“Grapes of the Hudson Valley”: Recommended New Book

Nov 20

Grapes of the Hudson Valley (subtitle: and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada), by J. Stephen Casscles, is a 250 page soft-cover book published by Flint Mine Press, 2015. Casscles is a commercial grape grower with over 30 years of experience based in New York’s Hudson Valley (and also winemaker at Hudson Chatham Winery) so he is well-qualified to write this book. Retail price is $29.99.

Casscles’ carefully detailed account is actually much more than the title suggests. Since it is located in the oldest continuous commercial grape growing region in the country, the story of Hudson Valley viticulture (as much for table grapes in the 19th and early 20th centuries as for wine grapes today) is the really the story of grape hybridization.

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After pointing out that “all grapes are hybrids” (Riesling and Chardonnay both share Gouais Blanc in their genes), Casscles organizes most of the book into epochs of hybridization beginning with the Hudson Valley  in the mid-19th century to produce grapes suited for cold climates. He begins with summaries of the various species of grapes used in hybridization programs and their strengths and weaknesses, then introduces the accidental labrusca hybrids, moving to details of hybridizers’ work, explaining their methodology and the characteristics of their hybrid grapes. Each of the many hybrids has a series of symbols, showing grape color, cold hardiness, disease resistance, growing habit, yield, and wine quality, which are very helpful in such a detailed book. There are also color photos of the major hybrids of each group of hybridizers.

The premise of the book, says Casscles, is that since we have such a rich and diverse collection of hybrids that were developed in the Hudson and France, it may be that we don’t need to wait for the newest hybrids from the land grant university hybrid programs to find the grapes best for cool Northeastern conditions. We may already have the best cultivars under our noses. All we need to do is take a closer look at what’s already been developed and we may find grapes that can and should be taken up and championed, and Casscles has done a thorough job of describing and evaluating the 200 or so hybrids described in this book for their potential as cool climate winegrapes.

The symbol summary for grapes is helpful, but quantifying grape and wine “quality” with a letter grade is always problematic. For example, he rates the red French hybrid De Chaunac a “B+” for wine quality, which would be disputed by most who are familiar with that grape and its wine.  Also, Casscles overlooked recently released hybrids GR-7, from Cornell University and Frontenac  Blanc, an albino mutation, from the University of Minnesota, and omitted mention of the Vineland grape breeding program of Guelph University in Ontario altogether.

Despite this, this book is well organized and highly detailed, and it will be an invaluable resource for anyone with a serious interest in grape hybridization for cool climates.


Find Top Virginia Wines for Thanksgiving this Saturday

Nov 16

Thanksgiving is the original all-American feast, as well as the original locavore celebration. If you want to make your Thanksgiving meal completely locavore, you need to include the wines as well.


Would you serve hot-house tomatoes at your Thanksgiving meal? (We hope not). Why drink imported wines, or even West Coast wines, when you can drink “greener” and quite possibly better, by selecting fine Virginia wines to be consistent with the locavore ethos of Thanksgiving?


Charlottesville Day Tours invites you to forage local Monticello region wineries for the best in Virginia wines and ciders to match your Thanksgiving meal.   On Saturday Nov. 21st, join Richard Leahy on a “Virginia wine expert tour” of select wineries to search for and savor the most delicious local wines that match your Thanksgiving menu.


“A traditional Thanksgiving menu does not pair well with cabernet, chardonnay or merlot,” says Leahy. “This is the meal to look for what’s local and what’s unusual, since Virginia specialties like viognier and norton are much more suited to the classic Thanksgiving menu than most international grape varieties.”


While some will be visiting farmer’s markets for the freshest local ingredients, Leahy invites you to join him and Charlottesville Day Tours in a day-long discovery of the latest and best Virginia wines in Central Virginia for your Thanksgiving feast.


For more information visit Charlottesville Day Tours.

Virginia Wine At the American Wine Society Conference

Nov 16

From Thursday 11/5 through Saturday 11/7 the American Wine Society (founded in 1968 at Dr. Konstantin Frank Cellars) held its annual conference in Tyson’s Corner, VA. A record crowd of nearly 600 registered for the program, which featured a wide range of wine education and tasting sessions, from the Union des Grand Cru Bordeaux to Charles Krug Napa cabernet sauvignon, to chef Tony Lawrence who matched a range of foods with old vine Lodi zinfandel.

