Saturday, June 08, 2013

Making Seyval Blanc - Chasing the Sugar or Embracing the Acidity

So, back in March, when I was in Lancaster, PA at the Eastern Wineries Exposition 2013, Richard Leahy assembled a panel : E03 Winemakers Roundtable: Seyval, Viognier, Traminette. It featured east coast whites which featured Seyval Blanc, Traminette, and Viongier. The people who are took included Michael Migliore of Whitecliff Vineyards (Hudson Valley), Peter Oldack of Jewell Towne (Connecticut), Gene Estes of Lone Oak Winery (Texas),Scott Eliff of DuCard (VA), and Jason Burrus formerly of Rappahanock Cellars (VA).

The idea of the panel discussion was to share white wine making techniques and styles in making white wines. There were two Seyvals, two Viogniers, and one Traminette. The discussion was a great learning experience. Differences could not have been greater. But the most fascinating point of the conversation was in the discussion on the making of Seyval.

For many years, as both a wine writer and wine maker, the goal has always been to follow the sugar. Let the grapes in the vineyard mature and mature, hoping the sugars would soar, to 20, 21, and 22 brix and beyond. The idea was to make a richly layered wine with great depth and soul. This could only be accomplished by following the brix.

What many wine makers who make Seyval regularly experience is that Seyval can easily go wrong. Left to its own devices, Seyal Blanc can become sour and the nose can go from bright and citrusy to the smell of rotten eggs which is the result of H2S forming in your wine. Filtering and other agents have always been used to clean up Seyval in a number of ways, if it veers off the deep end.

Jewel Towne made a more traditional style Seyval. It was big, with green apple and citrus, and a hint of sugar. A lovely wine. Not far from the many I have tried over the years. It was varietally correct. Very nice. I like Jewell Towne.

Several of the other wines followed this same system. The Lone Oak 2010 Viognier from Texas had achieved a Homeric high of 28 brix or thereabouts. The resulting wine was big (almost 15% alcohol), perfumey, and luxurious, with very low acidity. Very nice. Unique.

I tended to like a little better the DuCard 2011 Viognier of Virginia, with slightly lower brix at harvest, but still relatively solid (23 or 24) which resulted in a pretty wine with a lovely nose and nice bright acidity.

                                Michael Migliore
The Whitecliff 2011 Traminette from the Hudson Valley, which is among my favorite Traminettes, was lovely. Again, solid brix and great winemaking, resulted in a lovely, tropical fruit nosed wine with great and refreshing acidity. A lovely wine. Michael Migliore is a really good winemaker, and knows his technical stuff down cold. He and I have had plenty of discussions about Seyval Blanc.

Jason Burrus, formerly of Rappahanock, now at Chrysalis

But the other was Rappahanock Cellars 2012 Seyval Blanc. This wine really opened my eyes. Here, the winemaker didn’t follow the sugars. He harvested early (around Labor Day), and went for a more austere, acidic wine. He also used a yeast that is well known for averting H2S in wine. The resulting wine was massively bright, had a great nose, and finished bright like an Italian white or a Vino Verdhe. It was absolutely beautiful. It was a massive departure from anything I have ever tasted made from Seyval. It changed the way I saw white wine could be made, and indeed, was a great idea certainly for Seyval Blanc.

Fast forward to Taste Camp 2013 just a few weeks ago in Quebec. We visited several sites, many of which produced beautiful Seyval Blancs. Chief among them were Les Pervenches Seyval-Chardonnay 2012, l’Orpailleur Seyval et Vidal 2012, Vignoble du Marathonien Seyval Blanc, and several others.

In Quebec, they have a short growing season. Certainly shorter than Virginia. But here again, the wines were bright, acidic, and had lovely noses. Much more reminiscent of the Rappahanock wine. And it occurred to me, that this is a wonderful style of Seyval anyone on the east coast could be/should be making. We should be embracing the acidity of Seyval Blanc. By not chasing the sugar, by embracing the acidity, a bright, zippy, refreshing wine, could be achieved much in the vein of Pinot Grigio or Vino Verhde. The winemakers of Quebec had embraced the acidity. Maybe they didn’t have any choice. Maybe nature dictates their style. But I think it was all the better. I, and several bloggers and wine writers, although that we had tasted some of the best Seyvals and Seyval blends we had ever tasted.

So, one can ask, so which is the right path? Normally I would say, choose your own. But I have to say, what would my advice be? I say to anyone listening, wine drinker or winemaker, I say, with Seyval Blanc...embrace the acidity. Cleaner. Better. Brighter. More classic.