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May 18, 2010


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Carlo presents an extremely well-argued apologia for a category that tends to be scoffed at (though not, I must say, in the judging circuit). These wines are often the most delicious imaginable choices, either as sipping wines or with savory food.

Carlo: Thanks for the contribution. It's an interesting (and as Peter says, well-argued) point.

I don't think that hybrids should be relegated to 'sweeter' status though. I've enjoyed quite a few vidal (all styles), vignoles (all styles) and even some dry-ish Niagara, over the years. One of my favorite value wines in the Finger Lakes is the Ravines Keuka Village White, a 1% RS blend of Cayuga and Vignoles. And Lucas has a tasty sparkling Niagara.

Seyval Blanc, is a whole other matter. Other than Clinton Vineyards' sparkling seyval, I just haven't had much luck.

Peter, what are some of your favorite local hybrids?

That was an entertaining post Carlo, very enjoyable. I think we are mixing some metaphors though.

I happen to adore sweet wines, and as far as hybrids go, I’ve enjoyed Niagara probably the most. Don’t ask me why, it just hits my palate in the “sweet spot.” For the record I have produced and grown Seyval and Vidal on leased property in PA, but that was many years ago. And sweet wines, in my opinion, are a far more interesting cheese companion than most reds.

However, the “American snobbery” you label the hybrid haters with seems unfair to me. More accurately, it’s typically American to root, root, root for the home team, or the underdog, which hybrids clearly are. That said, I would submit that I am no snob – but hybrids are superior plants with inferior fruit. Plain and simple – facts is facts. That’s not snobbery. What you’re driving at is “sympathy.” Sympathy for what’s already in the ground. Or is it Empathy for what it takes to grub it out and change to vinifera?

We can’t seriously wonder why Riesling is preferred over Vidal or Niagara. That is comparing diamonds to cubic zirconium; or a rose to a dandelion. Sure, all of these make enjoyable wines, but only one will be contemplated, aged, collected, and will endure centuries of scrutiny and adoration. Still, you are totally correct that there are bad vinifera wines and lovely hybrids and vice versa. I’ve had outstanding examples of Vidal both dry and sweet, mostly sweet, and even the occasionally impressive, expressive Norton. I think those are two good examples of exceptions to the rule, just as Vinifera has its exceptions to the rule: Pinotage is a vinifera (crossing, not a hybrid) but I still think it’s mostly poor quality – the same could be said for other vinifera – Silvaner, Viura, maybe? But the long and storied history of hybrids has yet to be written, and I doubt it will. I personally believe that hybrids have contributed mightily to the retardation of New York’s wine industry and its growth, (since 1945 or so), especially as far as reputation and perception are concerned, whether that was fair or not.

(Cue the outraged responses now…)

Loving the Knicks doesn’t make them a better team. Appreciating hybrids is not only possible, it is worthy. But let’s not replace real quality appreciation with sympathetic musings and righteous indignation – that’s making excuses. If I offered a magic wand to a grower of Seyval and said it would instantaneously make it Riesling, who wouldn’t do it? Growing vinifera is harder, and that hard work is rewarded. If hybrids are just as hard, why the effort? If vinifera isn’t better, why the effort?

Like you I believe the East Coast vineyard is rising! This is the time for us to take our rightful place as grape growers and winemakers alongside the best in the world. But the hybrids (with the possible exception of Vidal) is bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Again, really good post, and fun to read and respond to.

Lenn writes, "Peter, what are some of your favorite local hybrids?"

Vignoles in a late-harvest, or at least sweeter, style. You have to be aware of big, almost sticky, phenolics, which add body, but which can detract in a more dry version.

Cayuga, which in an off dry rendition (it never ripens up, sugar-wise, to make a late harvest) is so far above Pinot Grigio, Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau, etc. that there should be no comparison.

I share your contempt for Seyval.

Jim - Hey now, I've had some lovely blends that use (admittedly small) quantities of Viura.

Anthony Road likes to say that vignoles is the "honorary vinifera." It's far and away the best of the lot in the Finger Lakes, if you ask me.

I understand that Viura is the most widely planted grape in the world by acreage! It's also called Macabeo, and it's part of sparkling Cava. Other than that it's brandy as far as I know...

Weirdly, I'm okay with Seyval. Especially if it's clean and dry. Vignoles, well...I need to try that AR to know better...

Jim - Try AR's vignoles berry selection. Of course, not every producer has a gifted German at the helm who dreams of making BA and TBA-style beauties.

And if you want to talk about ugly on the vine, vignoles is like Susan Boyle after a bender.