In addition to old favorites, Virginia wine was front and center at this year’s conference, which kicked off on Thursday night with a walk-around tasting with wines from around the Commonwealth, and continued Friday and Saturday with sessions on Virginia’s top white wines (by Annette Boyd of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office), a tasting of the Governor’s Case (the top 12-scoring wines from the Governor’s Cup Wine Competition of 2015), given by Jay Youmans MW, Virginia’s unique varietals, given by Michael Shaps, the future of Virginia wine (given by this writer), and my favorite, “Site Selection & VA Viticulture for High-End, Terroir Driven Wines”, given by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards. Virginia wines also appeared in a presentation given by Jeff Siegel (a k a “The Wine Curmudgeon” of Dallas, TX) titled “Five wine regions you don’t know but should.” He included a fine dry Provencal-style rose from Boxwood Vineyards of Fauquier Co, VA.

This writer queried a number of attendees, and all said they were very impressed with the wines they tasted in the Thursday tasting, which included the Octagon from  Barboursville Vineyards.

A Tasting Lesson in Terroir

The room was packed when I took a seat Saturday morning for “Site Selection & VA Viticulture for High-End, Terroir Driven Wines” given by winegrower Jim Law of Linden Vineyards. Jim’s purpose was to illustrate the effect of terroir, or the interaction of the vine with what happens below the ground, by controlling for other variables and then demonstrating how individual vineyards express the same grape or group of grapes.

Jim illustrated three different vineyards in two parallel tastings of vineyard-designated wines; Avenius, Boisseau, and Hardscrabble, all just a few miles apart but all with different soils demonstrating different taste characteristics in the two tastings (chardonnay and red Bordeaux blends). There were six wines, chardonnay from these three vineyards in 2013, and a blend of red Bordeaux grapes from the 2012 vintage and same vineyards.

Perhaps because the chardonnay was the sole grape variety, and a non-fruity grape, it was easier to see its subtle variations in the three vineyard tastings. Jim described the Avenius vineyard for chardonnay as the “Chablis-style” and indeed the wine was high acid, racy, flinty and tight. The Boisseau vineyard he described as a “Macon” style, and it was more forwardly fruity with bright apple aromas and flavors and more moderate acidity. The Hardscrabble (the estate vineyard) he described as “Puligny”, which had a blend of pear/apple fruit wiht firm, long acidity.

Jim emphasized that his fermentation regimen is the same for all three chardonnay wines, and he blocks malolactic fermentation in his whites to retain bright acidity but he also likes lees contact. The different character in the chardonnays, he explains, is due to the vineyard and site character.

To emphasize this, Jim’s second tasting was with the 2012 vintage and with these same three vineyards. The Avenius was a 50/50 blend of cab sauv. and merlot, bursting with ripe red fruits but with firm acid. The Boisseau was 39% cabernet franc, 32% cabernet sauvignon, 22% merlot and 6% petit verdot, with young, robust fruit and acid, promising a long life. The Hardscrabble was 60% cabernet sauvignon, with roughly 20% each of cabernet franc and merlot. The wine was elegant, with ripe cassis and smooth tannins, very polished and Bordeaux-like.

Although there wasn’t a single consistent grape variety in the red trial of the three vineyards, you could taste the character of each vineyard in each vintage and how it differed from the other two. Jim explained how he continues to pull out and re-plant grapes to best suit the soil and conditions of each vineyard, which is a work in progress. “I only have  a few more years to get this right,” the 60-year old vintner says with a smile, but he’ll continue to fine-tune the Linden terroir project as long as he can.

Wines in the “Future of Virginia” Seminar

Four speakers were in my seminar on the future of Virginia wine; Brian Roeder of Barrel Oak Winery, Christine Iezzi of the Country Vintner, Frank Morgan of www.drinkwhatYOUlike.com, and Dave Barber, AWS member, wine judge and wine educator (and Northern Virginia resident).

I chose four wines to pour in this seminar. First, was Barrel Oak’s estate chardonnay 2014. Chardonnay is the most-planted grape variety in Virginia but nobody talks about it which is a shame, since this wine shows how fantastic it has become. This wine was crisp and lively with bright lemon/lime acidity and green apple fruit.

The second wine was Michael Shaps Wineworks Rose 2014 which was chosen since it is the first Virginia wine packaged in a three liter bag-in-a-box and sold for $39.98 (at the winery only). This means you get a quality red Bordeaux blend rose from Virginia for $10 per regular size wine bottle. I hope we’ll see more of that in the future!

The third wine was a powerhouse and a “velvet hammer”; the Muse Vineyards (winner of the 2015 Governor’s Cup) 2010 Clio or meritage-style blend, 25% each of the two cabernets, petit verdot and merlot. The vintage was hot and dry, and the wine was in oak (50% new/neutral) for 30 months before bottling in 2013…and only just released.

