What defines a wine region? Questions following TasteCamp in the Hudson Valley

The view at Millbrook Vineyards, in the lower Hudson Valley

Defining the identity of a wine region is a tough thing, especially with young and emerging wine regions – which means a lot of them, in the New World. Over six editions of TasteCamp, since 2009, in Long Island, the Finger Lakes, Niagara, Virginia, Québec and now the Hudson Valley, last weekend, that has been a question recurrently hanging in the air as the group of bloggers and writers present sought to draw a portrait of the region they just visited. And as the end of TasteCamp 2014 coincided with the beginning of Drink Local Wine Week, the question seems even more pressing this time around.

Can it be a single grape variety or a limited number of varieties with a starring role in a region? Although that can be an important component, it doesn’t provide the whole answer. For example, riesling is a central element of what makes the Finger Lakes a great wine region, of course, but there is also great pinot noir and cabernet franc and… well, Red Cat and other sweet wines made from hybrids that are remarkably popular. In the same way, one can’t think of Piemonte, as a wine region, without evoking Barolo and Barbaresco and the nebbiolo grape, but one can’t forget the barbera and dolcetto that satisfy a great number of drinkers, or the excitement found in freisa, grignolino, pelaverga or arneis.

One thing is for certain, however, a region should be defined by what it produces itself, within the region itself.

In that regard, defining the Hudson Valley, in terms of wine, is not made any easier by the fact that many of the wineries – and often some of the best – produce a lot  (and in some cases, the great majority) of their wines from grapes harvested outside the region.

Granted, growing wines in the Hudson Valley is a bit tougher than in the Finger Lakes or Long Island, but it clearly is possible. Notably, during the weekend, we tasted a number of very nice cabernet francs from Whitecliff, Millbrook, Tousey and BenMarl, to name a few, showing that you can produce something solid and consistent in the region. However, alongside those wines, almost inevitably, were bottlings of pinot and riesling (or even cayuga white) from the Finger Lakes, or Bordeaux blends from Long Island. The wines were good, sometimes excellent, but they always drew the same question in my mind: why would I bother visiting vineyards in the Hudson Valley if I’m going to taste the same wines that I can get in Long Island or the Finger Lakes? What makes it worth the trip? The answer is not just about quality, but also about focus.

The very first Hudson River Region wine I tasted was a chardonnay from Whitecliff Vineyards, almost fifteen years ago. I was impressed to find such a well-made wine from this beautiful region, and that stayed with me. However, tasting “Hudson Valley” wines and getting told they are actually from the Finger Lakes does less to impress me.

Personally, if I’m traveling all the way to the Hudson Valley to visit vineyards, I’m much happier tasting the tasty, clean and balanced wines made from Maréchal Foch and Marquette by Victory View Vineyard, a small producer located near Saratoga Springs, so far north of the region that he’s actually outside of the Hudson River Region AVA. Their labels bear the New York AVA, but not because they get their grapes from all over the state. There is something distinctive in those wines that I had more trouble finding, when tasting so many other producers, simply because their sense of place was diluted along the whole breadth of the state of New York.

It’s in the apples and in the grain

Overall, TasteCamp Hudson Valley gave me a clearer sense of place when I was tasting cider (apples have been an important agricultural product in the region for a long time) and, more surprisingly, whisky. (Not to mention the cheese, notably the raw-milk versions made by Chaseholm Farm.)

On the apple side of things, I liked the bone-dry, tart hard cider from Bad Seed, the stronger and pleasantly sparkling version from Hudson-Chatham Winery, and some offerings by Naked Flock and Doc’s Draft (though not their pie-in-a-bottle pumpkin cider). And I was especially interested by the explorations of Aaron Burr cider, a producer that goes along the valley foraging forgotten and wild apple trees to produce unique and idiosyncratic cuvées with very precise profiles. It was very interesting to taste, side-by-side, two cuvées coming from two nearby sites, one lower and closer to the river, the other on poor soils, higher up on a hill, and see how the two differed. Yes, there can be terroir in apples, clearly.

Craft spirits have been on a quick rise, in the Hudson Valley, these last few years, and there were a number of great things to be tasted on Saturday morning, from buckwheat whisky to apple vodka, sugar wash moonshine, delicious pear and peach spirits, bourbons, gins and others. Inventive and distinctive products from Tutthiltown, Black Dirt, Dutch’s Spirits, Coppersea and, in particular, Hillrock Estate Distillery, which hosted the spirits component of the weekend.

Dave Pickerell, former master distiller of Maker's Mark, now heading the field-to-glass program at Hillrock Estate Distillery

At Hillrock (which is worth a whole post, in and of itself), we tasted bourbon, single malt whisky and rye whisky that was, frankly, out of this world. The owner, Jeff Baker, and master distiller Dave Pickerell (along with distiller Tim Welly) have been crafting remarkable field-to-glass drinks that are as refined as they are unique in taste and aromas. The rye and barley are grown on the farm, the malting takes place on premises as well as the smoking and, of course, distilling. It is unique in its approach and ambition, for sure. “Our fields write their name in clove and cinnamon, here”, said Pickerell, describing the baking spice notes that showed throughout the three whiskies, even though each had a very distinctive signature. Again, terroir showed through, and something truly unique emerged.

Those unique things, found only in the Hudson Valley, are what will keep me coming back. Whether they are wines, ciders or spirits, they are what makes the region shine. My two cents, for local producers: make more of that, please!

Malting at Hillrock Estate Distillery

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Nice post Remy. I can’t argue with your assertions. I understand why winemakers may hedge their bets, but it definitely blurs the region’s overall identity.

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