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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.

Hard Cider: What's Old is New

Historically, cider – the hard stuff - is the alcoholic beverage of choice in the Hudson Valley; wine is a relative newcomer. In fact, from the founding of the Republic and until Prohibition became the law of the nation (1919-1933), hard cider was the most popular fermented drink in the United States. Carrie Nation (1846-1911), the hatchet-wielding radical Prohibitionist wielded her battle-axe not only to destroy taverns and saloons, but also apple trees. It was not until about 1900 that apples began to be promoted as a health food, when the Welsh proverb “Eat an apple on going to bed / And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” became the American cliché “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

While it’s true that eating apples is a healthy habit, not all apples are meant for eating out of hand. In fact, a relatively small number of the thousands of unique apple types (at least 7,500 and perhaps as many as 15,000) found all over the world taste good in the raw. The wild ancestor of the domestic apple cultivars, malus domestica, originated in Kazakhstan as the malus sieversii, and these ancient forerunners can still be found in Western Asia today. The reason that there are still so many thousands of types of apples is because of the apple seed.

If you plant, or if nature disperses the seeds of a McIntosh apple, for example, you won’t get a McIntosh apple growing on your apple tree. There’s no predicting what you’ll get in seven to ten years. This is true with all apples. Commercially, apples are planted with grafted saplings of the desired apple, but seeds will produce unknown varieties, and few will make for good eating; in fact, most will be inedible as a hand fruit.

John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845) brought apples to the American frontier, and was a successful nurseryman whose nurseries spread from Massachusetts to Indiana. He was also a missionary who spread the word of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborgians believed that nature was powerful, and that apples should be planted from seeds only. Chapman preached this gospel to all who would listen and planted according to his faith. The result was a pomaceous bounty of biodiversity: hundreds, perhaps thousands of types of wild apples, almost all of them inedible, but perfect for fermenting into cider and distilling into applejack (the early settlers practiced “freeze distillation,” which concentrated the alcohol in the cider to as high as 40%, by separating frozen water from the unfrozen alcohol). Johnny Appleseed brought the source of a great American beverage – cider - to our frontier settlements, and for that we should be forever grateful.

New York State, especially the Hudson Valley, became cider central in the early days of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple for both cooking and cider was the Esopus Spitzenburg, discovered in Ulster County and transplanted at Monticello. John Adams drank a pint of cider every morning for breakfast to aid digestion, but he missed the discovery of the Jonathan apple in Woodstock (circa 1900) by about 100 years. When Prohibition became law, Hudson Valley apple growers transitioned to eating apples, and over time biodiversity was largely replaced by the fifteen most popular cultivars grown and sold throughout the United States that account for 90% of total production: Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Gala, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Idared, Jonagold, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious, and Rome.

According to the most recent USDA Agricutural Census (2007; a new census will be completed this year), between the years 2002 and 2007, apple acreage in the Hudson Valley declined by 14%. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the total number of apple orchards dropped by 25% (source: Glynwood’s “The Apple Project,” dedicated to preserving apple orchards and biodiversity by encouraging the production of hard cider and apple-based spirits. Check out Glynwood’s project and the “Hudson Valley Cider Route” at www.appleproject.glynwood.org).

It is tough being an apple farmer in the Hudson Valley. Land prices and taxes are very high. Farmers who spend their lives making a modest living “live poor and die rich” due to our state and federal tax structures. Add to this the understandable but lamentable temptation to cash out, selling farmland for residential and commercial development. Finally, very few of the sons and daughters of farmers want to embrace the hardscrabble and unpredictable life that is farming; the average age of the Hudson Valley farmer is close to 60 years old.

Cider was for a long time viewed as a byproduct of commercial apple orchards, especially in the ubiquitous Hudson Valley “U-Pick-‘Em” farms, where customers, many of them visitors to the Valley, get to pick their own produce for a reasonable price. Apples have some of the longest seasons on these farms, depending on the varieties, stretching from early summer through autumn, and so represent an important cash crop. Lately, however, growers have recognized that cider can be the most important product of apple production, not just an agricultural offshoot. And it’s not just farmers that are waking up to the importance of cider, it’s consumers.

In the August 8th, 2012 “Shanken News Daily,” an on-line wine, spirits, and beer trade newsletter published by the same folks that publish Wine Spectator magazine, the lead story was “U.S. Cider Segment Showing Torrid Growth.” The post cites the following compelling info:

• In the last year, domestic cider sales in the were up by 23%, to 5.7 million cases (a case is 12 bottles);

• The growth is “triggering a flurry of new product launches,” including Angry Orchard Cider (produced by Boston Beer – that’s Sam Adams) and Michelob Ultra Light Cider (a low-calorie entry from Anheuser Busch). MillerCoors owns Crispin Cider, which has seen phenomenal growth, approaching 1.4 million cases by the end of 2012;

• The #1 cider producer in the country is Vermont Hard Cider, known for its Woodchuck Cider brand, which last year grew 32.8%, passing the 2 million case mark, expecting to reach 3 million cases by the end of 2012.

Reading these numbers, you might think that the artisan ciders made in the Hudson Valley are mere asterisks, local curiosities, but you’d be wrong. The largest cider producer in New York State is located in Orange County, in the town of Warwick. Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery produces 100,000 gallons/nearly 50,000 cases of Doc’s Draft ciders annually, in both 22 ounce bottles and kegs for use in bars and restaurants (about 50% kegs, 50% bottles). Co-owners Jason Grizzanti, (he makes the ciders as well as the distilled spirits) and Jeremy Kidde (in charge of sales and marketing) have been producing and selling cider since 1994, but really stepped up their game in 2002, when they purchased new equipment and entered into a business relationship with a multistate distributor. Today, Doc’s Draft has a major presence in supermarkets, wine and liquor stores (cider, unlike wine, can be sold in both venues in New York State), and bars and restaurants, mostly in the metro New York City and Philadelphia areas. According to Grizzanti, who holds a degree in Pomology (fruit science) from Cornell, interest in the products in Hudson Valley restaurants and bars is “growing,” but falls short of a local embrace of local cider.

Currently, there are four types of Doc’s ciders, all sparkling, all apple-based: Original Apple, Pear, Raspberry, and the seasonal ciders: Black Currant (Summer), Sour Cherry (Spring), Pumpkin (Autumn), and Spiced (Winter). All of the fruit used in Doc’s ciders are sourced in New York State, and both Grizzanti and Kidde are committed to purchasing as much Hudson Valley fruit as possible.

“We have to get the best possible fruit to make both our ciders and our spirits, top quality is important,” according to Grizzanti. Kidde adds that Doc’s purchases great fruit from local growers that “might not be cosmetically perfect, maybe with some blemishes, so the farmers can’t sell them as eating apples. But they don’t have to look good for cider, they just have to taste great.”

Grizzanti notes that Doc’s uses eating apples for their ciders, not bitter, tannic cider apples. “We focus on Jonagolds, Empires, Northern Spys and Macs.” The flavors of the ciders reflect the apple choices. They have a semi-dry taste, with a sweet edge in the finish, and make an excellent introduction to cider for novice drinkers. Doc’s ciders work well with spicy, salty, smoky foods, lots of Asian and Latin dishes. The Raspberry cider is a good match with dark chocolate. www.docshardcider.com

Perhaps the polar opposite of Doc’s is Aaron Burr Cider, produced in Wurtsboro, NY, by Andy Brennan, a painter, who owns the cidery with his wife, Polly Giragosian, a fiber artist. Aaron Burr Cider is named for one of New York’s founding fathers and a controversial figure, Burr was at one time Jefferson’s vice-president, and he fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel; Jefferson dropped him from the ticket. Burr’s pistol is featured on the cider’s label.

Aaron Burr Homestead Cider is bone dry, complex, naturally sparkling in the bottle with the yeast intact, aged for a year before its unfiltered release, and is made from cider apples: Pippins and an unidentified blend of 50 to 100 different wild and abandoned apples that Brennan and Goragosian forage. “The best place to find wild apples for our cider is at the peak of the Shawangunk Ridge – in the woods and on hay farms, just where Sullivan County borders Orange and Ulster counties,” according to Brennan.