The wine is rich and dense with black fruits and spice, but with well-integrated fruit and oak, and a smooth long clean finish. This is as fine a Virginia red wine as I’ve tasted, although I prefer the style of the lighter and more elegant 2009 Clio which won the Governor’s Cup. Jim Law said in his seminar that when Virginians were first making red wines, they kind of apologized for them; “Parker doesn’t like us, woe is us.” Those days are gone. This wine is glorious, on a par with any of the celebrated Virginia red wines, and although it’s rich, it’s also elegant and balanced for a 2010.

My purpose in showcasing this wine was to illustrate that the early-ripening clone of cabernet sauvignon (#337) is making a “cabernet comeback” for meritage blends in Virginia, as well as showing that the Shenandoah Valley has arrived as a red wine region for Virginia (the 2009 Hodder Hill from Glen Manor also proved that).

The final wine poured was the “Dry Dock” 2012, a dry norton port from Bluestone (another Valley winery, west of Bridgeport). Following fermentation to dryness and 15% alcohol, the wine is aged in used bourbon barrels and rises to 18% alcohol. The wine is spicy, rich and well-integrated with dark norton plum fruit, spicy oak and whiskey tones and appropriate oxidation. The point in this wine was to show that norton is very versatile and people are experimenting with it and making all kinds of amazing non-typical wines from it, and I’m sure, will continue to do so.

Wine of the Week: Gray Ghost Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 

IMG_2341One of the rewards of attending the American Wine Society conference is to go to the banquet, sit with friends, and bring a large number of amazing wines to pile on the table and share with them. Thanks to Michael Wangbickler of Balzac, there was a Caymus Select cabernet sauvignon 2009 on every table (I’d like to see that as a campaign slogan). Our table also had the “leftovers” of a white Burgundy tasting, a Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling, and a special library selection of Virginia cabernet sauvignon from 17 years ago, from the fine 1998 vintage and Gray Ghost Vineyards.

Al and Cheryl Kellert of Gray Ghost have been inspired by Silver Oak Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, and were making some of the best cabernets in Virginia in the 1990s before that grape lost favor to merlot and cabernet franc.

As a sign of how the industry has evolved, even in a good vintage, the alcohol of this wine was only 11.9% In California, a winemaker would be fired for making a cabernet with such a low alcohol level. I wondered if the grapes were harvested too early and the wine would be hard and green.

I poured the wine and gave a taste to my friend and colleague Peter May of the Circle of Wine Writers who had traveled all the way from London. He exclaimed his surprise that the wine was “really good.” The color was impressively dark, and the bouquet of ripe cassis with cedar hints and cigar box, but still amazingly young. I would have guessed it as being from 2007 or 2002.

I gave a taste to Michael Wangbickler from California, and his eyes widened in amazement. Everyone who tasted it (including me) was amazed at its youthful vitality, classic Bordeaux style, and fine varietal character.

Both the Gray Ghost cabernet 1998 and the just-released Muse 2010 Clio demonstrate the value of aging fine Virginia red wines, either pre-or post-release.


Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards Honored by Governor McAuliffe at the Executive Mansion

Oct 27

On Monday Oct. 26th, Luca Paschina, General Manager of Barboursville Vineyards for over 25 years, was publicly acknowledged and honored for his contribution to the Virginia wine industry at the Executive Mansion in Richmond by Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore, and Gianni Zonin, owner of the Zonin wine company of Italy that also owns Barboursville Vineyards.

In part, the ceremony was a re-scheduling of the original event to publicly acknowledge Luca’s induction into The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, which had been scheduled last February but which was cancelled due to a blizzard.

In addition, the ceremony Monday also featured the annual awarding of the Monteith Trophy by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association, which this year was awarded to Luca for his work over a quarter century in carefully building Barboursville into a model winery for what is possible with high quality viticulture and winemaking in Virginia today.

Gianni Zonin, who fatefully decided to establish a vineyard and winery in Virginia in 1976 instead of in California, spoke in Italian (translated by Gabrielle Rausse, the first general manager of Barboursville Vineyards), and noted that the French have said “We couldn’t believe how few people realize what a wonderful place Virginia is to grow grapes”, adding that Thomas Jefferson was one who did.

Governor McAuliffe energetically and enthusiastically spoke of his support for the Virginia wine industry and how proud he and the First Lady were of the fact that Virginia wine was now being sold in London and France (including Barboursville’s.)

In accepting the awards, Luca stood next to his wife and spoke of the importance of her support and the strength he drew from his family, and asked key Barboursville employees to stand with him and share the acknowledgment with him for the collaborative effort the award had taken.

Luca also graciously acknowledged Gabrielle Rausse who had broken ground, planted the first vines and presided over Barboursville Vineyards for the first decade or so, for the role he had played.

