Home Viticulture Hudson Valley Wine Project Aims to Help Whole US Wine Industry

Hudson Valley Wine Project Aims to Help Whole US Wine Industry

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We’ve all seen the headlines and read the stark reports: climate change, and the unexpected frosts, hailstorms, droughts, floods, and fires that come along with it threaten to shrink the regions suitable for growing wine by between 56 and 85 percent.

The issue is vast, complex and difficult to tackle without multiple private and public entities working collaboratively together on a set of short and long-term solutions. But one thing that almost everyone seems to agree will be instrumental for a healthier future for wine is an expansion of the varieties of grapes so many are used to cultivating and drinking.

“The environmental challenges we’re facing are creating temperature swings and disease pressures that are causing growers to increase their use of pesticides and fungicides, which is the last thing most of us want to do,” says J. Stephen Casscles, a long-time viticulturalist and author of Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climates of the U.S. “Hybrid grapes are generally more productive and disease resistant than vitis vinifera, requiring fewer inputs and thriving even in extreme weather.”

There are more than 10,000 grape varieties in the world, but only 10 that have been widely cultivated for decades. (Surprising no one, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Chardonnay are the top wine grapes, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine).

Hybrids growing at Milea Estate Vineyard in New York's Hudson Valley AVA / Courtesy Milea Estate Vineyard
Hybrids growing at Milea Estate Vineyard in New York’s Hudson Valley AVA / Courtesy Milea Estate Vineyard

Growing Acceptance of Hybrid Grapes

These bold-faced Vitis Vinifera grapes have grown consistently well and produced reliably delicious wines in starkly divergent conditions across the planet for hundreds of years; they’re also familiar to billions of people. And while classic Old World regions have spent decades campaigning against change, outlawing “foreign” grapes and American hybrids, in recent years, Germany, Switzerland, and several other European countries—including France—have started allowing the cultivation of hybrid grapes, due to the challenges imposed by climate change.

One of the top reasons for the original ban was the argument that hybrid grapes produced subpar wines, but an increasing number of winemakers and growers are eager to explore a hybrid future.

For Casscles, it’s about the future, but also the past.

“The past few years in the Hudson Valley have been very challenging for growers,” says Casscles. “We got triple the usual amount of rain in August, and we got six inches in one day. Growing hearty hybrids is a matter of survival, especially if you want to reduce your spraying regimen. For me, it’s also about the incredible history of heritage grapes in the Hudson Valley.”

There is a market for that history, says Evan Goldstein, MS, and president and chief wine officer at Full Circle Wine Solutions in San Francisco.

“While some of these grapes may be unfamiliar to consumers, and therefore a little confusing, for people on the wine-buying side, it’s exciting,” he says. “They see these historical cross-bred, hybrid, American grapes, which were so overlooked for so many years, as very interesting opportunities to educate consumers. And if there’s a great story attached to those grapes, it’s even more exciting.”

Casscles grows 107 varieties in his four-acre vineyard in Athens, N.Y.

He is teaming up with Milea Estate Vineyards in Staatsburg, N.Y. on the Hudson Valley Heritage Wine Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative that aims to create a commercial pathway for French-American hybrid and Hudson Valley heritage grapes, while showcasing their oenological potential and honoring their contribution to American wine culture.

“The grapes I grow at my home vineyard and that we will also honor in this new line of wines will highlight heritage grape varieties developed in the Hudson Valley between 1840 and 1880, and ones smuggled in here around World War II by grape pioneer Philip Wagner,” Casscles explains, adding that the French-American grapes he’s most known for launching in the U.S. are Baco Noir, Chelois, Burdin Noir, Chambourcin, Seyval Blanc, Vidal, Vignoles and Verdelet. Without those easy-growing hybrids, Casscles says the wine industry would not have thrived and grows as quickly as it did in New York. 

“We want to showcase historical and local heritage grape varieties that produce high quality wines that can also be grown in an environmentally responsible way,” he says.

Milea Estate Vineyard
Milea Estate Vineyard

Creating a Commercial Hybrid Highway

The team at Milea says that the project would be more difficult to accomplish without Casscles on board.

“He has an endless knowledge of viticulture, love of Hudson Valley’s terroir, its agricultural preservation and an unrelenting belief in the potential of grape varieties to thrive here,” says Barry Milea, owner of Milea Estate Vineyard. “His vision compliments our mission, which is producing elegant world-class wines sustainably.”

Currently, Milea produces a line of largely vitis vinifera, including Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Riesling; but he sees a growing need for other options—and a growing market of curious wine lovers.

The grapes will be sourced from Casscles’ and Milea’s two-acre estate, from cuttings in the Hudson Valley, Wagner’s Boordy Vineyards, and from the Geneva Germplasm facility, notably 19th century varieties like Jefferson, Iona, Empire State, Croton, Bacchus, Dutchess and Black Eagle.

The first bottles will be released direct-to-consumers in the coming weeks, and will be available for sale to all comers online by the beginning of April, Milea says. All told, there will be 625 cases of varietal bottles (Baco Noir, Chelois, Le Colonel and Burdin Noir) and red blends (they will include Leon Millet, Foch, Chambourcin, SV 18-307, Bacchus, Clinton, Eumelan and Black Eagle) and white blends (they will include Sevyal Blanc, Vidal, Vignoles, Jefferson, Iona, Empire State, Croton and Verdelet).

There will be a big push for consumer engagement.

“We need wine lovers to get on board,” Casscles admits. “We know that these grapes grow very well in challenging conditions, but if no one tries them, it won’t matter.”

There will be a release party, and also regular wine tastings at the vineyard and educational seminars for consumers and members of the industry.

“We will offer horizontal tastings to show off the genetics of each variety,” Casscles explains. “Jefferson is a hybrid of Concord and Iona, so we can show its genetic heritage by showing a Concord wine and an Iona wine, alongside the Jefferson We may also do blending seminars to see what component wines are like and how they influence blends.”

With the Milea project on the road, Casscles is already scanning the horizon for other commercial opportunities.

“I’m hoping that this project shows the potential of French-American hybrids and heritage grapes,” Casscles says. “In the past few years as vinifera struggle, the number of wineries in Sonoma and Napa who have reached out to me for information on grapes like Baco Noir, Burdin and Chelois has grown significantly.”

“We need wine lovers to get on board,” Casscles admits. “We know that these grapes grow very well in challenging conditions, but if no one tries them, it won’t matter.” / Courtesy Milea Estate Vineyard
“We need wine lovers to get on board,” Casscles admits. “We know that these grapes grow very well in challenging conditions, but if no one tries them, it won’t matter.” / Courtesy Milea Estate Vineyard

Casscles has been working with regional nurseries like Double A and Northeastern Vine Supply to give growers across the country access to these vines.

Growers, producers, and members of the industry, Goldstein believes, are increasingly interested in these grapes.

“Anyone who has tasted East Coast wine widely can tell you how great some of these lesser-known grapes are,” he says. “And the fact that they’re a hedge against climate change and disease? We’re going to be seeing more interest in them than ever in the coming years.”

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Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine SearcherWine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

 
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