The Homestead Cider is a revelation, a lively balance of fruit, acid and astringent tannins, with hints of melon and lemon in the finish. It is an extraordinary accompaniment to food, especially fish, lighter white meat dishes, and semi-soft cheeses. I loved it with angel hair pasta tossed with a mélange of local tomatoes, garlic, wild arugula, and homemade mozzarella. The sparkling Ginger Cider, which uses mostly Russets and some wild fruit, is fermented over grated ginger and carrot root. An amazing drink, it reminded me of a bubbly wild ginseng tonic, and is great with spicy food and dishes that feature ginger, galangal, or lemon grass. Brennan also makes a “Ciser,” a cider fermented with wild, local honey with a kiss of French oak. It too, is delicious; spicy, but with a subtle richness in the finish. Aaron Burr is cider for people who love the driest, almost austere white wines, such as Alsace Riesling or Gewurztraminer, or Sancerre from the Loire Valley.

Brennan makes about 500 gallons of cider – about 2,000 bottles total - and is hoping to produce maybe 1,000 gallons in the near future. The Aaron Burr orchard is less than five acres, and has 400 trees, mostly wild apples planted from seedlings, and some trees planted from cuttings from heirloom English varieties of cider apples. And 25 Esopus Spitzenburg trees. www.aaronburrcider.com

Applewood Winery is located in Warwick, not far from Doc’s, and is a small hard cider producer. Jonathan Hull grew up on his 100 acre farm, which has 40 acres of apple trees. At Applewood, Jonathan, who owns the farm with his wife, Michele Hull, makes about 4,000 gallons of Naked Flock cider per year. He produces Original, Pumpkin, and Draft (made with a Belgian ale yeast and a touch of maple syrup). The Hulls self-distribute their ciders, but are in talks with a regional distributor to expand their market, which means Jonathan will be making more cider in the future.

The Hulls maintain most of their orchard for eating apples that are sold at Applewood and in local stores. “For our ciders we are proud that we purchase only Hudson Valley fruit. Our cider is about 25% Northern Spy, some Winesaps, and about a 50% blend of several other eating apples. We don’t use any cider-only apples.”

I tried the Naked Flock Original hard cider and it is delicious. Sparkling, with a sweet edge, the cider is refreshing and easy to drink on its own or with lighter, spiced foods. At less than 7% alcohol (most of the ciders I tasted were roughly in the 6% to 8.5% range), Naked Flock has the familiar taste of farm-fresh sweet cider, but with just a bit of a bubbly kick. www.applewoodwinery.com

Elizabeth Ryan has been farming in the Hudson Valley for the past 30 years. She owns Breezy Hill Farms in Staatsburg, NY and leases farm land for Stone Ridge Orchards in the eponymous town, and a farm in Hudson, at the foot of the historic Olana estate, home to the 250 acre estate of the esteemed Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. Altogether, Ryan and her crews farm 150 acres of farmland.

Speaking to the challenges of farming, Ryan says “I almost called our current cider ‘Windfall Cider,’ because we lost so much fruit to the hurricanes last year.” Her Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, which is one of the few near-still ciders I tasted, is a blend of Winesap, Honeycrisp, and other sweet eating apples. Yet, the cider is bone dry, with about 7.5% alcohol.

Ryan produces about 3,000 to 5,000 bottles of cider, depending on growing conditions in the orchards. She cool-ferments the juice as slowly as possible, and the finished cider is unfiltered. The cider is excellent, well-balanced, and reminiscent of a fruity but dry wine, such as Muscadet or Sauvignon Blanc.

Visiting the Le Perche agricultural district of Normandy, France, home to the traditional French sparkling ciders made from cultivars such as Bisquet, Joly Rouge, Douce Coet, Binet Rouge, Mettais, Petit Jaune, and Judor, was a revelation for Ryan.

“There are 600 varieties of apples grown in Le Perche, and 200 are indigenous. Etienne Dupont grows thirteen different cider apples on 74 acres to make several different ciders and Calvados (apple brandy).”

Dupont (www.calvados-dupont.com) is a legend in cider circles. All of his ciders are vintage dated, and they are as prized as some of the finest Champagnes of France. I have been fortunate enough to taste some of his cidres, and the superlative descriptors are appropriate, especially for the Cidre Bouché (current vintage: 2010), as terroir-driven as a great red Burgundy (and a steal at about $15).

Ryan shares that “When I asked Etienne Dupont for some advice on what Hudson Valley farmers should do to assure a future for great cider, he said ‘You need to re-indigenize your varieties.’ “ This is a holistic, even radical approach that will take 50 to 100 years to come to fruition, as it means that Hudson Valley cider apples will need to be planted from seedlings and selected not only for cider flavor characteristics, but also how each variety expresses the soil, the environment, the terroir.

