Featured Winery: Hudson-Chatham
A few weeks ago, we finally paid a visit to Hudson-Chatham Winery, one of many that have opened in recent years in the Hudson Valley, and apparently the first to do so in Columbia County. The proliferation of new wineries in our region is, essentially, a good thing: what could be wrong with more people growing grapes and producing wine from them? Well, as those who know the area know all too well, the Hudson Valley, with its bitter winters, is not an easy area in which to grow vinifera grapes – i.e. the “noble” grapes that qualify as “wine” in Europe. Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay can just about cope, given the right wine-makers and some decent terroir, but almost anything else is an uphill struggle. This is why far too many of the wineries serve up either quaintly-named wines made from the hybrid grapes that do just fine in the region but are not, to put it mildly, the stuff of greatness, or offer more recognizable wines (typically, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Merlot) sourced from vineyards in the far-flung Finger Lakes or Long Island.
Fortunately, few people in New York State know more about the region’s wineries that Hudson-Chatham’s own Carlo DeVito. The author of Wineries of the East Coast, DeVito has a background in wine publishing, and maintains the Hudson River Wine blog in his spare time – of which there can’t be much, given the number of different bottlings emerging from his five-year old winery. Hudson-Chatham serves up the typical Hudson Valley fare I reference up above: local Cayuga in sparkling form, DeChaunac and Baco Noir as a Dessert red, Riesling and Gewurztraminer from the Finger Lakes, and Merlot from Long Island, none of which, in theory, sets it apart from the rest of the tourist trail. However, DeVito has announced his arrival on the wine scene with a couple of distinctive contributions to the area’s fare. His Empire Reserve label, in both white and red form, combines three grapes in equal quantities from the Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island regions, hoping to showcase a uniquely New York wine as a result. But perhaps more profoundly, DeVito is staking his claim on “quality hybrid” wines; specifically, he is treating both the white grape Seyval Blanc and the red Baco Noir as if he were in Burgundy and raising Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. At Hudson Chatham, both grapes are Estate Bottled, aged in oak, and labeled according to their individual vineyards. This is a ballsy move, and one that demands attention. Or at least a visit to the winery.
DeVito was at a local industry event for most of the time we visited; I’m pleased to report that his two young female servers were eminently pleasant and more so, pretty well educated on what they were pouring. We started with the 2010 Seyval Blanc, a grape that grows especially well in the Hudson Valley. This emitted some quite serious grapefruit/lemon/crème fraiche flavors with some additional Granny Smith apple. While bright and friendly, it was also a little light in texture and overly acidic, but still good value as a picnic style wine for $11. The Riesling (from the Finger Lakes) was bone dry with lots of green apples. A lovely little wine at $15 a bottle. I was excited and surprised to hear that the Gewurztraminer 2009 had some Hudson Valley grapes in there; I got all the necessary orange and lychee and passion fruit that you might hope for from this very particular grape. Promising for sure.
The entry-level red is the Hudson River Valley Red, a blend of 75% DeChaunac and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, not an unusual blend for regions where a hybrid needs some weight and depth, added in the form of a noble grape that doesn’t grow well enough to be bottled on its own either. They call it “a light, fruit yet dry red” and that would be a fair description for a non-descript and inoffensive picnic red. By comparison, I was somewhat disappointed with the 2010 Cabernet Franc, grapes from Upstate, which was much lighter in body and color than it need be, considering how well it can be made in New York. We fared better with the Merlot from Long Island. The 2008 Merlot, aged for 18 months in French oak, had plenty of strong fruit, particularly plum, and was well-rounded and a solid food wine for $20; the 2008 Merlot Reserve, aged in French oak for an additional year, had too much wood for my particular palate and was too pricy at $24.
