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American Sparkling Wine, Untitled

July 30, 2020

Story: Zachary Sussman

art: Carmela Caldart


American Sparkling Wine, Untitled

July 30, 2020

Story: Zachary Sussman

art: Carmela Caldart

Unbound by preconception, the Northeast’s embrace of hybrid grapes has introduced a fearless new frontier in American wine.

From the fauns and satyrs of ancient Greece to the modern-day labradoodle, humanity’s fascination with hybrid creatures spans the ages. As a principle, what’s not to like? You take the most compelling aspects of two (or more) disparate things and combine them into something new. Realistically, though, the results don’t always turn out as one might wish. Just ask the guy who created the spork.

For better or for worse, that’s how we’ve long considered the hybrid wine grape. As a family, hybrids are born out of crossing the European Vitis vinifera vine species (the one responsible for giving us pinot noir, chardonnay and pretty much every other grape we know by name) with the wild-growing North American Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia. These ampelographic underdogs were initially bred not so much for their quality, but for their disease resistance and ability to withstand extreme cold. So while they can survive the frigid winters of Vermont or Ohio, conventional wisdom has historically written them off as vinis non grata when it comes to making great wine.

Given the tendency of certain hybrids to exhibit the intensely floral, musky flavors known as “foxiness” (think Welch’s grape jelly, but not in a good way), France and Italy have banned hybrids from classified wine production for decades. In America, early examples like cayuga, concord and catawba enjoyed a brief heyday during the first decades of the 20th century, fueling local wine industries across the Northeast and Midwest. But then came Prohibition, and by the time we woke up from the collective stupor, our hopes had already turned toward California, a place far more compatible with the nation’s newfound “fine wine” ambitions.

In short, if you had predicted 10 years ago that hybrid wines would not only be considered cool, but eventually come to represent one of the most exciting movements in American wine, nobody would have believed you. And yet that is exactly where we are today. From New York’s Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley regions to Maryland, Vermont and even Maine, a small but growing band of winemakers has embraced hybrids with the respect traditionally reserved for vinifera grapes. In the process, they’re adding a whole new frontier to the U.S. wine scene that pulls from every page of the postmodern playbook.

Skin-contact whites? Check. Chuggable carbonic reds? You bet. However, the most emblematic expression of this newfound radicalism has been an outpouring of diverse sparkling wines. From takes on the Champagne method to crown-capped pét-nats, cans of gently fizzy piquette and even ciderlike co-ferments with fruit (e.g., apples and cranberries), the movement has become a breeding ground for some of the country’s most experimental sparkling wines.

Can you imagine if I wanted to blend cranberries into some pinot noir? People would ‘Karen out’ left and right. But all we’re doing is giving more space for creativity across the board and making room for more options.

The fact that practically everyone operating under the hybrid umbrella has gravitated toward sparkling should come as no surprise. By necessity, cold-hardy hybrids tend to be planted in parts of the country where vinifera grapes struggle to survive. As cold-climate grapes, they’re capable of ripening to peak maturity while retaining the bracing acidity that naturally lends itself to bubbles. “From the start, sparkling wine seemed like a no-brainer,” says Deirdre Heekin of Vermont’s La Garagista winery, one of the category’s early pioneers and guiding lights. “The high alpine acidity we get is extremely well-suited to sparkling wine, so we make bubbles out of everything we grow.”

According to master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier and winemaker Nathan Kendall, who produce two hybrid-based pét-nats under their Finger Lakes-based chëpìka label, there was never any doubt that bubbles would form the core of the project. Their decision to focus on hybrids—in this case, the Delaware and catawba varieties—came as the logical extension of their naturalist philosophy. In cold, wet regions like the Finger Lakes, growing vinifera organically presents serious challenges; hybrids, on the other hand, can thrive without pesticides or chemical sprays. After researching the history of those grapes in the region, the rest of the concept quickly fell into place.

“What we found is that in the 19th century, the reputation of the Finger Lakes was built upon sparkling wine made with hybrid grapes in the traditional [or Champagne] method,” Lepeltier explains, noting that these efforts earned the region international acclaim at the time. “After Prohibition, people just totally forgot about it, and eventually hybrids became these secondary grapes used to make crappy wine for tasting rooms, but we figured that there had to be a reason behind this original focus on sparkling wines.”

Fermented with natural yeasts and bottled without the addition of sulfur, chëpìka’s low-alcohol sparklers perfectly align with the current state of the art. As a rediscovery of the region’s roots, what Lepeltier and Kendall are doing in the Finger Lakes isn’t all that dissimilar from the work underway in so many parts of the world, where progressive winemakers are excavating lost styles and expressions under the banner of natural wine. For those working with newer hybrids, however, in even less-established parts of the country, there isn’t any history—forgotten or otherwise—to draw upon for guidance.

“We have so little experience with the varieties we’re growing, we’re still in this extremely early phase of trying anything and everything to see what works,” says Ethan Joseph, winemaker at Vermont’s Shelburne Vineyard. Several of the hybrids he grows for his own Iapetus project, such as the red-skinned marquette and the white la crescent, have existed for fewer than two decades, having been introduced by the University of Minnesota in the early 2000s. From these varieties, and others like l’acadie blanc, he produces a range of vibrant pét-nats, but like many of his peers, he tinkers with techniques like skin-contact and carbonic maceration as well. “What we’re currently doing is working,” he says. “But is it the best expression? We probably won’t know that for 20 more years.”

To wine drinkers raised on European grapes (i.e., all of us), the results can be puzzling. Their flavors and aromas skew in unexpected directions, highlighting intense, sometimes exaggerated fruit (pineapples, lemon curd, strawberries), but rarely exhibit the richness and high alcohol we associate with those same ripe qualities in vinifera-based wines. “It’s a whole new parameter,” Lepeltier says. “There is a sense of overall balance, but with completely different elements inside.”

Working from scratch, without recourse to any established precedent or data points, is no easy task. It requires a specific sort of mindset: the willingness to be guided by instinct and intuition rather than by-the-numbers predictability. Just ask Todd Cavallo and Crystal Cornish of Wild Arc Farm, who left Brooklyn in 2016 with virtually no enological training to pursue a dream of crafting natural wine and cider in the Hudson Valley.

In addition to some Finger Lakes riesling and local cabernet franc, they’ve started sourcing fruit from two organically farmed sites planted to hybrids, including the Amorici Vineyard in Washington County, N.Y. Unsurprisingly, the initial learning curve was steep. “Starting out, working with the hybrids was much more difficult, because very few people had been making the types of wines we like to drink with hybrid grapes,” Cavallo recalls. “Most of the examples we could find locally were made to emulate whatever vinifera parent [that] people were looking to highlight in the hybrid, instead of allowing the grape to be whatever it wanted to be. So we pretty much had a blank slate.”

Now in its fourth year, Wild Arc’s fizzy offerings run the stylistic gamut. Along with a traditional-method blend of riesling and traminette (a hybrid descended from gewürztraminer) that is refermented with local wildflower honey and modeled after sparkling German “sekt,” they make a handful of requisite pét-nats. But above all, they’ve attracted attention for their efforts with piquette, the gently effervescent, crushable French farmer’s wine of eras past.

If anyone can demonstrate just how expansive the category has become, it’s Vermont-based winemaker Krista Scruggs, who brings a fearless spirit of improvisation to the range of naturally fermented, traditional-method wines she produces under her ZAFA label. With names like “Visions of Gideon” and “Poetic Justice,” they reflect her view that the complete lack of expectations surrounding hybrid grapes presents a unique advantage. As she puts it, “There’s a freedom to experiment without a preconceived idea or definition of how these grapes should be fermented or processed.”

Not only does Scruggs refuse to make the same wine twice, choosing to let the nature of the vintage and the character of the grapes guide her stylistic choice from one year to the next, she refuses to be bound by the limitation of working exclusively with grapes. The genre-bending co-ferments she makes in collaboration with Vermont’s Shacksbury Cider, bottled under the CO Cellars label, combine hybrid grapes like la crescent and léon millot with cranberries and foraged apples.

“Can you imagine if I wanted to blend cranberries into some pinot noir? People would ‘Karen out’ left and right. But all we’re doing is giving more space for creativity across the board and making room for more options,” says Scruggs. “We’re writing our own history right now.”

Highway to Hybrids

2019 La Garagista Farm and Winery Ci Confonde Sparkling Rosé
Ci confonde” translates to “it confounds us,” but there’s nothing surprising about how quickly La Garagista’s ancestral-method wines have become staples of the American natural wine scene. Based on the University of Minnesota hybrid frontenac gris, it’s full of rose hip, tangy strawberry and a whiff of moist earth, bringing to mind certain bright, transparent reds (for instance, schiava) from the Italian Alps. [BUY]

2019 Oyster River Winegrowers Morphos Pét-Nat
In addition to Chaos, the Champagne-method wine he makes from his vidal blanc and la crescent vineyards situated along the rocky coast of Maine, winemaker Brian Smith sources organic cayuga white and seyval blanc grapes from the Finger Lakes for this bright, minerally pét-nat. At just 10 percent alcohol, it goes down easy, balancing a sort of glacier-pool purity with a hint of funk. [BUY]

2019 Chëpìka Catawba Pet’ Nat
“Even when fully ripe, catawba is still naturally higher in acidity, so it’s just meant for sparkling,” Nathan Kendall says. Fermented with ambient yeast, unsulfured and aged six months in bottle before disgorgement, chëpìka’s rosé-like take on the grape possesses a rhubarb-y sourness that accentuates its wild-berry fruit. [BUY]

2019 Iapetus Figure 1 Pétillant-Naturel
Part of the reason the ancestral method takes so kindly to hybrids like l’acadie blanc, the variety in question here, is the way the fermentation in bottle adds a savory depth and complexity to the grape’s extroverted fruit. Imagine a lightning bolt of pineapple and candied lemon striking through a cloud of yeast. [BUY]

2018 Wild Arc Farm Bi-Sekt
If you can, why not make an undisgorged, Champagne-method orange wine from riesling and traminette? A touch of skin-contact gives this a pleasing bitterness, plus a slight tannic grip, but not enough to mute the bright floral aromatics. [BUY]

CO Cellars Leon! Krista Scruggs
Is this wine? Cider? Something in between? When the results are this much fun to drink, who cares? A tart, tangy co-ferment of léon millot grapes with foraged local apples and cranberries, it’s the sort of hybrid creature that unequivocally works. [BUY]

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