Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hybrid vs. Vinifera round two:

At this point, after trying to appear objective, I have no choice but to confess I have an innate prejudice against hybrid wines. You can ascribe it to snobbiness but I dislike them in general for the same reasons that I cannot tolerate stupid people, they tend to repeat themselves ad infinitum and they seem innately incapable either of subtlety or of being insulted.

Where a grape like Cabernet or Pinot seems possessed under the winemakers hand of an almost infinite variation and evocative of an astounding array of flavors and aromas, varieties like Baco Noir and Seyval seem by comparison remarkably consistent in both flavor and aroma regardless of how they are treated. While this may seem to some a virtue, to a winemaker it presents a uniquely frustrating situation. It's akin to going to the Port Authority where you may buy a ticket for a seemingly unlimited number of destinations but finding that the bus invariably drops you off in Brooklyn. (again, don't get me wrong, I love Brooklyn, even minus the Dodgers, but, you know, if you are looking for a quiet beach, Coney Island does have its drawbacks).

Why this is the case is a puzzle but, it is unquestionably true. Hybrids just all seem to have this one dominant personality trait that one simply cannot ignore. It is something like the wart on your great aunt's face, whether you like her or not, it dominates and colors your interactions with her no matter how much you try to ignore it.

This brings us to the the current effort to establish hybrids (warts and all) as the signature grapes of the Hudson Valley. Climate dictates they will always dominate viticulture in the valley (you winemakers who are secretly hoping for climate change,-good luck). (As I said in the previous post, there are some exceptions but these are dependent on huge influxes of cash). If we are to develop a signature grape here there is no question (for the near future) therefore that it will be of a hybrid variety. One clearly cannot build a reputation based on a grape that is not native to or widely grown in your region; not really so much because it is dishonest, but because it presents and insurmountable marketing hurdle. This then presents the would be winemaker in the Hudson Valley with a unique dilemna, they may seek either to become a virtuoso utilizing only the limited flavor notes afforded by the hybrid varieties (which is something akin to becoming a virtuoso on an instrument with clearly circumscribed charm as for instance the harmonica or the accordion) or he or she may abandon any pretense at uniqueness and seek to compete purely on the basis of winemaking skill using grapes as local as possible but without that necessarily being the defining parameter.

The third and perhaps more interesting possibility is the path Carlo of Hudson-Chatham (and to a lesser extent myself) have gone down, which is to begin experimenting with blends of local hybrids with classical varieties obtained from elsewhere in the state. Carlo's 'Empire' offering (and though I kid Carlo about the use of the name Empire, though I named a wine 'Buckethead') I think is a very solid first step in this direction. It blends wines from different areas of the state and combines classical with hybrid varieties. The result is very drinkable and of reasonable complexity. The consistent undertone of the hybrid component which I have referred to emerges as something I can only liken to juicyfruit gum with a hint of licorice, in any case, not at all unpleasant or reminiscent of the astringency often associated with the red hybrid varieties.

Whether or not this turns out to be a viable viticultural/winemaking path time will tell. To hark back to the musical analogy it may turn out to be a curiosity like Mozart's glass harmonica concerto or result in longstanding innovation that vastly expands the available palette such as occurred with the introduction of the more 'strident' brass instruments into the post classical symphony orchestra. My suspicion is that it will be the latter but as I said, I am from Brooklyn and therefore by nature an incurable optimist (go Dodgers). In any case, the geni is definitely out of the bottle (as well as in the bottle), so let's use our three wishes carefully.