We were very pleasantly surprised by the Blanc de Blanc, considering that it’s made from the typically unworthy Cayuga grape. This was very bready, and ever so lightly sweet. Really quite delightful, especially for $18. We also took a taste of the hard cider made from local, Germantown Northern Spy apples. It’s sold by the large bottle for $10 and while I don’t drink much cider, it seems to me that this is precisely what Hudson Valley wineries should be doing with the local fruit. To that note, while I sampled the fortified Dessert Wines, I wasn’t taken by them; I could taste the added Brandy in the Paperbirch Highlands Fine Ruby and Paperbirch Palladian White more than I could the various, predominantly hybrid grapes. And I’m not a fruit wine fan, so I let those two dessert wine offerings alone.
But now we get to the interesting stuff. I’ve written before at iJamming! about the Empire Reserve White Table Wine, a blend of equal parts Sauvignon Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Riesling, from Long Island, the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes respectively. Now it was the opportunity to try the Empire Reserve Table Red, this one a blend of Merlot, Baco Noir and Cabernet Franc from the same three regions. Because I love the idea of this wine, I really wanted to love the taste of it (and I bought a bottle to taste properly at home), but I ended up having the same reservation about it as I did the white: that the two grapes from the lower New York regions (Baco Noir and Merlot) ended up overpowering the subtleties of the grape from the Finger Lakes (Cabernet Franc), producing a wine with notable heft and body but not enough delicacy or individuality. I hope DeVito persists with the idea of this blend, as it is, truly, a unique representation of New York State grapes; however, he might want to experiment more with the individual components, sacrificing the idea of equality for… true quality.
But fear not, because Hudson-Chatham’s boldest claim – to the quality of its hybdrids – turns out to hold true. The 2010 Seyval Blanc Block 1 North Creek Vineyard rewards its single vineyard bottling and (short) oak ageing quite magnificently. Rather than adding that familiar taste of vanilla, either the oak – or perhaps it’s the “Ghent terroir” – delivers some custard qualities that fill out the grape’s typically bright acidity and green citrus notes which, along with a floral texture that I hadn’t registered with the everyday Seyval Blanc at the bottom of the winery’s price chain, creates what is, without doubt, the best Seyval Blanc I have tasted. It’s to the wine’s additional credit that I don’t feel tempted to just compare it to a Sauvignon Blanc or some other cool climate white grape; this felt very much like its own creation. Truly delicious, with a refreshingly long finish, I suspect it might be too subtle for some tastes, but I will definitely be back for more.
To my great disappointment, the winery was entirely out of its various Baco Noir bottlings; once I got talking to DeVito, he explained that they typically sell out within 2-3 months of bottling. He also told me that shortly after opening the winery, he had been offered the opportunity to take over the 60-year old Baco Noir vines at Mason Place Vineyard and signed a lease that very same day. His enthusiasm appears to have been rewarded: I picked up a bottle of the 2009 Baco Noir Old Vines Mason Place Vineyards Pultney Farms at the ever-wonderful Partition Street Wine Shop in Saugerties the night of the Zombie Crawl, for $20, and was (highly) positively overwhelmed. Though on initial opening I got a big fat whiff of the French oak, that quickly wafted away; soon I was getting some cherry coming off the nose, the acidity of a cool climate grape mixed in with earth and spices. It opened up remarkably well to exhibit not just the forward fruit and the mid-palate body, but the kind of well-rounded finish one would expect of a true noble vinifera wine.
My complaint about hybrids is often that they’re one-dimensional; at best, two; but that they never have that ethereal quality that makes great wine such a truly intangible experience. I hesitate to over-praise this Baco Noir, but it shared sufficient qualities to a good earthy Pinot Noir (most notably that dark cherry) that I can understand DeVito placing it in a Burgundian bottle – as he does with two other Single Vineyard reds, the Baco Noir Reserve Casscels Vineyards and, from the same vineyard, a Chelois grape that he considers the crown jewel of his line – and most redolent of a red Burgundy. I guess I will need to get to Hudson-Chatham again this winter to pick up the top-of-the-line 2010s as they come into bottle, but based on our tastings so far, it would appear that the winery is doing as much to showcase the quality possibilities of Hudson Valley hybrids as anyone else in the region. I look forward to tasting more.