Flowing Currant

wine glass

FLOWING CURRANT

The burgeoning popularity of Hudson Valley Cassis

BY JENNIFER BRIZZI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL MANSFIELD

Black currant potions can taste like a starry summer night sky in a bottle, with a rich plummy aroma and unique velvety feel on the palate. Spirits crafted from the bountiful berry are heralding a new regional tradition—and business opportunity. Hudson Valley cassis, whether a straightforward, not-too-sweet, black currant wine or a distilled eau de vie or brandy, is doing very well for itself these days, a long way from what was once regarded as a syrupy-sweet fortified wine.

People who had never tasted the musky brightness of the black currant—cousin to the gooseberry but tiny, matte black and far too sour to eat straight from the bush—are now clamoring for it in liquid form, in spite of a near-century ban on the fruits. The uniquely flavored berry is on the cusp of trend-status, well on it’s way to becoming a New York State–branded product, as oranges are to Florida. Several Hudson Valley winemakers and distillers are creating quality black currant beverages whose original inspiration was France’s crème de cassis but which have charm and versatility that goes well beyond the classic French Kir.

“Cassis has instantly become a signature wine for the region,” says Carlo DeVito of Hudson Chatham Winery in Ghent, where he and wife Dominique make small-batch artisanal cassis, along with several other wines. “It’s is a big thing in the Hudson Valley.”

Richard Lewit, owner of Alison Wines in Red Hook, agrees. “It’s a very good wine,” he says, “and a great wine for this region, because black currants grow so well here.” Lewit has made cassis in the past for Alison Wines, and is now beginning production anew under the Breezy Hill label, which will be available for consumption this winter.

A Fine Balance

The intent of cassis crafters is finding that elusive quality of a palatepleasing balance of tart and sweet, paired with a suave smoothness as it goes down the gullet. Ben Peacock of Tousey Winery under the blue roof on Route 9 in Germantown says it’s a continuous process. At the winery they are constantly striving to achieve that flavor profile and texture, something “with a lovely silkiness to it,” he says. The tinkering is ongoing, he adds, as they aim for a “more traditional product like French cassis.” The challenge is that Hudson Valley currants don’t taste quite the same as the ones in the United Kingdom that Peacock remembers from his childhood. “I think it’s the soil,” Peacock muses, opening up the notion of a unique Hudson Valley terroir for currants.

“The cassis started it all,” the Yorkshire native says of Tousey’s line of wines. They grow their own currants across the street from the winery, and four varieties go into the product. Each kind of currant has a different flavor, a different character to bring to the party. This lineup evolves and changes, and they assay different amounts of honey from their own hives in each batch in a quest for the perfect taste and texture. “Some people will say a certain cassis is sweeter,” he says, “but what they really mean is that it’s smoother.”

Getting that sweet-sour balance is tricky. Anyone who’s dared taste a fresh black currant off the bush knows that it has almost no sweetness to it—unpalatable really—but with the gradual addition of a hefty quantity of sweetener, whether sugar or honey or a mix, its complex fat-fruit character emerges with a bang.

“I’ve had many black currant wines here and in Europe,” says Greg Quinn, a black currant farmer in Dutchess County. “It can be a very nice wine. The problem is that a wine gets its alcohol from sugar, and black currants are very tart and low in natural sugars, so you need a lot of it. So that’s challenging.”

At Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery in Warwick, they make a black currant cordial, part of their American Fruits line, by macerating the berries with alcohol and then adding pressed wildflower honey and a little sugar. “We try to keep the sweeteners to a minimum and emphasize the flavor of the black currant,” says master distiller and winery co-owner Jason Grizzanti. They also distill a black currant brandy and brew a black currant cider. In 2002, Warwick Valley, which began making wine and hard cider crafted from the fruits of its orchards in 1993, became the first licensed distillery in the Valley since prohibition.

Joel Elder, distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, remembers his first contact with the currant was with the fresh fruit right off the vine. “The wonderful gardener that introduced me to it said that back in France where she grew up they would juice [black currants] for the kids and call it “beetle blood.” Elder was later gravely disappointed by some of the domestic varieties of cassis he would happen upon, saying that they resembled “berry” candy booze, more than the singular fruit he was introduced to. Elder recently was given the opportunity to begin distillation of a Tuthilltown cassis using locally grown organic currants, and jumped at the chance. He desperately wanted to express the “full range of the fruit” and not just the juice. He decided to have the fruit harvested as normal, but not cleaned of leaves and stems, which Elder feels will ideally give it a more tannic nature and a more unique character overall. The other key factor in this Tuthilltown cassis experiment is the fact that Elder has chosen, by default, to age the product for three months in oak barrels. Bottled results should be available shortly according to Elder.

