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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Tasting the Hudson Valley

Earlier this year, I was asked to be a judge of the 4th Annual Hudson Valley Commercial Wine Competition, conducted under the auspices of the Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Association (HVWGA). I looked forward to participating, as the competition provided an opportunity for me to taste some of the best wines produced in the Hudson Valley.

On April 26th, the competition was held in a model house at Brook in Waterland, located on the 200 acre Bentley Farm in the town of Stanford. Brook in Waterland is a project conceived by Dutch investors to sell 25 homes, inspired by 17th century Dutch architecture, clustered on the farm, leaving 140 acres of the farm preserved as agricultural land and open space. The view from the kitchen of the home is a six acre vineyard, which will be planted to Cabernet Franc. The model home where the tasting was held was 4,650 square feet and had a price tag of about $3 million. Good luck, Brook.

I arrived bright and early, along with my fellow judges: Bob Brink, Fine Wines Manager for Arlington Wine and Spirits in Poughkeepsie; Chris Gerling, Cornell University Agricultural Extension Associate for Enology in New York State; Harriet and Bill Lembeck: Harriet is a highly respected wine educator in New York City and author of the 6th and 7th editions of “Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits.” Bill loves wine and is an excellent taster; Bill Rattner, Wine Director for the Xaviar’s Restaurant Group; Jennifer Redmond, manager of Enthusiastic Spirits and Wines in Gardiner; and Brian Smith, a professor at The Culinary Institute of America, and the co-author (along with Michael Weiss and myself) of “Exploring Wine” and the upcoming book, “WineWise.”

The tasting and competition revealed that Hudson Valley wines and wine producers have come a long way, but still have a long way to go. I tasted a small number of superb wines, a larger number of drinkable wines, and several forgettable-to-undrinkable wines. My tasting notes, provided by the HVWGA as a perceived benefit to the winemakers, range from “Excellent wine, beautifully balanced, good acidity and complex tannins” to “Please stop making this wine,” and “Good job! A lovely wine,” to “Tastes like a science project gone bad.”

Indeed, the tasting was uneven. It was an excellent day for Millbrook Winery and its winemaker, John Graziano, as it racked up many gold medals and first-place accolades. It was, surprisingly, a very bad day for Riesling, my favorite white grape on the planet. Personally, I thought it was a good day for hard apple ciders, but what were they doing in this wine tasting?

It was a mixed day for hybrid-based wines. Hybrids are grapes that are a biological cross of the species vitis vinifera – grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, along with the other usual suspects – and native grapes, which belong to such species as vitis labrusca or vitis riparia, such as Concord or Niagara. Well-known hybrids in the Hudson valley include Seyval, Vignoles, Baco Noir, and Chancellor. Hybrids are popular here because they are disease-resistant and can survive extreme weather conitions. I admit to not being a big fan of most hybrid-based wines I’ve tasted, although I find myself becoming a sucker for a simple, fruity white, Traminette, whose vinifera parent is Gew├╝rztraminer.

At the tasting, I also found out about Hudson Heritage™ wines. To be a Hudson Heritage white, all grapes must be grown in the Hudson River Region American Viticultural Area (AVA), and must be 70%-85% Seyval, with the remainder of the blend made from any or all of the following: Vidal, Vignoles, Cauyuga, and Traminette. The wine may be up to 2% residual sugar, cannot undergo malolactic fermentation (which changes fresh, fruity, high-acid flavors to rich, creamy flavors), cannot be exposed to oak, and must be bottled in a Hock style bottle (thin, tapered bottle, closely identified with German white wines).

Red Hudson Heritage wines must be made from Hudson River Region grapes, and may include Noiret (35%-55%), DeChaunac (35%-55%), and other hybrid grapes (from 20% to 30%). Oak aging is allowed, residual sugar must be less than 1%, malolactic fermentation is allowed (common for virtually all red wines), and must be bottled in a Burgundy style bottle (closely identified with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bottles).

I will repeat here what I said at the competition: I love the idea of Hudson Heritage™, but I strongly disagree with the idea that only hybrid grapes represent the “heritage” of Hudson Valley wines. There are wonderful Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc wines produced in the Hudson Valley, but they cannot claim the mantle of Hudson Heritage, according to the HVWGA. I think it is a mistake to encourage growing hybrids in the Hudson Valley by saying in effect that these hybrid grapes – grapes made from genetic crosses of vinifera and native grapes or by crossing multiple hybrids to produce yet another hybrid – are the grapes that matter in the Hudson Valley. Some of my fellow judges agreed with me, some strongly disagreed. I think that Hudson Heritage, as currently defined, is a step backward for Hudson Valley wines, and discourages new plantings of grapes that may give the Valley a place at the table with fine wines from other regions of the world. Hybrids are not going to do that.