All of the cider producers I spoke with are maintaining a sustainable economic model for their work, some comfortably, some just barely. They are making an artisanal agricultural product in a challenging economic environment and a shifting climactic environment. As Ryan observes, “It’s very difficult for farmers in the Hudson Valley. We do anything we can to pay bills, and just as important, pay our employees well. We want to build community around farms to sustain people now and in the future.”

Speaking of community, don’t miss the Hudson Valley Cider Festival on the weekend of October 20th and 21st at the Stone Ridge Orchard. (For more info, call 845.266.3979 or visit www.hudsonvalleycider.com). Ryan and her staff will be conducting a Cider Workshop, teaching attendees how to make cider at home. And the good news is that cider is not hard to make, it’s just hard when you drink it.

Warm Weather Reds

With welcome warm weather upon us, most wine and food enthusiasts think about light wines to pair with light foods. And when we think “light,” most often we also think “white.” Makes sense. Fresh greens and veggies from the garden, and fish and chicken hot off the outdoor grill all cry out for white wines, right?

No doubt whites like Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, and Viognier strut their stuff when paired with lighter dishes. Likewise Vinho Verde from Portugal, Albariño from Spain, Vermentino and Falanghina from Italy, Muscadet from France, and Moschofilero from Greece are wonderful accompaniments to the low-intensity/high energy foods we like to eat outdoors in the sunshine or indoors during the moderate cool of the evening. And if there is one white wine and food pairing that should probably be the gustatory signature of the Hudson Valley, it’s our local sweet corn with local Chardonnay; wow, what a treat.

Admittedly, I, like most of us, think of whites as my go-to wines in warm weather, but in the back of my mind, I’m “thinking red.” Here’s why: there is a plethora of lighter red wines that can successfully, even excitingly, cross over into the territory usually reserved for whites. These wines are lighter and simpler, fruit-driven, with only moderate tannins but with plenty of thirst-quenching acidity. And now for the really good part: these wines tend to be so inexpensive that they can’t help but under-promise and over-deliver. In other words, you get true bang for your buck and at the same time you get a memorable food and wine experience.

So, where to start? How about with rosés, dry but bursting with red berry fruit accents. True rosé is true red wine, made only from red grapes with minimal skin contact during fermentation (the skin is where all the color is). I say “true rosé,” because outside of the wine-producing nations of Europe, it’s legal to make rosé from a blend of white and red wine, so I suggest sticking with European rosé or with a New World producer known for the quality of its rosé, or, easily enough, a New World rosé that you like. If you’re grilling kebabs, poultry, fish – especially salmon – rosé is a great match. A backyard burger is a real crowd pleaser with rosé, as well as a sandwich of grilled vegetables and mozzarella, turkey with a sweet/savory cranberry relish, or roast beef served with local potato salad.

If you’ve never tried cool, crisp rosé with foods you love to eat when the weather turns warm, you’re in for a surprise and a treat. If you already have experience with this style of wine and therefore crave rosé with this kind of food, you’ve got some great choices available to you. My advice is to focus on wine regions of the world that are known not only for the quality of their wines, but specifically for the quality of their rosé. This leads me first to Provence in France, where rosé rules. Next, I would look for wines from Navarra, Spain. There are fine rosé wines from other parts of the world, but if you’re looking for a wine redolent of strawberry, raspberry, and cranberry all wrapped up in a dry, refreshing package then look no further than Provence or Navarra. This time of year there should be a terrific selection of these wines available in good wine shops and there’s absolutely no reason for you to pay more than about $15 for the best of these wines. In fact, you’ll probably be able to find some of these gems for less than $10.

What about “real reds,” wines that look dark in the glass, but are light on the palate? We have such a tremendous selection of warm-weather reds to choose from that the only hard work we have to do is choose one (or two, or three, or…). Some of these wines will be recognizable to you but you may never have thought of them as thirst-quenching warm weather wines. Some of these wines may not be so familiar, but believe me, they’re worth trying. And for those of you who are old hands at enjoying lighter reds with lighter foods, maybe there’s a couple of new wines to consider. What do these wines bring to the party?

Well, first of all they are great guests. They don’t fade into the background. They are spicy and zesty; they bring the fun and excitement, but they’re not too loud and not self-centered. They virtually sing for their supper, but in perfect harmony. These reds remind us that wine is food; it just happens to be in a glass. As if by magic, these wines create another sauce, another spice, and undiscovered flavors so dramatic that it becomes hard to imagine the food without the wine, the wine without the food.

