Monday, April 23, 2012

Eastern Wineries Expo: Optimizing Varietal Fruit Character in Red Hybrids – A Watershed Moment?

I know that I am considered the patron saint of hybrids on the east coast, and that there are a number of wine writers and experts who wish I would just pick up my hybrid toys and just go home. I can hear snickering from here. "They’re not real wines," say some snobs. “No one will ever buy them,” others opine. They are not serious enough. But really, is what the world is waiting for is another merlot, or pinot noir, or chardonnay? I am tired of hearing about unique grapes in Sicily or Greece or Hungary….whatever happened to unique grapes on the east coast? With the advent of more cold-climate vineyards, by necessity, new, more winter hardy grapes are entering the common wine lexicography.

That’s why I was thrilled to see on the schedule docket, “Optimizing Varietal Fruit Character in Red Hybrids,” as a panel discussion with winemaker Ian Barry (Keuka Springs Lake Winery, NY), Dr. Joseph Fiola (University of Maryland), Chris Granstrom (owner of Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven, Vermont) and Brad Knapp (owner/winemaker Pinnacle Ridge Winery, PA). The added bonus was the Denise Gardner was also in the audience. Simply put, this was without a doubt, the best single winemaking seminar ever devoted to hybrid grapes, and was valuable for numerous reasons. And the house was packed, standing room only! In a large ballroom. And it was about making quality wine.

The grapes discussed were Leon Millot, Chambourcin, and Marquette. All three of these grapes are growing in popularity. Chambourcin has really taken hold in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where folks are tasting more and more quality wine made with this fruit. Marquette is absolutely the fast growing darling of the cold hardy world. Winemakers can’t seem to find enough. And Leon Millot is one of the old traditional hybrids, once discarded, which now seems to be seeing a quality wine resurgence.

Ian Barry makes a killer Leon Millot at Keuka Springs Lake. Ian wrote, “Often thought of as a blending grape, Keuka Lake Vineyards has had great success with Leon Millot as a varietal, culminating with the 2010 Leon Milllot being named “Best Red Wine” at the New York Wine and Food Classic.” At the meeting, Ian explored clonal selection, viticultural practices and decisions in the winery as factors affecting wine quality. Ian included the tasting of two wines, one from the Boordy clone of Leon Millot and one from the Foster clone of Leon Millot.

University of Maryland wine professor Joseph Fiola talked about his winemaking techniques for Chambourcin. Dr. Joseph A. Fiola has over 25 years of academic experience in research and extension in viticulture (grape growing) and enology (winemaking). Joe is also one of the top ten award winners of all time in the AWS International Amateur Competition, including a “Best of Show” in 2003. According to Fiola, “Chambourcin may be the best overall adapted variety to the Mid-Atlantic based on excellent cold hardiness, very good disease tolerance, good color, and ability to ripen fully in most years.” Fiola highlighted cultural practices to follow in the vineyard and some interesting things to try in the winery.

Brad Knapp, the winemaker/owner at Pinnacle Ridge talked about Chambourcin as well. “ Chambourcin is the only red hybrid that we have grown at Pinnacle Ridge and we find that it can fulfill a number of different roles in the winery portfolio of wines.” Knapp discussed growing Chambourcin for different wine styles and also how they handle it in their cellar. Pinnacle Ridge has been awarded three Governor’s Cups, 2003, 2006 and 2009. Two of the cups, 2003 and 2009, were for dry red wines made from Chambourcin.

Chris Granstrom has quickly become the darling of the winemaking North country. He grows 12 acres of northern grape varieties and produces about 2000 cases of wine a year. His Lincoln Peak Marquette, a medium-bodied dry red estate wine made in Vermont’s hard winter lands, is absolutely fantastic! And his minimalist approach is mind-boggling to anyone who knows anything about growing grapes in cold weather. According to the quiet Vermont vintner, “Both Marquette and Frontenac have the potential to make very flavorful and marketable wines.” Gransrom talked about how to handle them in the vineyard, harvest parameters, how he treats them on the crush pad, yeast selections, fermentation temperatures, and residual sugar levels. He admitted, “I make very different style of wine from these two grapes.” No question. The Marquette is a medium-to-dark Pinot-styled wine, with incredible character, and the Frontenac is a big, dark purple, ink monster. Both wines were incredible.

There were several reasons why this session was so fantastic, and at least in my mind (small though my brain might be) historic. Firstly, these men shared copious notes on their treatments of these grapes in their vineyards, in their winemaking, and in their cellar treatments (French oak, American oak, etc.). Some of it was dry. None of them are comedians nor nature narrator David Attenborough. But the talk was never boring. Secondly, to back up their discussions, they brought wine with them to taste. This wasn’t showing off. Indeed, several brought wine that were straight from barrels, and was not yet ready for bottling or blending. The idea was to share real raw information.

And most important to me, this was a whole seminar where experienced winemakers sat around sharing winemaking techniques wherein they were bringing modern technology and matured, season winemaking, to the fore while discussing hybrids! People ask me “Why has wine in the east improved so much in the last 5-10 years?” The answer is simple. On the east coast, the winemaking tradition had been lost after Prohibition, and it took a long time to get it back. There are now two generations of winemaking expertise here on the east coast which you couldn’t say 20 or 30 years ago.

Winemakers who have learned to work with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc., are turning their attention to hybrids, experimenting, seeing what it is they can do to make great wines with them. That’s a lot of knowledge to bring to bear.

Wine is made in the vineyard. Each winemaker talked about vineyard spacing, leaf pulling, hedging, spraying, and harvesting with the same gusto I had heard in the Cabernet Franc seminar (another discussion). The knowledge used to make many of the wines from the 1970s and 1980s were made using the books written by Philip Wagner a generation earlier. A good, solid manual to be sure. But winemaking in the east has come a long, long way since then, though eastern winemakers are still held in scant regard with the shadow of those years hanging over them!

Today’s winemakers are better at handling oak and non-oak, using more sophisticated means, cold soaking, or conversely, only briefly leaving the wine on the skins, to accomplish different flavors and finishes.

The winemakers have more years of knowledge handling the fruit than ever before, and have a bigger and more informed group of extension experts to help guide them. Winemakers are talking to each other, sharing information. More and more that is the case. It can only make wine better.

So many wine writers are still questioning hybrid reds. But the fact is that they are growing in popularity with the only people who count – winery customers. More and more quality hybrid wines are getting more and more press, and more and more awards….and wineries are selling more and more wine. Not the old grape juice with a shot of vodka, but sophisticated, serious, mature, complex, layered red wines worthy of aging and great reviews. No matter the rants of a number of people, this was an important event, and it IS a turning point, the pendulum is swinging back towards hybrids. A watershed moment? I think so.

Huge kudos to Richard Leahy and Bob Mignarri for putting together and hosting such an important seminar! It’s intense seminars like this that will make me go back again next year!