Luca then explained that he had decided to become an American citizen, and would undergo his interview with the INS later this week. “Today the Virginia wine industry is being acknowledged as one of the best in the world. Ten years ago we were not there,” he said. With his characteristic graciousness, Luca concluded that “The best thing about getting this award is that I know everyone in this room and they have all helped me at one time or another.”

Luca Paschina, General Manager of Barboursville Vineyards, center, holding the Monteith Trophy; Virginia Governor Terrence McAuliffe, right, Gianni Zonin of the Zonin Wine Company, left.

Luca Gov Mansion

Leading British Wine Writer Andrew Jefford Visits VA Wine Country, Gives Impressions

Oct 20

On October 9-10th I had the pleasure of accompanying Andrew Jefford, a British wine writer, on his visit to the Monticello AVA and some of its wineries. Andrew wrote an important book titled New France about 15 years ago and has won a slew of wine writing awards, most recently Best French Wine Writer/Critic, Harpers France Summit 2013. He writes a column for Decanter magazine as well as for The World of Fine Wine. He was among the first in the U.K. to discover Virginia wines seven years ago at the Virginia Wine Experience in London and wrote a column about it for the Financial Times of London in September 2007.

Andrew also visited wineries in Northern Virginia and due to the timing of his trip was able to taste just-finished (or still-fermenting) white wines, including different components of what would become finished blended wines. It was more comprehensive than the 2007 London tasting, and he was also able to see the popularity of Virginia wine in tasting rooms and the beauty of the Virginia wine country.

After his visit I asked Andrew about his impressions of Virginia wines and its wine country seven years after his first experience of them:

R.L. “First, what overall impressions of the current Virginia wine industry did you gain from your recent trip?”
A.J. 1) “Amazing tourism potential.  I’ve never visited a wine region before where visitors were flooding in.  I can understand why some growers worry a little about that and fear it may hold their wider reputation in check, but it’s a nice problem to have.
2-3) The beauty of the region is another major asset, connected in part to the landscape itself, but in part to the area’s astonishing historical patrimony — a third asset in its own right.
4) No shortage of well-funded, highly competent investors from up and down the East Coast.
​5) The best wines were distinctive and unique.  Virginia is unlike anywhere else that I have yet come across outside Europe.  Agreed, the weather conditions can be trying, but it is well-worth persisting provided the activity makes economic sense, which it evidently and conspicuously does.”
Veritas winemaker Emily Pelton shows her sauvignon blanc to British wine writer Andrew Jefford

Veritas winemaker Emily Pelton shows her sauvignon blanc to British wine writer Andrew Jefford

R.L. “How did these impressions differ (or not) from your initial tasting at the Virginia Wine Experience in London in 2007?”
A.J. “ I seem to remember that Viognier and Bordeaux blends (plus the odd outstanding dessert wine!) were the main story back in 2007, whereas it now seems to me that Pyrenean varieties [like Tannat and Petit Manseng] and perhaps in due course Piedmontese varieties will offer the best long-term potential in terms of terroir expression for Virginia.  However mainstream varieties will continue to play a major role, in part because some of Virginia’s most talented wine craftsmen are using those varieties, and in part because those are what most customers are familiar with and have come to love.​”
R.L. “What varieties (or blends) and styles do you see as the most
promising for quality wine in Virginia?”
A.J. “​Petit Manseng and eventually Gros Manseng and perhaps Petit Courbu; Tannat; Nebbiolo and perhaps eventually other Piedmontese varieties.  But it is early days; we won’t have the full answer to your question for 100 years.  And I’m not saying those using other varieties are misguided​ — but I sense all of the above have real promise.  Remember the Pyrenees is another very rainy place (1400 mm/yr rain in Jurancon); remember that Piedmont, too, tends to have hot, humid, sometimes stormy and explosive summers.”
R.L. “Fourth, are there specific wines that stood out for you as memorable?”
A.J. “​Definitely, but I’d prefer to wait until I have had a chance to work on my material before citing them.  But they will certainly feature in the articles I will write for Decanter, decanter.com, decanterchina.com and (probably) the FT.​”
R.L. “Would you recommend Virginia wines to your readers and if so, how would you describe their strengths?”
A.J. “I will certainly recommend Virginia to my global and Asian readers, and to sommeliers.  Strengths?  Once again I will come up with more considered verdicts in what I write subsequently, but ‘deft, refreshing, vivacious, pungent and pithy’ are some of the adjectives which feature in the most positive notes.”

Learn more about Andrew Jefford and his wine communications at www.andrewjefford.com.