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Up and Coming: Ten Grape Varieties Take Root in the Hudson Valley

close up of Grape bunch from Millbrook Winery

The Hudson Valley region is already noted for its wines produced from grape varieties such as Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc, and more recently, Cabernet Franc. But as a grape grower and winemaker with more than thirty-five years of experience working with the terroir and in the cellars, I have my sights set on several other grape varieties that I believe will come into their own over the next decade. All of these grapes are now being grown in limited quantities in vineyards across the Hudson Valley and Capital Region, and in some cases, are already being made into interesting, quality wines. Here are ten varieties (plus one for good measure) that consumers should watch for.

Burgundian Styles

The Hudson Valley and Burgundy, France, have similar climates, geography, and soils; in short, both of these areas are superb for the production of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gamay Noir. With no disrespect to our brothers and sisters in wine on the West Coast, these same wines produced in the Hudson Valley can be more subtle, integrated, and rounder, or, “more French” than the yummy, but still very jammy, fruit-forward wines of the West Coast.

Chardonnay  A versatile, white wine grape in the cellar that can make many different styles of wine: bright and yeasty sparkling wines; austere, steely wines of great intellect; big, fat buttery wines full of vanilla; or easy-drinking table wines. Our local Chardonnays tend to be more subtle with great presence, and more Burgundian in style than most Chardonnays made in other parts of the U.S. They tend to be crisp and flinty with fruits of green apples, lemons, and grapefruit; or softer wines of vanilla, melons, pears, tropical fruits, and old bananas.

Pinot Noir  Like Burgundian Pinots, Hudson valley Pinots are firm, but velvety with a solid tannin structure; soft, but with a firm underlying body and structure, like a steel girder wrapped in velvet. The flavors include strawberry jam, red cherries, raspberries, raisins, black pepper/spice, vanilla, chocolate, and barnyard flavors which can exhibit plum and eucalyptus notes that layer nicely with cedar and sweet smoke.

circle cropped photo of Gamay Noir grapesGamay Noir  Produces big, dark, complex wines with some tannin and great aging potential, somewhat similar to those wines being produced in Beaujolais. These dark wines have more body, black cherry, blackberries, chocolate, and black pepper flavors when compared to Pinot Noir.

French-American Hybrids

French-American hybrids have excellent quality in the cellar, but can often be grown in the Hudson Valley in a much more sustainable manner than European vinifera grape varieties.

circle cropped photo of Burdin Noir grapesBurdin Noir  This promising red variety is more than one-quarter vinifera, bred circa 1925 by Joanny Burdin in the Saône-et- Loire Department in the middle of Burgundy. This productive variety makes a superior wine with great aging potential. The wine’s color has hues of light beet juice. It has a pronounced berry nose and a soft, but full, tannin structure, with a long clean finish. The flavor profile is of strawberry jam, pomegranates, and lots of berries with a pleasant gamey/grassy undertone.

Chelois  An excellent vinifera-like red wine that is complex and approachable, with great balance and tannin structure. It is also a good performer in the field. Chelois was developed by Dr. Seibel (1844-1936) in the Ardeche Department in the Rhone-Alpes region of France, south of Lyon. Chelois has soft, mature fruit, medium-bodied tannin structure, and an approachable acid profile that ages well to twenty years. Chelois is a sophisticated wine, so it has many descriptors. It is very Burgundian and similar to a dark Pinot Noir or a gamay Noir. The wine’s color is medium red, with a nose that is aromatic, complex, and layered with elements of dried fruits, smoky wood, cedar box, black cherry, raspberries and other berries, strawberry jam, and a spiciness reminiscent of eucalyptus and anise. Chelois has a firm, but approachable acid/tannin profile that can easily stand on its own with lovely elements of soft black pepper.

