Hybrid and native grapes: the future of American wine?
Winemakers in Seneca Lake, New York, say grapes that reflect their region’s agricultural heritage are easier to grow, sell like hot cakes and are well adapted to climate change
SENECA LAKE, NY (July 21, 2022)—Grape growers in Seneca Lake, NY go Native.
Like their counterparts in Italy, Spain, Greece and many other wine regions, Seneca Lake grape growers and grape growers began to ignore the commercial appeal of so-called “noble” varietals and turn to the crafting wines that embrace their region’s unique cultural heritage.
“For people who are intellectually stimulated by wine, talking about it, thinking about it…we think this heritage grape movement is something they should be excited about,” says Peter Becraft, chief winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company. .
One of two AVAs in New York’s Finger Lakes region, Seneca Lake is known for its impossibly deep glacier-formed lake (600 feet in places) and the world-class Rieslings that grow on its steep slopes. While its Rieslings and other Alsatian-style wines are rightly praised, some of the region’s most interesting and exciting wines include a family of grape varieties known collectively as the “heritage” or “heritage” varieties.
At Seneca Lake, heirloom varieties generally fall into one of three categories:
- Native or indigenous to the region, such as Niagara and Catawba
- Classic Franco-American hybrids, such as Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, which were bred in France and grown in the Finger Lakes region long before the arrival of vitis vinifera varieties
- Hybrids bred by Cornell, which were developed in neighboring Cornell University’s AgriTech program specifically to thrive in the region; Cayuga and Marquis are two examples
Then there is the hybrid grape named “Vignoles” in 1970 by the Finger Lakes Winegrowers Association; its genetic parentage is a bit murky, but its historical ties to the region and its promise as a varietal are clear. Many of the region’s most famous dry and sweet wines are made from Vignoles.
Scott Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards, has weathered decades of lackluster industry response to wines made from the region’s heritage grapes, but believes the time has come for these wines to shine.
“People who come to our tasting rooms love these wines,” says Osborne. “No one under 35 cares what grapes are or if they are [vitis] vinifera or one of the six grape varieties that the French began marketing as “nobles” hundreds of years ago. People just want to drink good wine.
With the digital generation’s easy access to information and the reduced reliance on published experts for advice, some see an opportunity to overcome old tropes about non-wine bearing grapes. Climate change and the movement toward more sustainable agriculture are also factors that are increasing the appeal of heirloom grapes to Seneca Lake grape growers.
“Generally speaking, these grapes are easier to grow and require fewer inputs,” says Gene Pierce, owner of Glenora Wine Cellars, which has grown and produced wine on Seneca Lake since the 1970s. Heirlooms are well adapted to the region’s climate, making them less susceptible to rot, frost, local pests and other ailments that can plague vineyards and often require chemical treatments.
According to Becraft, it’s not just consumers and farmers who are interested in heirloom wine grapes; a new generation of winemakers is also beginning to work with these varieties, gaining knowledge and momentum towards the goal of producing heritage wines to please even the most discerning palates.
“People getting into the industry don’t have huge amounts of capital and the barriers to entry are lower with traditional grapes because they’re cheaper to grow,” he says. “This means that many talented people are working with these grapes, from the start of their careers. I think we’re going to see a lot more heritage wines from this region break through the trade barrier in the next few years.
Erin McMurrough, brand manager at Lakewood Vineyards, agrees. “There is enthusiasm not just in New York, but across the country for growing hybrids. There are a bunch of Cornell graduates now living in Oregon who are excited about these grapes. Asked about the biggest challenge in translating this enthusiasm into broader commercial viability, she is very clear:. “Education. Grape awareness. Lack of variety recognition. That’s what’s holding it all back.”
However, she is optimistic about the prospects for heritage wines from Seneca Lake and beyond. “We’re seeing New York sommeliers turning them into ‘hip strains’ and getting huge consumer support. It really is a grassroots movement.
For more information on Seneca Lake wines and the heritage grape movement, contact General Manager Brittany Gibson at [email protected].
About Seneca Lake Vineyard Association
Founded in 1986, the Seneca Lake Winery Association, publicly known as the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting its member wineries. develop a spirit of cooperation between the members of the association; the development of an exceptional wine-growing and tourist area; to stimulate interest in wine in general and Seneca Lake wines in particular; and to have the Seneca Lake Winery Association recognized as an independent leader in viticulture, wine and tourism initiatives.