From north to south, the Hudson River Valley wine region runs from just south of Albany to northern Westchester County, locating the main body of the region between the 42nd and 40th parallels. This places the valley approximately on the same longitudes as the Rhône wine region and Provence in France. It also places the Hudson Valley wine region on the same latitude with that of Tuscany in central Italy. It’s been said that wine is made in the vineyard, in the growing of the grapes. And of course, wine comes from a place. The Hudson River Region is our place, newly re-discovered in the world of wine, and one of the most historic regions in all of North America. Our more than 30 wineries each have their own “terroir,” a French word that means that each piece of earth has a taste signature all its own. In this two-part article in honor of the Quadricentennial, winemaker Carlo De Vito delves into the origins and discovery of the Hudson River and its rich wine heritage.
IT WAS ONLY 400 YEARS AGO that Henry Hudson, commissioned by the Dutch East India Company to find a faster route to the Pacific, navigated his ship, the Halve Maen (Half Moon) up the wonderful river that defines this part of the world we love so well: the Hudson River Region. Yet the River's history predates Hudson's famous voyage by millions of years. Long before man roamed the region, hunting game and wild grapes, it is believed that the Hudson River actually dates as far back as 75 million years to the Cretaceous Period, and the Tertiary Period, 10 million years later, when the river began to cut a swath between the Catskill and Taconic mountains.
Personally, I don't like ice in my wine, but our region's terroir draws much of its minerals and taste from The Ice Age. The Ice Age began one and a half million years ago, and four ice sheets advanced and then retreated in this region, each one gouging the river valley deeper and deeper. The last great ice sheet, and the one which had the greatest effect on the Catskills, was known as "the Wisconsin," and it moved south from Canada roughly between 75,000 and 115,000 years ago. The Wisconsin glacier deposited sediment and many of the rocks that now dot the farms of the Hudson Valley, which help to lend flavor to its produce and wines, much like the best wine growing regions of Europe, whose climate most closely resembles our own. As the glacier withdrew from the valley, climactic conditions changed, and in response so did the vegetation and wildlife. With soils comprised of shale, slate, clay, gravelly loams and limestone, the valley has been fertile, rich, and verdant ever since.
THE AGE OF EXPLORATION
The Hudson River was not unknown to Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who first set eyes upon it in 1524 while sailing for the French crown, but did not travel up the river itself. He chose a different path. A year later it was again noted, by Spanish explorer Estevan Gomez sailing south from present-day Nova Scotia into New York Harbor. But it was not the prize Gomez was searching for either, and continuing south down the coast, he too passed up the opportunity to discover the valley's riches.
It wasn't until September 4, 1609, that the ship Half Moon, owned by the Dutch East India Company and captained by Henry Hudson, sailed north up the river, from what is now Staten Island. Hudson, like many explorers, was an adventurer, a gambler, and he decided to try his luck going up the lush, giant river valley. Struck by the majesty and beauty of the river's path, Hudson noted in his ship's log in those four weeks of exploration along the Hudson, "The land is the finest for cultivation than I have ever in my life ever set foot upon, and it also abounds in trees of every description."
The valley was of a lushness rare in today's world. It was said that sailors in that era could smell the New World for miles out at sea, and that the shores of the valley were fragrant and intoxicating. Stands of oak, chestnut, and hickory stretched from Manhattan to Glens Falls. But edible vegetation blossomed as well. In the mainland of the woods, "are found all sorts of fruits . yea, fruits in great profusion," wrote the Dutch chronicler, Nicolaes Van Wassenaer. The Reverend Johannes Megapolensis, a mid-seventeenth century minister in the patroonship of Rensselaerswyck, near Albany, also noted that "the ground in the flat land near the rivers is covered with strawberries, which grow here so plentifully in the fields, that we go there and lie down and eat them."
These early pioneers also found lots of grapes - "as good and sweet as in Holland" - in such quantities they would soon inspire the launch of viticulture in the Hudson Valley. Megapolenis, who arrived to the New World in 1646, was himself inspired, and offers perhaps the earliest recorded account of winemaking attempts in the Valley: "If we could cultivate the vines we might have as good wine here as they have in Germany or France. I had myself last harvest a boat load of grapes and pressed them. As long as the wine was new it tasted better than French or Rhenish Must, and the colour of the grape juice here is so high and red that with one wine glass full you can colour a whole pot of white wine."
According to many accounts these native grapes could be found everywhere from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas, clinging to riverbanks, hill slopes, and stony ground. "Grapes were everywhere. It was easier to swing from vine to vine to get to Fort Pitt than to walk the trails west from Philadelphia" according to one early colonist. Another described areas of land where "vine stood by vine and grew luxuriantly, climbing up above the largest and loftiest trees." By 1661 the Dutch Government in an attempt to get people to move into the new colonies sent out a glowing, though somewhat exaggerated, description to entice would-be settlers. "It is under the best clymate in the whole world; seed may be thrown into the ground, except six weekes, all the yere long; there are five sorts of grapes which are very good and grow here naturally, with diverse other fruits ... the land [is] very fertile." While this was a very romantic description of the valley, most farmers found it slightly harder than that to grow the excellent grapes it takes to make fine wines.
WINE AND THE NEW WORLD
Ironically, while New York was one of the first states to cultivate grapes, it was one of the last in the East to develop its wine industry. Early vineyards were reportedly first planted on Manhattan Island more than three hundred fifty years ago, when Peter Stuyvesant was governor of the 'New Netherland' colony between 1647 and 1664. He remains to this day one of the most important figures in modern New York City and State history. Stuyvesant was a visionary who saw what the region could accomplish. That New York became an economic world engine was partly due to his vision. And part of that vision was creating a new wine region. The Dutch farmers struggled planting European vinifera, fighting bugs and disease they had not known in their homelands.