On with the tasting. We tasted flights of wines grouped by varietal and/or style for about three hours. The groupings included: Hybrid White, Hybrid Red, Sparkling (including hard ciders), Vinifera White, Vinifera Red, Off-Dry Whites (some of these were quite sweet), Fruit Wines (other than grapes, including apple, peach, pear, blueberry, raspberry, and strawberry wines), Dessert wines, and Ports.

Here are the winners of the 4th Annual Hudson Valley Wine Competition by class and variety, along with some notes on my personal preferences:

Brotherhood Winery NV Blanc de Blancs
Silver Medal, Best Sparkling Wine
(I preferred the Applewood Winery Stonefence 2006 Hard Cider, which won a Bronze Medal)

White Hybrid:
Benmarl Winery 2006 Seyval
Gold Medal, Best in Class and Best White Hybrid
(I agree; a fine example of Seyval)

Best Hudson Heritage:
Whitecliff Vineyards 2007 Awosting White (Seyval/Vignoles)
(An off-dry wine, very pleasant, very easy to drink; good for spicy food)

White Vinifera:
Millbrook Vineyards 2007 Tocai Fruilano
Gold Medal, Best in Class, Best White Vinifera
Millbrook Vineyards 2006 Chardonnay
Gold Medal
(This is how I voted, so I must have liked these wines. Very fine. The Tocai Friulano is singular and exceptional, the Chardonnay is one of the best made in New York State)

Labrusca (Native) Grape:
Hudson-Chatham Lindenwald White Niagara/Diamond
Silver Medal, Best in Class
(Fruity, semi-sweet sipper)

Red Hybrid:
Benmarl Winery 2006 Baco Noir Gold Medal, Best Red Hybrid
(Baco Noir has been growing at Benmarl for a long time, and the winery produces one of the best Baco Noir wines in the country. I really enjoyed this wine.)

Red Vinifera:
Millbrook Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Franc
Gold Medal, Best in Class, Best in Show, Best HV Wine
Millbrook Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Franc Block 3
Gold Medal
Oak Summit Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir
Silver Medal, Best in Category

(In general, I agree with my fellow judges, although I gave the edge to Block 3 Cabernet Franc; both wines were excellent. The Oak Summit Pinot Noir was also very fine; ironically, John Bruno’s Oak Summit Vineyard is located in Millbrook, and the wine is made by Millbrook winemaker John Graziano for Oak Summit. A blowout for Millbrook.)

Sweet Wine:
Bashakill Winery 2007 Osprey (Vignoles)
Silver Medal, Best in Class
(The wine was light and sweet, with a short finish)

Fruit Wine:
Brookview Station 2007 Pomona (Apple/Pear)
Gold Medal, Best in Category, Best in Class
(interesting wine; semi-sweet with a nice balance of flavors)

Brotherhood Winery NV Ruby Port
Gold Medal, Best in Class
(Not my style, but several other judges enjoyed it).

Dessert Wines:
Clinton Vineyards NV Cassis
Gold Medal, Best in Category, Best in Class
(Clinton has rescued black currants from obscurity in the Hudson Valley, and made a truly exceptional fortified wine, fruit-driven, off-dry to semi-sweet; a showstopper)
Warwick Valley Winery NV Pear Liqueur
Gold Medal, Best in Category
(Actually a liqueur, not a wine; a fruit-based spirit infused with Hudson Valley pears and pear brandy. Delicious)

The competition was followed by a lovely lunch at a new Hudson Valley Restaurant, Red Devon, in nearby Bangall, where we were able to pair Hudson Valley wine winners with the winning food of chef Jim Jennings. Red Devon, named for the cow bred on the restaurant owners’ farm in Millbrook, is committed to local food and farmers, and a “green” dining experience. Red Devon also has a take-out/eat-in market, with prepared local foods and wonderful breads baked on the premises. We enjoyed an extraordinarily fresh pea soup and excellent lamb chops “from the farm down the road,” according to restaurant manager Kelley Jefferson.

It was a wonderful experience to taste the great food from the farm down the road with the great wines from the vineyards down the road.

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