Featured Wine: an Empirically New York blend.
HUDSON CHATHAM EMPIRE RESERVE WHITE TABLE WINE, NEW YORK, 2009, $15
American wine producers love to flip the finger to convention. Not for them the restrictions of European appellations, which dictate the specific grapes that can be planted, the quantity of the yields, the percentages of the blends, even the alcohol content of the finished wine. Unencumbered by the tradition of terroir, they have the freedom to experiment, mixing and matching grapes until they come up with something proprietary (i.e. their own).
Or so they hope. Too often, American vignerons plant entirely the wrong grapes for their particular climate and soil. Though they may get away with producing gulpable wine for a while, nature eventually rights itself, as occurred in the Finger Lakes several years back when most of the Merlot vines committed hari kari during a late spring frost. Moral: you can lead a vine to the water table, but you can’t make it produce grapes.
What to do, then, if you’re an ambitious wine-maker who loves the idea of mixing different varietals, but you know you can’t grow them all on your own land? Well, if you’re Carlo and Dominique DeVito of New York State’s Hudson-Chatham Winery, and you’ve been making a small name for yourself with the Hudson Valley-friendly hybrids Baco Noir, DeChaunac, and Seyval Blanc, you launch a second label. Hudson-Chatham’s “Empire Reserve” arrived a couple of years back, with a 2007 Red Table Wine made up of equal parts Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc, Long Island Merlot, and Hudson-Chatham’s own Hudson Valley Baco Noir. According to Carlo DeVito, “The idea of Empire was to create a wine that was uniquely New York, and attempt to blend vinifera and hybrids in a way that no one had attempted before,” and if any upstart producer was to try such a concept, it might as well be him. Prior to launching his own winery, DeVito wrote the book on East Coast wines, and I mean that literally: he is the author of Wineries of the East Coast: A Complete Guide from Maine To Virginia, published by Rutgers University Press. He continues to host both http://www.eastcoastwineries.blogspot.com/ and http://hudsonriverwine.blogspot.com though you actually wouldn’t know as much from visiting Hudson-Chatham’s own (comparatively flimsy) web site; De Vito appears keen to separate his opinion on other people’s wines from production of his own.
I have yet to try the Empire Reserve Red, which is made in limited quantities. But when I spied its newly-launched brethren, the Empire Reserve White, on the shelf at Windham Wine and Liquors in the Catskills, for just $15, I snapped it up. This blend, though not stated on the label, is equal parts Finger Lakes Riesling, Long Island Sauvignon Blanc, and Hudson Valley Seyval Blanc, a combination I consider emblematic of New York’s leading wine-producing climates. After all, Riesling unquestionably excels in the Finger Lakes; Sauvignon Blanc has – in very recent years – been proven to make more exciting wine on the North Fork than Chardonnay; and Seyval Blanc grows especially well in the Hudson Valley to make a deliciously bright picnic wine that I heartily recommend and perennially enjoy.
So how do they fare blended together? The Empire Reserve Table White 2009 New York wine is a pale straw yellow in color, light in alcohol (a mere 12%), almost visibly spritzy, pleasantly floral on the nose, as acidic as you might expect given all the above, and loaded with sharp citrus fruit – lemon, lime, grapefruit, gooseberry – throughout. This is all well and good but for the fact that the tell-tale Granny Smith apple flavors and the stony, mineral quality of a good Finger Lakes Riesling struggle for attention in the background.
So while the Empire Reserve White is very much true to its content, it has to be said that the whole is not necessarily better than the sum of its parts. But you know what? I don’t desperately care. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling may not be natural bedfellows (I’m not aware of any French or German region that allows for both), and Seyval Blanc may not be legally sold in Europe as Table Wine in the first place, but that just makes this blend all the more unique. The Empire Reserve White is a fun, fruity, bright, friendly and unashamedly lively wine that retails for an equally upbeat and pleasant price. It gives you an idea of what New York white wines are all about in the kind of packaging that everyday drinkers instinctively love. As the weather warms up, we spend more time outdoors, and we get to thinking of the occasional (oh, alright then, the frequent) Saturday afternoon tipple, those of us proud to live in a New York State of Mind can do a lot worse than raise a toast to a glass of Empire Reserve White.