Nice op-ed piece Carlo! I think there are a couple different points here - one about sweet wine in general and one about hybrids. Let's be honest, Riesling has made the Finger Lakes what it is today - but the large majority of even the best examples contain some degree of residual sugar. What would some of those Rieslings taste like without RS?

As for hybrids, I enjoy these wines for the simple reason that they offer a different taste sensation - diversity of aromas and flavors that can be found only in the northeast. In the past decade much has been made of "indigenous varieties" around the world and how certain areas should promote these little-known grapes over gentrified versions of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Well, natives and some hybrids are our indigenous varieties and I believe they have a real place in eastern cool-climate viticulture.

Hybrid varieties will continue to improve and push the climatic limits of wine production. I also believe the real sustainable future of wine production will lie with the development of new clones that will retain all the character of the classics but exhibit complete disease and insect resistance.

Just to be correct - Niagara is considered a native variety, not a hybrid - a cross between Concord and a native white called Cassady. Norton has also long been considered a native (mostly Vitis aestivalis) variety but might contain some vinifera due to some natural hybridization.

I've not been with Susan Boyle on a bender but it can't be worse than an oaky Seyval...right?

"promote these little-known grapes over gentrified versions of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Well, natives and some hybrids are our indigenous varieties and I believe they have a real place in eastern cool-climate viticulture"

Rich is usually correct, and he is again here. But a major contention of mine is that I'd prefer to see a responsible and logical choice of vinifera made rather than a hybrid. There seems to be at least one vinifera suitable to most conditions where the vine will grow, so why not chose something finer than a hybrid? Is it simply economics? And I say responsible because it elevates the region and its reputation when one chooses to plant Gruner or Riesling rather than Cayuga in a cool spot.

Telling growers in the Finger Lakes to plant only vinifera and/or to replace hybrid vines with vinifera is a good idea until we get a winter (like 2003) where the temperatures dip below -10F. We are still on the climatic border of vinifera viticulture.

Economics is certainly a reason for growing hybrids, though the grower pulling in $600/ton is probably not making that much money on it.

A larger and less numerical reason is cultural. As Rich alludes to, hybrids are our "indigenous varieties." Until 30-odd years ago, most of the grapes in this region went straight up to Taylor or Great Western, who paid by tonnage and Brix. That grower mentality is still pervasive in the Finger Lakes today.

Rich also makes a great point about resistance to disease and insects. (Nobody complains about hybrid rootstocks!)

My main beef with hybrid-haters is a general writing off of not only a single grape variety (e.g., all Traminettes are awful!), but an entire list of literally hundreds of interspecies varieties (with many more in development).

Biases like this pervade the wine world (including REGIONAL bias). I respect an individual's personal taste, but I believe wines should be evaluated on their own merit. If you try a wine and you don't like it, that's your prerogative. But at least try it!

I've been told that as Cayuga ripens (>21-22B), it starts to develop a slight foxy note, which may also explain the lack of late harvest Cayuga.

It's my understanding that all wine grapes (except muscadines) contain some V. vinifera. Of all Vitis species, only vinifera grapes are perfect-flowered.

Oh and Evan:
That LdH white Viño Gravonia? 100% Viura.

The irony is that hybrid, native and other sweet wines don't seem to need anyone to come to their defense.

I would hazard to guess that in NYS, these wines outsell dry wines by a significant number.

Bryan, I'm not sure that the sweet hybrids outselling the dry wine is true, let's assume that it is. When you take the wine drinking public of New York State and include ALL wines consumed, from everywhere in the world, the hybrid contingent becomes incredibly small, and yet it still manages to pull our industry down in reputation in relation to all others on the planet. That is a fact.

A large number of posts and comments on this site are devoted to the question of elevating NY's position in the wine world - if you think hitching our wagons to Cayuga is the way to do that, I must respectfully disagree.

A handful of good hybrids, no matter how much they may have worked their way into our culture (for goodness sakes we're calling French hybrids "indigenous"!) in the last fifty years, doesn't make an industry. And one good (great actually) Viura doesn't supplant 600,000 hectares of plonk Viura, similar story.

Jim - Granted on Viura. But damn, it's really, really good in the hands of LdH.

Right...and vignolres is really, really good in the hands of Johannes Reinhardt.

One must remember the majority of vinifera sold throughout the world is sub $10 per bottled. Probably more in the range of $3-6. You can't sustainably grow vinifera in NY for that kind of money. Not going to happen. That is why you need hybrids and natives. They provide good wines that are cost effective and profitable. God forbid you meet the needs of the majority of customers.
In the relm of selling grapes, $600 hybrids are more profitable than $1400 Riesling.

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