large winery on the northwest end of Cayuga Lake that produces both vinifera and native and hybrid bottlings on a large scale. I fondly remembered serving and tasting one of their entry-level rieslings during my time at Hearth Restaurant. And I constantly overheard winemakers and growers from all camps of the Finger Lakes speak highly of Wilbur: how he was equally as talented in the vineyard as in the cellar; how he could fix any broken piece of equipment; how his organization skills and time management were impeccable. He has a reputation for keeping his vineyards the cleanest and neatest in the region. So, as a base for assessment, I knew Wilbur’s wines would be as good as I or anyone could find.

The importance of tasting tank samples of these wines was to evaluate them during an unadulterated state, without the influence of oak, and prior to being made into sparkling or fortified wines, historically the style in which the native and hybrid grape wines were commonly presented. While Dan and I spent an entire afternoon tasting from tank after tank with Wilbur, there were three grapes that stood out (to me) as having the greatest potential to make fine, dry table wines: Valvin Muscat, a hybrid grape that possesses what I believe to be a structure capable of making a Cava-like sparkling wine; and Maréchal Foch and Rougeon, both hybrids which, in the right hands, could produce a light, fresh Gamay Noir-like still red, or sparkling wine. And winemaker Phil Arras, of Damiani Wine Cellars, has done just that.

Rougeon pet-nat made by Damiani Wine Cellars winemaker Phil Arras

In a partnership with Josh Carlsen and Melissa Thompson, beverage director and general manager respectively of the Stonecat Cafe on Seneca Lake, Arras produced a pétillant-natural sparkling wine for this team’s “Nine Four Wines” label, from old vine Rougeon grapes grown in the vineyards belonging to Damiani. At a tasting with Carlsen, I was informed — to my surprise — that rather than a light and fizzy pet nat, the team sought to make a dry, Lambrusco-style sparkling red. The darkly hued Rougeon skins allow for exactly that. (Unfortunately, the Rougeon grapes were ripped out of the Damiani vineyards after the 2016 harvest to be replanted with sauvignon blanc, so the team will have to search elsewhere if they wish to continue with Rougeon.) The wine is an intense solid ruby, dry, with both savory fruit and an impression of sweetness emerging in this very much experimental wine.

It’s not perfect yet, but go, team, go!

When it comes to wines produced from the native grapes — despite our stark love of grape everything — in most vintages, there will be no getting around that incontestable native grape flavor. In 2016, Bates produced a nouveau style red from Concord grapes, fermented whole cluster to full dryness, with no adjustments or additions. In fact, the grapes came from a 100-year-old vineyard on Keuka Lake from which the Welch’s company sources.

“The grower has been raising this fruit for Welch’s products for a very long time, and what’s interesting is, while they’re not organic, Welch’s is very strict about the spray control program,” Bates told me. “They audit their growers extremely closely, and are very restrictive about when spraying can happen.” The resulting wine is low in acidity and has an added structure of wood tannin from neutral oak barrel aging, and, although dry, its inherent concord flavor works also as an excellent pairing with red fruit-based desserts.

Likely the noblest wine made from native grapes in recent vintages, and at the moment only accessible in limited quantities to consumers in New York City, is Kendall’s 2016 Chëpika (“roots,” in lenape, the language spoken by the native Delaware tribe), a pétillant-natural made from the pink-skinned Delaware grape, produced in partnership with master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, who consulted throughout the vinification process.

Uniquely, this wine has no trace of the foxy flavor, and shares a closer resemblance to dry vinifera-based sparkling wines. The two also produced a sparkling Catawba — the grape that was used in the famous sparkling wines of Gold Seal Vineyards in Hammondsport, New York, which were once distributed internationally as far back as the late 19th century — under the same label. Kendall’s Catawba does show familiar native grape flavor, but is equally as dry and delicious as the Delaware.

Limited organic vineyard sourcing contributed to an extremely small production, causing the first vintage of these highly anticipated wines to be allocated entirely to Kendall’s New York distributor. There are plans to grow the brand, however, which will expand the wine’s reach in future vintages.

The older generation of winemakers in the Finger Lakes has worked tirelessly over the decades to finally achieve recognition for its European vinifera grape movement. Why even bother then to try to make serious table wines out of these native and hybrid grapes at all?

“It’s a debate that is constantly going on in my head because by bringing them back into the picture before we really secure our reputation as a serious wine region with the ability to make great examples of vinifera, we run the risk of really muddying the waters,” Bates says. “Are we doing it to make good wines, or just to be cool?”

Or, out of necessity? At the moment, some of the most critically lauded wines from the Finger Lakes are coming from these young producers, who are struggling even to get their hands on any vinifera fruit — let alone premium grapes — at all. Since interest and demand for Finger Lakes wines have increased exponentially in the last several years, the larger wineries with more money and resources are increasing production, and buying up the bulk of the fruit. I saw a plea for Cabernet Franc grapes from a young producer on Facebook the other day, simply asking if anyone knew of any for sale . . . the first comment that followed was, “Ha ha. No!”

It may be the lack of a concretely secure identity, plus this new generation of young, recalcitrant winemakers, that frees the Finger Lakes from being confined to proving themselves only in the vinifera arena. Plus, I hear rumors of California winemakers tinkering with Catawba, which, if these wines surface, would certainly be counter-culture in that vinifera dominant state.

And if California follows their lead, perhaps, Christopher Bates, that will finally make the Finger Lakes officially cool.

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  1. Already Europe is seriously clamping down on pesticide spraying in vinifera vineyards, where more pesticides are used than on any other crop. The result is that modern pest-resistant hybrids, created in Germany mostly, are increasing acreage rapidly. We should expect precisely the same to happen here. There is a bright future for hybrids and natives, if for no other reason than that they are pest-resistant.

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