At Clinton Vineyards in Clinton Corners, they’ve had some practice. Clinton was the first winery in the Hudson Valley to make cassis, and assuredly cassis was not their first wine, nor even their first dessert wine. “We’ve always been able to deal with the sweet-acid balance,” says Phyllis Feder, who with her late husband Ben Feder, a Renaissance man who was an accomplished artist and baker as well as pioneering vintner, started making cassis about 10 years ago in an enchanting rustic barn bedecked with chandeliers. They had begun in the ’70s with still and sparkling wines from their own seyval blanc grapes and then moved into a progression of vibrant dessert wines, from their first, Embrace, with local red raspberries, to Duet, a rhubarb-strawberry wine and several others.

Do Process

But a good cassis—Clinton Vineyards has been a Gold Medal winner at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition and earned Best in Class in international competitions—is more than just about balance, Feder says, because “the acidity of the fruit is also a key factor in the mouthfeel of the wine.” She adds that other factors affect sweetness as well, like the quality and integrity of the fruit and how long it’s been on the vine—the longer the sweeter—that combine to make drinking a quality cassis a “a refined and wonderful experience.”

Branch to Bottle

Challenges with black currants go beyond just getting that balance right. Harvesting the tiny black berries is harder than with other fruits, because they lurk behind the branches. “You have to open the bush to get currants, since they’re hidden,” says Greg Quinn. And that’s not all. “When they’re ripe they fall off the bush very readily,” he adds. For most currant harvests, only 50 to 60 percent of the fruit winds up being harvested, the rest becomes fodder for the birds. Unlike wine grapes, which are a fall fruit, black currants are a July crop only. Once they are harvested they go into a vat or bin or other large container with alcohol.

At Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, says Grizzanti, “We wanted to mirror traditional crème de cassis but make something less sweet. And ours is not as thick as the traditional crème de cassis, it’s less syrupy.” He says they process the fruit quickly because it oxidizes so fast, so an airless and quick (about a week) process keeps the flavor lively. Peacock at Tousey Winery says they have a license to distill but aren’t yet set up to do it. Freezing is the key for them, halting the oxidation and locking in sugar, flavor and nutrients. “That seems to help,” he says. “It’s just a better product when the berries are frozen first.” They crush the frozen currants to split them, add alcohol and then put the mix in tall, shiny high-tech-looking stainless steel tanks that he calls “bins.” Then the mixture waits for three to six months. “We mash them down periodically,” he says, and then they press it out to separate the solids from the liquid. Then they start gradually adding the honey, bit-by-bit, tasting as they go, for two more months.

Doug Glorie, a former IBMer who owns the eight-year-old Glorie Farm Winery in Marlboro with wife MaryEllen, says that since 2006 they’ve made what they call “black currant wine,” not cassis. The process is very similar to how they make their other wines, except they use a process called “amelioration,” diluting with water because the black currant juice is so strong. And some sugar brings the alcohol up from 5 percent to the normal level for a wine, about 6 percent. In the cozy tasting room overlooking a dramatic and rather French-looking vista of rolling hills and vines, a sip of the wine offers a heady aroma with a tarter taste than expected but just sweet enough, and full-bodied without being syrupy.

Hudson Chatham Winery is tucked away in the heart of Columbia County and includes a restored 1780 farmhouse and rapidly expanding production spaces. The small family operation makes many different wines in small batches, and there is always something that has to be done. In the case of the cassis, it is punching down the cap every day. Murky chunky liquids that will some day become a smooth dark elixir sit in large green plastic containers that resemble, well, trash cans. Every day the DeVitos have to break the crust that forms at the top, using a large, long metal tool with a perforated flat plate at the bottom. “It looks like a giant potato masher,” Carlo DeVito playfully remarks and explains that this is the way the cassis of Burgundy has been traditionally made.