Here are some ideas for great red wines that will accompany/pair/rendezvous/consummate/marry/honor the wonderful aromas, flavors, and textures of the food we love when it’s hot outside. Any of these wines will add a thrilling dimension to foods prepared and served al fresco – fish, poultry, leaner cuts of red meat, served with seasonal greens, veggies, potatoes, and our extraordinary local tomatoes (botanically it’s a fruit, but according to the Supreme Court [Nix v. Hedden, 1893], it’s a vegetable).

But first… A service note: just chill. No, seriously – chill these reds for about a half-hour or so before pouring to bring out the red-fruit freshness in the wine. Certainly not mandatory, but highly recommended in warm weather.

And then…

A buying tip: Do not spend a lot of money on these wines. It may seem counterintuitive, but you are not looking for the most complex examples of these wines; quite the opposite. You’re looking for good, eminently drinkable, simpler versions of these wines. Especially when it comes to California’s versions of these wines, this is where popular varietals and national brands (Woodbridge, Smoking Loon, Fetzer, Pepperwood, etc.) perform a highly useful service. Same goes for Chile (Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, etc.)

California: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Syrah are the go-to choices for me. Pinot Noir and lighter versions of Merlot will work wonders with both fish and meat dishes. I’d reserve the Zin and Syrah for white and red meats, and roasted or grilled veggies. With these wines, observing my buying tip (above) will serve you well. You’ll create a winning wine and food pairing with simpler versions of these reds and save some serious money in the bargain. A good, local/regional alternate choice: Hudson Valley or Finger Lakes Pinot Noir.

• Beaujolais-Villages is made from 100% Gamay grapes. The wine is driven by the aromas and flavors of red berries, with moderately high acidity. A good local alternative: Hudson Valley-produced Gamay Noir from Whitecliff Vineyard.
• Bourgogne is made from Pinot Noir, or maybe a Pinot Noir/Gamay blend. Either way, this is a lighter, simpler version of the best Burgundy has to offer.
• Côte du Rhône is a blended wine anchored by Grenache, that will perform perfectly with simply –prepared white and red meats.

Italy: Valpolicella is a Corvina-focused red blend that adds a saucy, spicy flair to summer meals, as does its geographical neighbor in Veneto, Bardolino. Chianti is an elegant expression of Tuscany’s Sangiovese grape, which turns earthy when paired with simple foods, No need to seek out the more complex and more expensive Classico or Riserva versions. Keep it simple. Dolcetto d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti from the Piedmont region are ideal choices for meat-based dishes, and Barbera’s high acidity resonates perfectly with tomatoes.

Spain: Rioja can take on many guises based on age and style. For uncomplicated summer dishes you’re looking for the simpler Cosecha, Crianza, or Roble versions: young wines with a spicy attitude and more than a little bit of soul.

Chile: Carmenère is a juicy, straightforward red with pungent berry overtones. An easy match with the fresh flavors of summer. In a pinch, lighter, inexpensive versions of Chilean Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon will work, but Carmenère, which is now widely available, is the more exciting choice.

Argentina: Malbec is synonymous with beef in any and all of its manifestations. Look for a young, lighter, less expensive style. A bottle that fits the bill perfectly and is widely available: Trapiche “Oak Cask.”

So, next time you’re getting ready to fire up the grill, and you start to think about the wine you’d like to drink with the flavors of summer, why not “think red”? By choosing warm weather red wines with your meal you’ll provide good food with good wine at a good price, and hopefully with good company. A balanced equation for both your wallet and your senses. 

Here is a list of some warm-weather rosé and red wines that are sure to please; all of the wines retail for less than $25, and most are less than $15. This list is by no means exhaustive, just a jumping-off point for your own favorite selections.

Rosés:  USA: from Long Island: Channing Daughters or Wölffer Estate; from California: Bonny Doon Vin Gris, Gundlach Bundschu, Hendry, Amador Foothills, Fritz, Tablas Creek, Quivira, Foppiano, Bonterra, “Sofia” by Francis Ford Coppola.

France: from Provence: Mas de Gourgonnier, Mas de la Dame, Commanderie de Peyrassol, Château du Rouet, Corail, Cape Bleue, Château Routas; from Tavel in the Rhône Valley: Château d’Aqueria, Domaine Lafond, Château de Trinquevedel.