Stuyvesant was born in Holland in 1602, the son of a Friesland clergyman, and at an early age displayed a fondness for military life. He spent much of his life in the service of the Dutch West India Company, and at age 37 was appointed Director- General of New Netherlands on July 28, 1646. His first proclamations were orders to enforce the rigid observance of Sunday; prohibit the sale of liquor and fire arms to the Indians; and protect the revenue and increase the treasury by heavier taxation on imports. This included an excise tax on "wine and spiritous liquor" to be paid by tavern keepers and retailers. Stuyvesant sternly regulated the sale of liquor: He decreed that in the future no liquor should be sold on Sundays before two o'clock, when there was no preaching, and wine not before four. But this prohibition did not apply to the entertainment of travelers "and of those who are daily customers, fetching their drinks to their own homes." Despite this, Stuyvesant favored the use of wine. He even authored an ordinance requiring that sailors on the high seas be provided with a daily ration of wine to protect their health.
THE FIRST VINEYARDS
While farmers were working their vineyards, politics and war marched through. Barely two decades later, New Netherlands was an English colony, and Richard Nicolls, Stuyvesant's successor and first English governor of the newly renamed "New York," granted a monopoly to one Paulus Richards, a wealthy New York merchant, to plant a vineyard on "Long Island." While Richards was a successful real estate speculator, little information remains today about his plantings or subsequent wines.
The next documented attempt to grow grapes and make wine met with greater success. Faced with severe religious persecution, the Huguenots, or French Calvinists, began leaving France in large numbers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They first inhabited the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam as early as the 1640's. They populated the capital Duzine, meaning "New Village" - and later known as Kingston - in peaceful coexistence with the Dutch. However, the Huguenots desired a place of their own to preserve their French language.
To acquire their own homeland, the Huguenots first went to the local Native American tribes to barter for the property. Some years after the Dutch colony of New Netherlands was turned over to the English, the Huguenots then approached the governor and were granted thirty nine thousand acres of land south of Kingston, in what is now known as New Paltz, in Ulster County.
These French Protestants, who settled in Ulster on the Hudson after 1667, brought with them their winemaking expertise. Their experiments in the New World inspired them to plant the first vines in De Paltz (or "New Paltz") in 1677, from cuttings taken from European vines. Most of their vines eventually died: The soil in the New World was filled with the European grapes' deadliest enemy, Phylloxera vastatrix (now named Dactylasphaera vitifoliae), a tiny insect that attacks the roots of the grape vine. And, much like the attempts further south in Virginia, their European rootstock fell victim to the harsh winters with their heavy snows and bitter cold temperatures. The hot, humid summers, ideal for breeding fungus and disease, also conspired to foil these early grape growing efforts.
Undaunted, they turned to the native Vitus labrusca, and cultivated the wild grapes to make wine for use in their homes. Grapes, of course, have always grown wild in New York, though the taste of wines made from the vigorous, native grape was foreign to the taste of these early European settlers who adopted the Hudson Valley as their home. (Wine writers now call the trait "foxy" - a musky, grape-juice quality not present in good wines made from the Old World vinifera.) Fine wines they were not, but it was a success of some stature. The healthy crops from their vines so impressed Governor Nicolls' successor that he expressed the belief, in a letter to the Lords of Trade in London, that the New York colony alone could produce enough wine to supply all the dominions of the Crown.
It would be nearly a century, though, before this dream would be realized, when local vineyardists turned their attention to the improvement of the native species in the New World, and the Hudson River region would be known as the birthplace of American viticulture. Much would have to be accomplished. In the intervening years, it would take generations, as it had in Europe's best wine regions, for the farmers to learn and understand their terroir - their climate, their dirt, their winds, and the vines themselves. They needed to breed generations of winter-hardy stock, and it would take French and American scientists to breed new strains of grapes that would flourish in the region. And it would take generations of winemakers to understand how to take their grapes and turn them into world-class wines.
Today, the Hudson River Region is one of the hottest agricultural and artisanal food regions in the country. Its rebirth in the last 50 years has fulfilled the vision of Peter Stuyvesant. From artisanal breads, cheeses, and organic dairy products, to the numerous and highly-prized farms through-out the valley, to it's burgeoning wine trails, the region's products have won national and international acclaim, and have been recognized by major magazines and newspapers. There has never been a better time to be in the Hudson Valley.
The modern Valley takes shape as the first successful cross-bred plantings by Robert Underhill,
at Croton Point, launches the wine industry in the Hudson Valley. Read Part Two.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carlo De Vito is a 20-year executive of the book publishing industry, and has authored more than 15 books, including East Coast Wineries: The Complete Guide From Maine to Virginia (Rutgers University Press). Carlo writes the influential wine blog, www.eastcoastwineries.blogspot.com and co-owns with his wife, Dominique, the awardwinning Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent, NY. They have two children and two dogs.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Wendy Presseisen was born in rural upstate New York to an eccentric artist family, carrying a paintbrush before she could even utter her first words. For over 45 years, Wendy has been putting brush to canvas in a distinctive style, which now includes using her present medium, house paint. Her works have been proudly featured in many national publications and catalogs and appear in international shops and galleries. More of Wendy's work, including Hudson River landscapes, can be viewed at www.artwendy.com