Tasting your way along the Shawangunk Wine Trail
PHOTOGRAPHED BY PETER BARRETT
The Hudson Highlands, the mountainous expanse gracing both sides of the lower Hudson River, are justly known for their scenic and prolific orchards. Just a hundred years ago, however, grapes were one of the only thriving fruit crops grown on the steep hills running down the west riverbank between Kingston and Newburgh. “They supplied grapes—table and wine—to Boston, New York and Philadelphia,” recounts Michael Migliore, owner and winemaker at Whitecliff Vineyards in Gardiner, site of this year’s Bounty of the Hudson event on the last weekend of July. The event gathered together all of the 14 member wineries of the Shawangunk Wine Trail, plus a few others, so it seemed a good opportunity to take stock of the trail’s wineries and the wider regional wine industry. The wineries, arranged alphabetically, lined both sides of two large tents, with a number of food booths scattered throughout to help patrons absorb all the wine consumed. The tall rampart of the Shawangunk Ridge served as a stately backdrop for the festivities.
People remained merry despite the sizable lines as they queued up for samples of drink and food, the cheerful clamor of the crowd never rising so high as to preclude conversation. Having said that, though, the event is first and foremost a commercial endeavor; it’s not a great venue for having chats with the winemakers. That is best done at the wineries (and many of the wines are only available within the winery walls).
The Shawangunk Wine Trail is made up of a collective of area wineries, including the oldest wine cellars in the country at Brotherhood Winery, dating back to 1839, and tied together by a trail map that runs up and down the west side of the Hudson River. By including wineries from outside the wine trail, the Bounty of the Hudson event reflects a widespread desire to promote the whole industry and bring much-deserved attention to a heritage region of winemaking. Notables from further afield included Tousey Winery from Germantown, producing vinifera wines with some prominent substance and finesse; Millbrook, whose Block 3 East Cabernet Franc remains the best (and most expensive) red wine from the Hudson Valley; and Cereghino/Smith, self-proclaimed “artisan winemakers,” who mostly buy grapes from California but spoke excitedly of their recent discovery of blaufränkisch, a somewhat spicy and dark-skinned variety of grape grown in Niagara, that they are keen to play with.
SWEET AND LOWDOWN
The 14 member wineries on the trail span a wide stylistic spectrum and range from tiny operations to the nearly 7,000 cases that Whitecliff produced last year. Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, co-owner at Whitecliff, explains that the local industry has grown dramatically over the last few years. “There’s about a thousand-acre deficit now, in terms of grapes,” she notes, meaning local wineries have to buy fruit from elsewhere in New York, often from the Finger Lakes region, to meet their capacity. In response to this rising demand from wineries, more farmers are planting grapes alongside their other crops; Kiernan Farm, who raise grass-fed beef around the corner from Whitecliff, have planted grapes, as have Dressel Farms, an apple orchard and cidery over in New Paltz, among others.
Sweet wines, many extremely so, make up a significant percentage of the region’s output; no fewer than six different stands had the pitch “It makes great sangria!” worked into their pitch. While the off-dry part of the spectrum, mostly occupied by rieslings and blends, can be superbly food-friendly, especially with spicy Asian fare, many veer into territory that is deemed somewhat cloying. The market for these wines seems largely distinct and specialized from the market for table wine meant to accompany food.
Fans of fruit wines can choose from a wide variety, appropriate for a region with a long history of orchards, but the examples that balance sweetness with a tart backbone, like Applewood Winery’s blackberry, offer more satisfaction. It’s also not surprising that some, such as Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, are successfully venturing into distilled spirits, including hard ciders. The sweeter end of the wine spectrum, however, has as much appeal as it has fans, although it may not tickle the palate of some more discerning enthusiasts. An example of this was evidenced by two women overheard at the Pazdar Winery table. Pazdar, a non-trail member located in Scotchtown, specializes in very sweet wines, some containing chocolate and bananas, that push the envelope right into soda fountain territory. “It’s like drinking pie!”, one woman exclaimed. “Yes, but with alcohol!”, her friend excitedly replied.
That type of response, however, is one that many trail members would rather leave behind in an effort to raise the bar in terms of the region’s offerings and attract a wider range of passionate oenophiles. And thanks to improved grape-growing techniques and a renewed dedication to wine crafting, the moment may have finally arrived.
Some notable wines showcased at the Bounty event included Applewood’s Wawayanda White and Glorie Farm Winery’s Seyval Blanc, both clean and crisp, and Adair’s unusually intense Landmark White. Seyval, the most popular hybrid in the region, normally makes light, almost clear wine, but owner Marc Stopkie likes to let the fruit hang longer than most growers, making for more concentrated flavors. Newcomer Clearview Vineyard in Warwick grow their grapes—all hybrids—organically, though they are not certified because of the small amount of sulfites they add. “We’d be organic in Europe,” remarks owner Frank Graessle with a wry smile. Robibero Vineyards’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, made from Long Island grapes, balances fruit with smooth tannins; at $25.99, this is less of an everyday wine for most, but merits a try for those looking for an alternative to highalcohol California versions. Across the board, the low alcohol (usually near 12 percent) in most local wines makes them more compatible with food than the 14 to 16 percent often found out West.