Spain: from Rioja: Muga, El Coto, Marques de Caceres, Marques de Riscal, CVNE, Faustino; from Navarra: Chivite “Gran Fuedo,” Vega Sindoa, Ochoa.

Italy: from Veneto: Bardolino Chiaretto Cavalchina or Tre Colline; from Sicily: Planeta or Regaleali; from Campania: Mastroberardino; from Tuscany: Banfi “Centine,” or Coltibuono “Cetamura”.

Reds: USA: from the Hudson Valley: Pinot Noir produced by Millbrook, Robibero, Oak Summit, Bashakill; Chelois produced by Hudson-Chatham, Genoa produced by Cereghino Smith; from California: Light, simple Pinot Noir from value-driven producers, such as Pepperwood, Woodbridge, Mirassou, Smoking Loon, Fetzer; Zinfandel produced by Bogle, Edmeades, Rancho Zabaco, Dancing Bull, Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend, Rosenblum Vintners Cuvée, Seghesio, Renwood.

France: from Beaujolais: Beaujolais-Villages or any of the “Cru” Beaujolais (Morgon, Fleurie, Juliénas, Moulin-A-Vent, etc.) from Georges Duboeuf, Sylvain Fessy, Michel Tête, Jean-Paul Brun, or Louis Jadot. Great Hudson Valley alternative: Gamay Noir from Whitecliff Vineyard; from Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhone-Villages, or Côtes du Ventoux: Jean-Luc Colombo, Guigal, Jaboulet “Parallèle 45”, Perrin Réserve, or La Vielle Ferme; from Burgundy: Bourgogne, Cote de Beaune-Villages, Côte de Nuits-Villages, Hautes Côtes de Beaune or Hautes Côtes de Nuits from Jadot, Drouhin, Bouchard, Bachelet, Mortot, Rion, Michel Gros, Thevenot Le Brun & Fils.

Italy: Chianti produced by Malenchini, Coltibuono, Banfi, Antinori, Castellare, Gabbiano, and Melini; Valpolicella and Bardolino produced by Allegrini, Masi, Tomassi, Zenato, Bertani, Boscaini, Accordini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Le Fraghe, Ronca, and Bolla; Dolcetto and Barbera produced by Marcarini, Pio Cesare, Chionetti, Einaudi, Vietti, Vigne Regali, Renato Ratti; Barbera produced by Boeri, Cascina Castlet, Chiarlo, Borgogno, Icardi, Braida, Marchesi di Gresy.

Spain: Rioja Crianza produced by: Vivanco, Montecillo, Conde de Valdemar, CVNE, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Cáceres, Marqués de Riscal, Faustino, Bogegas lan, Marqués de Arienzo, Muga, Marqués de Murrieta, Viña Izadi.

Chile: Carmenère produced by Emiliana, Arboleda, Casa Julia, Casillero del Diablo, Errazuriz, Carmen, MontGras, and Santa Rita. Argentina: Lighter, simpler, inexpensive versions of Malbec produced by: Luigi Bosca, Trapiche, Norton, O. Fournier, Trumpeter, Alamos, Yellow+Blue, Finca El Portillo.

Hudson River Region: A Sense of Place

Recently, a local winemaker was kind enough to send me a sample bottle of wine to taste, and it was terrific. According to the written blurb accompanying the wine, the wine was estate-bottled, made from grapes grown on the winery’s own vineyards, here in the Hudson River Region American Viticultural Area (AVA). I was excited to taste the wine, and was even more excited that the wine was superb in my glass and on my palate.

 But something was wrong. Here was a wonderful and truly local wine made with care and passion, but the wine label did not read “Hudson River Region,” it read “New York State.” Usually, when a wine produced in the Hudson Valley carries the New York State appellation it means that, by law, at least 25% - and usually a lot more – of the grapes were grown elsewhere in New York State, possibly in the Finger Lakes or Long Island wine regions. But such was not the case with this wine.

 In an e-mail, I asked the winemaker “If this is an ‘Estate’ wine, why is the appellation New York State, not the Hudson River Region AVA?” The answer surprised me. The winemaker assured me that the wine was estate-bottled – “grown here in our vineyard” - with no grapes brought in from other New York State regions, but “the Hudson Valley does not have the best of reputations, and when I enter any of my wines in contests, they seem to do better with a New York State rather than a Hudson Valley (label).”