Vidal Blanc  The genetic make-up of vidal Blanc is 75% vinifera. It was created by Jean-Louis Vidal (1880-1976) of Bois-Charentes, just northeast of Bordeaux, near Cognac. Vidal’s parent is Ugni Blanc, which is used to produce brandy in France. Vidal, along with Seyval Blanc (also grown extensively in the Hudson valley) share the same common parent, Rayon d’Or. This high-acid, white wine grape is very versatile in the cellar and can make either bone-dry, steely white wines; barrel-aged Fumé Blanc type wines; sparkling wines; or sweet dessert and ice wines. Without oak aging, vidal can be very clean and metallic with floral and resinous notes that include flavors of pineapple, grapefruit, melon, hazelnuts, pears, orange blossoms, spice, dried flowers, and lead pencil shavings. As a Fumé Blanc-type wine, vidals are more complex with smoky notes, rich spice, and butter flavors that elongate its finish. These vidals have flavors of ripe pears, orange rinds, vanilla, and almonds. As an ice wine, vidal Blanc has the classic Rhine-wine qualities of rich honey, citrus flavors reminiscent of grand Marnier, and hazelnuts, with an underlying metallic finish.

Cool Climate Types

These two grape varieties can easily be grown in the cooler, more mountainous areas of the region.

Léon Millot  Also called Millot Noir, this small-circle cropped photo of Leon Millot grapesberried, black variety was bred in 1911 by Eugène Kuhlmann (1858-1932) of Alsace, France.  Léon Millot is a very big, aromatic, chewy, herbaceous, and earthy red wine that is more reminiscent of a Rhône or big Italian or Spanish red. Its tannin structure is also big and its color is inky. It is rich and complex for a French hybrid grape, with a flavor profile that includes cooked mulberries and blueberries, chokecherries, tobacco, chocolate, black olives, licorice, and charcoal. It produces a layered wine with elements of leather, bacon, thyme, aged mahogany, eucalyptus, and earth.

La Crescent  This quality white grape was developed by the University of Minnesota and released in 2002. The wine is generally perfumey and fruity with a nose and flavor of apricots, but it can also have flavors that range from apples to white peaches, tropical fruits, pineapples, mangoes, and honey. The wine has good body and is balanced with elegant fruit flavors, similar to vignoles or Riesling. Its acids can range from firm to high, hence wines tend to be made semi-dry to offset this acidity.

Heirloom Varieties

The last three up-and-coming grape varieties – Agawam, Empire State, and Jefferson – are heirloom grapes that were bred in the middle of the 19th century, either in the Hudson valley or the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, north of Boston. Unlike the other grape varieties mentioned, these are dual-purpose grapes that can be used either as table grapes or for the production of wine. Both empire State and Jefferson were bred by James H. Ricketts (1818-1915) of Newburgh, NY, during the 1870s and 1880s. By trade, Ricketts was a bookbinder, but he was clearly one of the most successful and prolific grape breeders in the U.S., and worked very closely with the Newburgh nurseryman Charles Downing. Edward Staniford Rogers (1826-1899), of Salem, MA, was from the established Brahmin family from the Boston area who were engaged in the merchant shipping business.

Agawam  This variety was bred in 1850 by E.S. Rogers and is a hybrid of a local native New England grape called Carter and Black Hamburg. The berry color of Agawam is a dark and dull purplish-red, with a lilac bloom. The berry is large to very large, somewhat bigger than Concord. It makes a quality white wine with great body, and is aromatic and fruity with a Muscat flavor and herbal finish that blends well with other white wines.

circle cropped photo of Empire State grapesEmpire State Ricketts introduced this very productive white wine grape in 1884. The wines made from empire State are clean, its acids are well balanced and it is floral in nose and taste. The wines are a pale light green to yellow; soft, not too foxy, with a fruit of pink grapefruit, slight appealing petroleum, pears, bananas, soft melons; bright, full, and flinty, with a long clean finish.

Jefferson  This red/bronze-colored grape was introduced by Ricketts in 1880. It is a hybrid of Concord and Iona; Iona being another local grape that was bred on Iona Island, in what is now Harriman State Park. It is a dual-purpose grape that has a large and lovely cluster and berry size. The light pale golden-colored wines are of excellent quality and similar to a light Sauterne in taste, acid profile, viscosity, and body, with fruits of apricots, soft labruscas, honey, pears, melons, and light almonds.

A closer look at these and other grape varietals can be found in the author’s comprehensive book on the subject, Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada. Available at FlintMinePress.com.