Hybrid grapes, crosses between European vinifera varieties and native wild species, are more cold tolerant and thus survive better in our extreme climate. Most winemakers acknowledge that hybrid grapes do not make wine with the same depth and complexity that straight vinifera grapes offer, but their yield per acre and reliability make them attractive from a business point of view.
“It’s a constant tension,” says Michael Migliore, “between growers and winemakers: growers want tonnage, and makers want lower yields.” “Cropping” (cutting off unripe bunches to concentrate the vines and energize the remaining fruit) is an established practice among fine wineries and illustrates the inverse correlation between quantity and quality in a vineyard. Matthew Spaccarelli, winemaker at Benmarl in Marlboro, is “not a big fan of hybrids” and has been planting cabernet franc and albariño, a white Spanish grape suited to cool climates. Benmarl has also been experimenting with grazing sheep in the vineyards to control weeds, fertilize, and counteract the soil compaction that results from repeated passes with a tractor.
A few years ago, Whitecliff ’s 2009 Riesling was awarded a double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, bringing unprecedented attention and respect to the region’s wines, which often go unrecognized in national competitions, especially in California.
“It was one of the most exciting things to ever happen to us,” remembers Stanforth-Migliore. “Forty-five judges named it the best of 1,300 wines from 27 countries and 28 states. It’s proof that the Hudson Valley can produce world-class wines.” Where Whitecliff ’s and other fine local rieslings exhibit hints of the nose so prized in Alsatian and German expressions of the grape—which, incidentally, due to its high acidity can age beautifully for long periods—a good gewürztraminer will show layers of spicy complexity beneath its tropical fruit and flowers. Traminette, a gewürztraminer hybrid, tends toward a more two-dimensional experience of lychees framed with varying degrees of citric acidity. This is not to say that traminette lacks merit, however; well chilled, virtually all the local vineyards’ versions make for pleasant summer quaffing.
A DRINKER’S MARKET
And that category, the juicy refresher, is the arena in which the majority of local wines compete. If you’re looking to drop 12 dollars on a light white, why get something from Chile or New Zealand when the local versions offer an equal experience? If you simply swear off Beaujolais nouveau, which is over-hyped, and switch to a jammy local red, you can put your money where your locavore mouth is the same way you do by shopping at a farmers’ market every week. For more serious oenophiles, there exist strong alternatives to traditional choices: rieslings, first and foremost, and cabernet franc. Fans of Loire Valley reds, like Bourgueil, might find a local analog for a similar price. By choosing specific local bottles to replace certain imports, sophisticated drinkers can help move the market in the direction of better wines. Even the most talented and ambitious winemakers still have to prosper in the market they have, after all, while working toward the market they want.
Migliore has been working with Cornell and the New York Wine and Grape Foundation to make a temperature map of the region over the last eight years. This map documents the microclimates where the coldest winter nights remain above the threshold for killing off vinifera vines, about -5˚ Fahrenheit. This information is helping new and established growers alike to choose the best spots available for the grapes they want to grow. The current shortage of local juice could thus end up being a boon for the industry; as more vines get planted in more places by more farmers, and as the geography and microclimate become better understood, the collective knowledge of what does well where will improve the results. It’s useful to remember that Europe has a couple of millennia head start on their understanding of the characteristics of every hillside in a given wine region.
Jan Palaggi owns Palaia Vineyards in Highland Mills with her husband, Joe. They have 10 acres planted, about half with cabernet franc, and have run out of space; they, like many other Hudson Valley vineyards, order the rest of their fruit from the Finger Lakes and Long Island. If more local farms grew good wine grapes, “I would buy them in a New York minute,” she says enthusiastically. “I like the flavors of the valley.” Their 2008 Cabernet Franc stands out as a fine example of the grape’s suitability to this region: garnet red, elegant with seamless integration of fruit and tannin.
There is no substitute for visiting a winery, which is why the trail was created. Most wines taste better in context, and learning the stories and techniques of the producers will only deepen your knowledge. You’ll also get to meet characters like Francesco Ciummo of Demarest Hill in Warwick, a ruddy and rotund grandfather from central Italy who has been making wine and a unique array of grappas, brandies and cordials since 1994. Or, if you’re looking for a crash course, you could make it quite an education to attend one of the wine trail’s several events every year. Take it from another visitor, lifting her glass of Stoutridge White at a friend as the sun dropped toward the Gunks behind her, “I could drink this all day!”
Shawangunk Wine Trail