Vidal Blanc, also known as Vidal 256, is a versatile grape that can be made into a bone-dry, steely wine for fish, a barrel-aged wine reminiscent of a Fumé Blanc, or an ice wine that can rival the best dessert Rhine wines produced in Germany. Vidal Blanc is a white grape that was developed in the 1930s by the French hybridizer, Jean Louis Vidal. Vidal’s primary goal in developing Vidal Blanc was to produce grapes suitable for the production of cognac (a wine that is made to be distilled into brandy and then aged in wood) in the Charentes region of France. He had no idea that his work would lead to the development of a grape variety that is as versatile as it is for the production of table wines and of great importance to the Eastern United States wine industry. Vidal Blanc tends to be grown in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and New England.
Vidal Blanc is a hybrid that crosses: a) the grape alternatively called St. Emilion in Cognac, France, Ugni Blanc in the south of France, and Trebbiano Toscano in Chianti, Italy; with b) the French-American hybrid grape hybridized by Albert Seibel called Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986). St. Emilion (aka Ugni Blanc and Trebbiano Toscano) is also used in Europe for the production of wine that is later distilled to make Cognac and Armagnac in France, and distilled spirits in Italy.
As noted earlier, this grape can make a wide range of wine styles including austere wines for fish, big fat Fumé Blanc-style wines if aged in oak, and Rhine wine-like dessert wines. The Hudson Valley, due to its climate, is capable of producing each of these three distinct styles.
As a crisp wine without wood aging, Vidal is very clean with floral and resinous notes that include flavors of pineapple, grapefruit, melon, hazelnuts, pears, and orange blossoms. It has high acid levels, so residual sugar is sometimes left to balance with the acid so that the wines do not taste too tart. It can also be made bone-dry and austere. Further, the wines can have the feel of May Wines in their fruit composition, mineral flinty body, and viscosity.
As a Fumé Blanc type of wine, the grapes are left on the vine for a longer period of time (two weeks longer than most or until about the first week of October) to increase their sugars, and more importantly, to reduce the grape’s acid profile. The wine is then aged in wood for at least six months to soften its body, brighten its nose, and give it more complex smoky notes, rich spice and butter flavors, and to elongate its finish. These wines are much more approachable than the steely Vidals described earlier. This style of Vidal is more nutty, buttery, complex and “greasy” (like gin). These wines have the flavor of ripe pears, orange rinds, vanilla, and almonds.
As an ice wine, Vidal has the classic Rhine-wine qualities of rich honey, citrus flavors reminiscent of Grand Marnier, and hazelnuts, with an underlying metallic finish like mineral water. These wines are great alone or with chocolate desserts. Vidal ice wines, like other ice wines, are rare and expensive due to the fact that the grapes stay on the vines until late November or December. While hanging, the grapes shrivel like raisins, so when they are finally pressed the grape yields little juice. This juice is highly concentrated in flavor and sugar.
Vidal Blanc is also used by several Hudson Valley wineries as a base wine that is blended with other grapes such as Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, and Vignoles. Vidal, on its own, has a more muted nose when compared to other white wine varietals, but it has a solid body and foundation. Vidal can be blended with other whites to brighten the taste and to add complexity.
Blended Vidals tend to be more interesting, more complex, and more complete than the individual component wines that make up these blends. So when visiting a local winery, ask about their white blends and what grape varieties are used in those blends. For fun, buy a few different varietal wines and have a blending party to see what blends you and your guests can come up with.
Vidal Blanc, due to its versatility in the cellar, its ability to be blended with other white wines, and its ability to be grown throughout the Hudson Valley, should continue to have a prominent place in the Hudson Valley wine scene for decades to come.