Hudson Valley a hotspot for heritage wine grapes

Adella Miesner

The newest trend in winemaking is anything but new. In fact, it is nearly 200 years old. Stephen Casscles, the author of “Grapes of the Hudson Valley” and a renowned grape grower and winemaker, said that new attention is being given to what are called heritage grapes from conventional growers […]

The newest trend in winemaking is anything but new. In fact, it is nearly 200 years old.

Stephen Casscles, the author of “Grapes of the Hudson Valley” and a renowned grape grower and winemaker, said that new attention is being given to what are called heritage grapes from conventional growers and winemakers. The term “heritage” applies to grapes that were bred and developed in the United States and are at least 100 years old as their own varietal of grape. “Heritage is the academic title,” Casscles said, but others sometimes use the term “heirloom” to describe the grape, as the grapes were often given colloquial names or names of families from the area or origin and were often grown in a specific region by a small group of people.

Most heritage grapes that are becoming popularized in commercial production originate in the Hudson Valley or Boston’s North Shore. In his book, Casscles quoted prominent horticulturalist Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick as saying, “the Valley of the Hudson has more reason to be called the birthplace of American viticulture than any other of the grape-growing districts of this county.”

The climate and soil condition of the region is well-suited to cold weather grape varieties, Casscles said, and incorporated easily into the orchard practices of farmers in the region throughout the 19th century. Beloved heritage grape varietals date back to the 1810s, but most were developed between the 1840s and 1890s in the Newburgh area. “It’s where most of the hybridization of grapes in the world was happening,” Casscles said. The grapes were purposefully developed to be dual-purpose grapes, used as a table grape for raw eating and sold in New York City markets and for producing wine. They were initially intended to be flavorful grapes for eating, but if the harvest produced grapes that were not favorable for the table grape market, they could be converted to wine production.

Heritage grapes grown locally are a hybrid between old-world European vines (which lend flavor and wine potential) and wild grapes found throughout the region (which contribute to high yields, weather hardiness and insect tolerance). They produce what Casscles called “pretty grapes” and are easy growers that do not require fussy maintenance or spraying to prevent fungal disease and insect infestation – a benefit for farmers invested in sustainable and organic agriculture. Most heritage grapes were carefully pollinated and cross-bred to produce grapes like Dutchess, Poughkeepsie and Ulster; however, some heritage grapes – like Delaware and Eumlean – were what Casscles called “chance seedlings.” Today, the grapes are propagated by cuttings, as the seeds of each grape are not “true to seed,” meaning each seed is not a genetic clone of the parent vine and can be a complete new varietal of grape.

Iona was the most influential and popular grape for most of the 19th century and well into the 1900s. It was used extensively for sparkling wine production and most of today’s Iona vines can be traced back to Prince’s Nursery (one of the first commercial seed and plant catalogs in the United States), which is now part of Queens Botanical Gardens. Other heritage grapes that are popular in today’s wine market, especially for New York State wines, are Jefferson (which looks like red grapes bought in a supermarket), Baco Noir, Diamond, Seyval Blanc and Marquette.

Casscles has propagated cuttings of his grapes for other growers and programs in the northeast to help grow the tradition and ensure the prosperity of heritage grapes. At SUNY Cobleskill, he offers instruction on winemaking from these grapes and has donated grapevines for planting at the college’s experimental orchard. In Massachusetts, he has planted heritage grapes at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which values the grapes for their historical context. For many years, these grapes were seen by growers as hobby breeds for personal enjoyment, but increased interest in the benefits of heritage grapes is perpetuating a small boom in growing practices. Some prominent grape growers near Buffalo and in Vermont are running test plots of heritage grapes to examine yield and hardiness and prepare for an impending demand for the grapes from winemakers.

At the height of the Hudson Valley’s grape growing practice, as many as 14,000 acres of land were dedicated to grape production. Casscles said today that number has dwindled to about 1,000 acres, but with the heightened appeal of heritage grapes for eating and winemaking (plus the inclusion of grapes under federal crop insurance in recent farm bills) there is potential for more farm acreage to become dedicated to grapes.

Casscles was the winemaker at Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent for 13 years, where he used heritage grapes like Baco Noir to develop a dark, inky wine that was a staple offering at the winery, but has since moved on to Sabba Estate Vineyard in Old Chatham as winemaker. “We use a lot of heirloom and oddball grape varieties,” he said of himself and Sabba owner Abby Youghabi, whom Cassacles has known for a decade. The wines being produced are complex and nuanced — two descriptors that many overlook when thinking about cold-climate and hybrid grapes — and Casscles said “it’s fruity but it’s not like drinking Hawaiian Punch. Many of the wines are like a Sauterne with smokey, vanilla and banana or tropical fruit notes. Instead of just growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, you can have a lot of unique wines.”

At Sabba, Youghabi and Casscles are offering a heritage grape wine club with special tastings for small-batch wines in development. The goal is to familiarize wine enthusiasts with these little-known grape varietals and the wines produced from them. Casscles said with the swings in climate change and extreme weather events, America’s wine industry is poised to become one of the hardest hit sectors of agriculture. “Things are changing in terms of climate. For grapes, it’s like taking grandma, putting her in an ice bath and then putting her in the sauna. Growers want resilient crops that can withstand all that,” Casscles said. Wildfires on the west coast have burned 4 million acres this year alone (according to reports from Cal Fire), with the recent Glass Fire damaging or destroying nearly two dozen wineries and vineyards in California’s popular Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wine-producing regions.

Casscles predicts that vintners and winemakers will be looking for new places to grow and produce wine and the loss of bold west-coast wines could have wine drinkers searching for other wines to fill their cellars and their stemware. He hopes that the answer is found in a glass of wine produced with New York-born heritage grapes.

Deanna Fox is a food and agricultural journalist., @DeannaNFox

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