 In my e-mail response I then had to ask: “How will the AVA ever surmount its perceived reputation if the best estate-bottled wines made in the region don’t use the Hudson River Region AVA name on the label?” I never got a response to my question.

 The “contests” that the winemaker referred to are, of course, wine competitions that can add to a wine’s reputation and the overall reputation of the winery with consumers. As someone who has judged several wine competitions, including the Hudson Valley Wine Competition three times, my experience has been exactly the opposite of the winemaker’s. I, and many of my fellow judges, have looked first and foremost for true Hudson Valley wines, wines that express a sense of place that can be ascribed to our local vineyards. While it’s always a wonderful experience to taste a fine wine, that experience is heightened when you know you are tasting a wine that is the product of local terroir – the environmental imperatives of soil type, sunshine, rain, wind, elevation – that conspire to create a unique wine.

 People who are willing to pay serious money for wine do not do so based soely on the grape varietal, but the place in which that grape grows. We call some of the most exquisite sparkling wines on the planet Champagne because that’s where the vineyards are. We don’t call it “Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier with Bubbles.” Great white Burgundy is by law 100% Chardonnay, but we call it (for example), Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault, the villages that contain those Chardonnay vineyards. We don’t call esteemed estate-bottled red Bordeaux wines “a Cabernet/Merlot Blend,” we call them Château Mouton-Rothschild or Château Margaux. We name these terroir-driven Old World wines, and others such as Rioja or Chianti or Barolo, for the place that nurtures the vines, not the vines themselves.

 Even in the New World, where we most often name our wines for varietals, “place” is still important. Would you pay as much money for a “Cabernet Sauvignon labeled “California” as you would for one labeled “Napa Valley,” or a Pinot Noir labeled “Oregon” instead of “Willamette Valley?” Closer to home, how about a “Finger Lakes” Riesling versus a “New York State” bottling, or a “Hudson River Region” Cabernet Franc (a grape that can perform beautifully here) versus a “New York State” version? A Hudson River Region Seyval Blanc (one of our leading hybrid grapes) versus a New York State Seyval Blanc?

 I am the last person to tell our local wine producers how to sell their wines or conduct their businesses. I appreciate that wine is agriculture, and that Hudson Valley winemakers, like all farmers, have to work hard to make their lives economically sustainable. But as someone who believes that the community of winemakers in the Hudson Valley is capable of producing fine, even world class wines, I think it is important to promote the quality of the wine produced here, especially when those wines rise to that high level. Our best winemakers are now producing wines that can share the table with many of the world’s best bottles, and it’s important that everyone drinking that wine know – and remember – that the grapes are grown and the wine is produced in the Hudson River Region AVA. If wine drinkers become aware that these extraordinary wines exhibit a sense of local place they will take them seriously and seek them out. That can only be good for the reputation of the entire Hudson Valley wine industry.

 Of course, some Hudson Valley wine producers choose to work with fruit sourced from other parts of New York State, or even other states such as California. Sometimes these producers don’t own any vineyard land or enough vineyard land to grow enough grapes to remain economically viable. Alternately, some producers may choose to produce wines from grapes that don’t do as well here in the Hudson Valley as they might do in Long Island (Merlot comes to mind). For these wines the “New York State” appellation makes sense. In addition, the wines may be quite good, and their production helps to nurture and expand the local wine industry. These wines, while they do not reflect the terroir of the Hudson Valley, still can be well-made and true to varietal type, and will certainly help to spread the word that good wine is being made here.

 I guess I want to encourage those Hudson Valley wine producers that are making their wines from grapes grown in local vineyards to be proud of what they have accomplished, and not to worry about what I can only describe as ill-informed, inexperienced, or just plain ignorant judges of wine competitions who prefer the generic qualities of New York State wines to the complex profile of Hudson River Region wines. I know that last year, when I judged the Hudson Valley Wine Competition, I was happy to see far more labels sporting the Hudson River Region AVA than ever before. Did I fall in love with every wine just because it featured the local appellation on the label? Of course not. Some of the truly local wines were extraordinarily fine, some quite good, some needed work, but those type of results would be the same the world over, whether the wines being judged came from the Rhône Valley of France or the Douro Valley of Portugal, the Napa Valley of California, the Willamette Valley of Oregon, or the Hudson Valley of New York.