You’ve heard that wine is part art, part science. That couldn’t be more true for the wines being made in and around the Capital Region.
Although most grape varieties could never have survived here as recently as 20 years ago, scientifically engineered hybrids are flourishing, able to withstand temperatures as cold as 30 degrees below zero. In short, the Finger Lakes have some friendly New York-based competition.
Dozens of wineries within a two-hour drive of Albany have popped up in the past decade, due in no small part to the hybrid grapes being bred by Cornell University and the University of Minnesota. Both are widely recognized as two of the top — if not the top two — wine grape research programs in the country.
“Truly, God bless their souls,” said Joe Messina, winemaker and owner of Amorici Vineyard in Washington County. “Believe me, they come out with a new variety very year,” he added.
That explains the recent boom — science has made possible what was once impossible.
And locals who could once have only dreamed of owning and operating a vineyard have taken full advantage.
Andrew Weber, who owns Northern Cross Vineyard in Washington County with his wife, Kathleen, estimated that close to 30 varieties, possibly more, are grown in the Upper Hudson region. He said he and his fellow local winemakers are “like kids in a candy store” when it comes to picking out new grape varieties from a catalogue.
But there are a few tried-and-true standards that do especially well in this area.
“Marquette, Frontenac in particular, are good to minus-30 degrees,” he said. Weber works full time for GE, but somehow finds time enough to serve as head winemaker. The Webers planted their first grapes in 2011 and opened their vineyard in 2014. They have sold out every year since, according to Kathleen Weber. They only use estate-grown grapes.
Gary Akrop has been making wine for more than 20 years and grows his Marquette grapes right on-property.
He opened Ledge Rock Hill Winery in Corinth in 2010 and specializes in barrel-aged reds and fruit-infused moderately sweet wines.
“We’re in a different agricultural zone than the Finger Lakes. So most of us can’t grow here what grows there,” he said. Akrop sticks to cold-climate grapes — those hybrids bred by Cornell and the University of Minnesota. “They’re ahead of the curve, so to speak,” he said, referring to the grape-breeding business overall.
But the grape-growing business locally is still in its infancy. “It’s emerging,” he added. “It’s going to get bigger.”
When Carlo and Dominique DeVito opened Hudson-Chatham Winery in 2007, they were the only one in Columbia County. “Now there are three wineries,” she said. “Thirteen craft beverage businesses in total.”
Dominique is all for it. The more, the merrier, she said. “This is good for everyone, as it brings an awareness of the quality of craft beverages that can be made locally.”
Even better? Most of the wineries noted here use exclusively New York state grapes, which means you can truly drink local while you eat local.
“This whole thing is connected with the farm-to-table movement,” Messina said, referring to the trend that’s spurring area wineries to action. People just really like drinking the “fresh, nuanced wines” being made here. If people weren’t drinking, they wouldn’t be buying, and business wouldn’t be booming, he added.
“I also think the taste [preference] has changed. The younger population is understanding the flavor profile we’re doing these days, and they’re loving it,” he said. Most of Messina’s wines are fruit-forward.
So what exactly, makes these hybrids hardy enough to withstand a normal New York winter?
“The real advantage is that they have secondary and tertiary buds,” DeVito said. So if you have a late frost in May, for example, and all of the buds that started die out, you no longer lose your total crop. You get a second chance.
The success of these hybrids locally has also made something else possible — a wine region based right here in the Capital Region.
The Webers have taken action to secure the same recognition afforded the Finger Lakes region, by filing a petition with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to designate the Upper Hudson region as a unique American Viticultural Area. What that means is that the area spanning seven counties — Albany, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie and Washington — would be federally classified as distinct from any surrounding areas growing grapes.
In short, once the petition goes through — and the Webers said they have no reason to believe it won’t — this region will become a “real” wine region. The regulation is expected to pass sometime in 2017, as there are a few other regions queued up and awaiting their designation. “But all the paperwork is in,” Andrew Weber said.
As of today, 18 wineries have signed the petition and are slated for inclusion in the Upper Hudson AVA, but that could expand slightly in the coming months. Stay tuned, because a wine map trail may be somewhere in the future.