Nearby Good Farm in Claverack grows the currants for Hudson Chatham Winery, which the DeVitos mix with sugar in the, er, containers, and let them steep for about 12 weeks. Every week each bin gets five more pounds of sugar, although the sweetness doesn’t really develop until toward the end of the process, DeVito says. The punching and steeping redistributes the yeasts and sugar and develops the fruit’s pectin. Next they press and filter the berries to made a liquid that varies in viscosity and coarseness depending on the berries; from year to year they may have a different character and water content depending on the weather and other agricultural factors. Finally the product, called Paperbirch Cassis, is ready: a medium- to light-bodied pleasing cassis with hints of port and plum with underlying caramel.

Back in the Black

The biggest stumbling block for makers and lovers of cassis was the nearly 100-year ban on growing black currants in New York State, because of a disease shared with a product precious to the lumber industry, white pines. White pine blister rust passed from currants to the trees and beginning in 1911 federal and then state bans on Ribes nigrum, or what is more commonly known as the black currant, made it a forbidden fruit, which to this day is still illegal to grow in several states.

I remember the ban well. For years I could only get my black currant fix with imported products: French liqueur, Polish nectar and English pastilles and jams, not always easy to find. When the ban was finally lifted in 2003—Greg Quinn himself was instrumental in convincing state legislators to abolish the antiquated ruling—my fellow black currant fanatics and I breathed a big sigh of relief and started salivating for black currant products. Quinn founded the Currant Company and started selling a juice called “Currant-C.” Honey maker Ray Tousey, who since founded Tousey Winery with Kimberly and Ben Peacock, his daughter and son-in-law, sold currants at my local farmers market, so I could make sauce for duck or venison.

We were back in black…currants, again. Now dedicated cassis makers are continually increasing production as demand continues to rise. Hudson Chatham Winery sold 15 to 20 cases of cassis their first year and are planning on 100 to 110 this year.

“We can’t keep it in stock,” says DeVito. He claims that across the valley production is currently about 12,000 bottles. “By next season we’re probably looking at 17 to 20,000 bottles,” he adds. Anastasia Hesser, in customer service at the large Manhattan retailer Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits, says they carry Clinton Vineyard’s cassis. “We sell quite a bit of it,” she says, “especially as interest in locally grown wine, liqueurs and spirits increases.” Ben Peacock at Tousey Winery says that although K & D Wines & Spirits on Madison Avenue carries their cassis, it’s not yet available in city restaurants, although that is on the horizon. “There has been lots of interest,” he says, adding that at local farmers markets the winery fields many requests from city residents and restaurant owners who want to see the product in New York City. “We are working on a strategy for the city for next year,” says Peacock. “We wanted to focus on the local area first but we’re working on the logistics and the mechanics of distribution there.” In the meantime local restaurants, including Ca’Mea and Wunderbar in Hudson, have been supporters. No. 9 in Millerton serves their Local Kir Royale featuring Prosecco and Tousey cassis.

As Hudson Valley cassis becomes more popular and thus easier to find, not only will we get the health benefits—the fruit is an antioxidant and very high in vitamin C and many other nutrients, as well as touted as a supertonic for general health and vigor, but we can sip those Kirs, Kir Royales or neat shots, or use cassis in the kitchen, adding it to vinaigrettes, tossing it into fruit salads, or pouring it over peaches and vanilla ice cream like MaryEllen Glorie of Glorie Farm Winery. Chocolatiers like Joshua Needleman and Oliver Kita add it to their chocolates. Or we can do like Phyllis Feder. “I’ve elevated chicken thighs to a whole new plateau,” she says, “adding portobello mushrooms and deglazing with cassis.”

It is fairly obvious that both cassis, as well as the embattled black currant, have overcome multiple challenges and obstacles to get this far. While more and more cassis is produced in the Hudson Valley by enthusiastic producers, and the appreciation continues to grow, it stands to reason that local cassis will strike that elusive balance between sweet and exceedingly desirable.

BREEZY HILL hudsonvalleycider.com
CLINTON VINEYARDS clintonvineyards.com
GLORIE FARM WINERY gloriewine.com
WARWICK VALLEY WINERY wvwinery.com
HUDSON CHATHAM WINERY hudson-chathamwinery.com
TOUSEY WINERY touseywinery.com
TUTHILLTOWN SPIRITS tuthilltown.com

winery
Black currants at Tousey Winery making their
way from picked to slurry to final product.

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