The Wines of New England and Upstate New York

(Originally published November 2002)

Tis the season to take bucolic drives around the rolling countryside, watching the foliage burst forth in a crimson and orange parade. Or better still, to wait a scant few weeks for fresh powder to cover the mountain sides, allowing you to prove once more your athletic prowess on skis or snowboard. Or even best, huddle in a dark corner of your apartment feverishly clutching an half empty bottle of Barbaresco. But if you choose one of the two first options, perhaps you might like to know a little bit about the wineries of New England and upstate New York.

It is actually quite surprising how many wineries dot these sylvan lands, the humble "volk" quietly plying their craft as have their forefathers and their forefathers before them. Yes, indeed, these are no glitzy nouveau riche winemakers to the stars but farmers who love and honor the land. Or something like that. Anyway, there really are a lot of wineries and if you find the time to stop by a few when the weather turns poor, you sprain your ankle or, hey, just want to stop by, here is more or less what you can expect.

The most important thing to understand is the distinctions made between types of grapes. "Vitis" is the genus of the plant world that includes wine vines. Almost all of the grapes that we drink (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.) are classified as "Vitis vinifera." These "noble" grapes are the ones that originated in the Caucauses and Mediterranean and then spread throughout Europe and then later the world. Centuries of winemaking have more or less proven that these grapes make the best wine. That's why people brought them all over the world, even where many indigenous grapes grew.

Here in North America there are many native Vitis species, most found in the eastern portion of the continent. While all can technically be used to make wine this is not always advisable. However, some have proven to make decent wines. These mostly include the vines found in the species Vitis aestivalis and Vitis labrusca. After a good deal of experimentation with local grapes by the 17th century vinifera vines were carted over from Europe to plant here. Pure vinifera grapes successfully took hold here and there. But another successful phenomenon occurred, namely the creation of hybrids between indigenous grapes and vinifera grapes. This cross-breeding of Vitis species occurred in earnest during the 19th century. While most of these grapes end up as jam or jelly, many made the grade as table wine. Most notably among these grapes as those known as Concord, Delaware, Baco Noir, Vidal Blanc, Norton, Marechal Foch, Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Scuppernong, Catawba, et. al.

What don't people like about native and hybrid grapes? Wine lovers consider the wines made from them to be "foxy." That is, the clean fruit scents and flavors get marred by scents and flavors akin to animal fur. Since it seems most people don't like sucking on the fur of a wet fox, these grapes have fallen out of favor.

Another thing to note is that wine can be fermented from fruits other than grapes. In the Eastern United States, there's lots of fruit. So, it comes as no surprise that some pioneering souls decided to make wine from these fruits. Beyond hard apple cider, fruit wines are made from blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, cherries and a whole host of others. They are usually extremely sweet and at times cloying, but are true to the flavors you'd expect. And, in the end, they do get you drunk too.

So, here's the situation in the Eastern United States. Native and hybrid grapes are hardier and more likely to survive harsh New England winters without literally freezing to death. They also ripen more fully in the fall. But they usually taste nasty. Vitis vinifera grapes taste much better but are more susceptible to the cold and may or may not ripen in northern climes. What to grow? Ohh, the decisions these humble farmers have to face!

Today's reality has been driven mostly by generations of experience and present market realities. Wine drinkers like Vitis vinifera wines. So, wineries try to grow them. Many vineyard locations are sought out closer to the coast or large lakes where warmer temperatures prevail. Improving vineyard techniques and longer grape hang-times before harvest are employed to coax maximal ripeness out of the grapes. If the wines still taste a little underripe or green, hell, you can always oak the crap out of them and thus bring their flavor profiles closer to the creaminess and spiciness most people expect from their wine-in-a-box.

The best wines throughout New England and northern New York State are the Rieslings grown around New York's Finger Lakes. This Vitis vinifera grape has proven it can deal with the weather and temperatures there. People keep saying that Pinot Noir will emerge as a world class wine from the Finger Lakes but Hanes doubts it. Another grape that is better suited to northern U.S. climatic conditions is Cabernet Franc. Err towards drinking this grape. Stay away from Chardonnay if you can. Especially if the winery literature says their wines are made in a "Burgundian" style or resemble the crisp wines of Chablis.

Here's another approach. Do you want to taste subpar examples of certain better known grapes or the best examples of other lesser known grapes? Tough call. But let's face it, if someone in Rhode Island or New Hampshire is still growing Seyval Blanc or Marechal Foch when all the tourists clamor for Merlot, chances are high that the winemaker must have enough confidence in it to compete with the Vitis vinifera grapes. At a minimum, you can chalk it all up to having a new experience and gaining firsthand knowledge of why you can't order a glass of Concord with your roasted duck at Jean Georges.

Here's a few websites to get you started if you want to visit some wineries in New England and upstate New York: