Mark Chien, Pennsylvania state viticulturist writes:
There has been a lot of fussing recently over the homogenization of wine as flying wine makers zoom around the planet and wine critics nudge wineries towards their own preferred styles. This worry about wine “sameness” may be good or bad depending on what you like to drink but from where I sit in Pennsylvania the concern seems a bit overwrought. There is no disagreement that wine pundits are experts at what they do and, in fact, they may know which are the best wines. But the best may not be the same as what someone likes so there is plenty of elbow room for all of us to find wines that we enjoy. The wine world is a great democracy and we vote with our palates and wallets. A teensy-tiny segment of it is worshiped in the popular wine press but the rest carries on extremely well without the pomp and circumstance – so why not a try a Chambourcin from Pennsylvania?
After growing grapes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for 16 years my own palate was firmly entrenched in Vitis vinifera and, more specifically, Pinot Noir. So it was quite a rude awakening when I moved to Pennsylvania as the state viticulturist to be confronted by names like Traminette and Concord. But my own varietal epiphany came on a warm summer evening at Nissley Vineyards during one of their weekend summer concerts. Hundreds of people, mostly youthful in appearance, gathered to enjoy the music, food and wine. I could not help but notice that everyone was having a very good time and almost everyone was drinking sweet to semi-sweet wines of a hybrid or native variety. Mon dieu! These wines were providing as much enjoyment as any cult Napa Cab and at a much better price. The wine delivered exactly the experience that we all hope for – a perfect partner for good food, fellowship, conversation and fun. Would their experience have been enhanced if they were drinking an expensive wine? Are these pleasant folks drinking sweet hybrid wines any less a wine drinker than the Bordeaux consumer? I would argue no on both counts.
This revelation of varietal diversity is reinforced by my experience as a wine judge at regional competitions in the Eastern US and the Vinalies Internationales wine competition in Paris [where Mark and I met many years ago- JR]. In Paris it is not uncommon to endure overripe, overextracted, over-everything red wines whose harsh, dry tannins make them virtually undrinkable, alone or with food. On the opposite extreme it is excruciatingly difficult not to give a Concord wine of such great purity and vibrancy of flavour that it represents the grape as much as the colour blue is in the Hope Diamond or Crater Lake. Yes, it is possible to make (and enjoy) a great Concord wine.
There is a wonderful world of wine variety diversity out there and it is only the poor sods who fancy themselves as wine connoisseurs that are limited to the dozen or so socially acceptable varieties and even further restricted by the particular style that is currently in vogue. Wine has been part of human culinary and social culture for 9000 years when the Chinese made wine from hawthorn berries. Oh, did I forget to mention fruit wines? Try visiting Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, Massachusetts if you want to taste the subtle and delicious flavours of dry peach and varietal apple wines. They would be as comfortable on the dinner table as any overcropped Pinot Grigio or overoaked Chardonnay.
The grape breeding program at Cornell University has just released three new hybrid varieties, a white called Valvin Muscat and two reds called Corot Noir and Noiret. While not designed to replace classic vinifera varieties each has its own utility and character. These can be added to a list of varieties such as Cayuga White, Traminette, Chardonel which have all been established as commercial wine varieties in the US. There are thousands of grape varieties within the genus Vitis and many are obscure and limited to small wine growing regions around the world. But they are out there and ready to be discovered by the adventurous consumer. Access may be an issue but if you can’t travel to Greece or South Africa why not try looking closer to home?
If you are worried about the future of varietal diversity visit Vynecrest Vineyards in Pennsylvania, Chrysalis Vineyard in Virginia or Jewell Towne Vineyard in New Hampshire. At Vynecrest John Landis has never met a grape he would not stick into the ground to see what comes out of the tank. He may have more experimental varieties with only numbered-designations than named varieties. It’s nouveau time - how about a terrifically fruity nouveau made from Dornfelder? Peter Oldak at Jewell Towne is on a mission to bring Landot Noir back to respectability. And why not use a heritage table grape called Alden to make a wonderful fresh, crisp and delicious, light-bodied red wine? At Chrysalis Vineyards Jennifer McCloud is on a mission to make Norton, a red grape from Vitis aestivalis, the signature American grape since Zinfandel’s true origin has been revealed. Jenny also grows Petit Manseng and Albarino in…Virginia? And they make gorgeous wines!
I do not fret about the loss of varietal diversity in the wine world. I would much prefer a crisp, dry Vidal Blanc from coastal Rhode Island to yet another dull Chardonnay from a too-hot climate. One problem may be is that wine snobs are lazy and not intellectually curious about wine. Their idea of a challenge is how to crack the mailing list of cult wine XYZ. I feel sorry for those who succumb to the allure of 90s and social acceptance in wine. The truth is that even with all the influence wielded over our palates by Mr Parker, the Wine Spectator and flying-around wine makers there will never be enough of them to put even a small dent in the amazing diversity of wine in even a small area such as Eastern North America, much less the world! I am not arguing against Cabernet in Napa or Riesling by the Finger Lakes but there is so much more to discover and enjoy if the curiosity and sense of adventure allows.
Moving to Pennsylvania opened my eyes to few interesting human traits related to growing wine. People love wines everywhere and a lot of people decide that they want to make wine even in places where even God might question if grape culture was meant to be. Minnesota, for example, where low winter temperatures typically reach -35 deg C (vinifera survives to -18 deg C) so they have bred varieties such as Marquette and La Crescent to survive, thrive and make wine. Is it wine that a wine snob would ever allow touch his lips? Oh the humanity! Oh the acidity! People outside of the generally accepted great wine regions like where they live and want to try to grow wine there. There is a tremendous sense of place in our human nature. Many of them could easily pack up their lives and move to Napa or Oregon but they want to stay where they feel at home. The other thing about our wine world is once you get outside the city limits the palate gets sweeter as the distance increases. That’s the rural palate and wineries in the woods learn to make wines to suit those preferences because, as a rule, a small local winery sells retail and can hand sell just about anything.
After almost 30 years in this business, both doing and teaching viticulture, I find wine to be one of the most intellectually challenging products that I have ever encountered. I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to grow a good grape and countless generations before me have done the same. Before it was Pinot Noir in Oregon and now it is Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin in Pennsylvania. The sheer complexity of the wine “system” demands a thoughtfulness and natural curiosity that can coax a fine wine in a new terroir. Everyday presents new challenges and that is joy in growing wine that is passed on to the wine consumer.
How to find these unique and interesting wines may be a challenge depending on the infrastructure that gives you access to wine. If you live in Pennsylvania you can forget about going to a state-controlled store to buy any wine that an actuarial has deemed unprofitable. Instead, smaller wine shops with owners who have a natural curiosity about the world of wine and are willing to bring in non-traditional names (producers and grapes) to expose their customers to the big wide world of wine. Again, intellectual curiosity is the motive for discovery.
The catalyst for this commentary was an article by Eric Asimov in The New York Times about an encounter with Ms Robinson [that’s me – JR] at a none-too-trendy West Village restaurant with a creative wine list. He was nervous about the choice, trying to impress Ms Robinson as any of us would naturally attempt to do but she found the mix and match of Southeast Asian foods and non-mainstream wines a delight. Well, she should know, having authored a few of the authoritative guides on wine grape varieties. I recommend you browse through her [horribly out of date; try the grape variety entries in the new, 3rd edn of The Oxford Companion to Wine – JR] book Vines, Grapes and Wines to get a sense of the tremendous diversity of grape varieties we have to choose from and how we have allowed ourselves to fall into that reductionist mentality and trap that offers security but not much challenge or surprise.
I would be the last person in the world to deny a glass of fine wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Riesling and I readily admit that I have my own stylistic preferences that I can become belligerent about. These are great wines and the measure of great wine in the international marketplace. We live in an inescapably loud marketing world where we are constantly being told what to like and buy. Our only weapon against all the bluster is our freedom of choice. I simply argue that as wine lovers we should seek to expand our horizons and, now and again, take the plunge into a wine grape we do not know and probably cannot even pronounce or have the courage to drink a lightly coloured red wine and thoroughly enjoy it.
Mark Chien has been viticulture advisor for The Pennsylvania State University since 1999. Prior to that he was a wine grower for 20 years and studied viticulture at UC Davis.