When you buy a bottle of American varietal wine, the name is on the label and there are both federal and state regulations that ensure that liquid inside is made from at least 75 percent of the grape that gives the wine its name. But what about the other 25 percent? What do Finger Lakes winemakers add to their vintages and why?
“Personally, I add for taste,” said Julia Hoyle, the winemaker at Hosmer Winery in Ovid, “not color. I’m not trying to imitate a hot-weather wine.” Red wines from warmer climates tend to be dark and full-bodied (“big”).
Vinny Aliperti, the winemaker at Atwater Estates Vineyard in Hector, blends almost every vintage. He said up to 5 percent of his varietal wines may be from other grapes. “They are added to improve complexity, mouth feel, and impact,” he said.
In his 2010 memoir The Fry Chronicles, British comedian Stephen Fry recalled the coincidence of his improving purchasing power in the 1980s and the advent of the sale of varietal wines. Although you will now find the names of grapes on Old World bottles, European wines are still often sold under their traditional names rather than as varietals. Chianti, for example, is made up largely of Sangiovese grapes, but also includes small percentages of other varieties. Bordeaux wines are usually mixtures of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, but some wineries add small amounts of Malbec or Carmenere. The latter, used only to add nuance in France, are bottled as varietals in Chile and Argentina.
Finger Lakes winemakers follow the established European model of making both blends and varietals. While traditional European blends are named for the regions where they originated. Barolo wine, made largely with Nebbiolo grapes, is produced in an Italian commune of the same name and a short list of other nearby Piedmont communes. Rioja wine, made largely from Tempranillo grapes, is bottled in a valley in northern Spain. In contrast, American blends are given their names by the wineries and are basically branded products.
The American varietals, on the other hand, follow much the same tradition as their European antecedents. The “protected designation of origin” (DOC) certifications originated in the early 15th century in France and other countries have used the same model. These regulations promise the consumer that the wine is what it says it is, and for wine that means two things: it comes from a particular place (the importance of terroir), and it is made from a particular grape or blend of grapes. In the United States the overseeing organization is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the Department of Treasury.
Under [TTB regulations] you may use the name of a single grape variety on a label as the type designation of a wine if : 75 percent or more of the wine is made from the named grape variety, … and the entire 75 percent of the named grape variety was grown in the labeled appellation of origin.
The winemakers interviewed do not come anywhere near the 25 percent mark allowed by the regulations. In fact, Seth Thomas, the winemaker at Shalestone Vineyard in Lodi, does not add wine from other grapes to his varietals at all. Shalestone is a small winery and in a given vintage year will make 200 cases of Cabernet Franc, 125 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 100 cases of Pinot Noir. Because this is a relatively small quantity of wine, Thomas feels adding anything too easily alters the essential character of the varietal.
At Hosmer, Hoyle takes a two-tiered approach. During the fermentation process she identifies “a few barrels” that stand out from the rest and puts them aside to be labeled as “reserve” bottles. The wine of no other grape is added to these barrels. The rest of vintage is subjected to blending trials. A small amount of Lemberger may be added to Pinot Noir, and Merlot to Cabernet Franc in order to give them a more “berry-forward” flavor.
Aliperti doesn’t like to add anything to Pinot Noir. “I don’t think you can blend it without it losing its character,” he said. “It’s a delicate variety; it’s easily bullied by other varieties.”
Hoyle was cautious about Pinot Noir too. She used it as an example of why blending in order to get a deeper color is not a good idea. In order to make a Finger Lakes Pinot look like it was from Oregon, you would have to add so much Lemberger that it wouldn’t be a Pinot Noir anymore.
“All these decisions are based on the personal preferences of the winemaker,” said the Atwater Estates winemaker. “My style is to think of it in terms of creating layers. The wine should be interesting, have energy and be ‘fruit-forward.’ You don’t want to bury it in oak or tannins.”
Cornell viticulturists have developed hybrid grapes that were intended to be used for blending with vinifera wines. Corot Noir and Noiret, which Cornell released in 2006, were not embraced by any of the winemakers interviewed. Hoyle did not use any hybrid grapes in her winemaking, citing their dearth of tannins. Aliperti said that Atwater Estates has one row of Noiret in its vineyard, which goes into the winery’s Big Blend bottle.
“I think most people are shying away from Corot Noir for color enhancement,” said Colin Grant, winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars in Lodi. “The body of this wine is really light and a ‘hybridy’ nose can become prevalent even at small percentages in a master blend. It’s been 12 years on the market now, and I really haven’t seen much fanfare for it among industry people.”
“In winemaking color should still be secondary to flavor and aroma,” said Grant when asked about adding Corot Noir to darken a wine. “If you don’t have good flavor and aroma, it won’t make any difference what color your wine is. Appearance should only carry so much weight, but that isn’t always the case.”
While blends are often less expensive, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily inferior to varietals. Remember: all Bordeaux red wines, for example, are blends. Thomas goes so far as to say he believes blended wines are always superior to straight varietals. Shalestone makes a “Meritage” — the trademarked name of a Bordeaux-style blend made in the U.S.— called Harmony, but also produces several other bottles that are less traditional combinations of grapes.
Varietal white wines are subject to the same regulations as the reds. Aliperti does not add much to his white varietals. “It’s the same argument as the Pinot Noir,” he said. “You don’t gain much by adding anything.” Hoyle, on the other hand, leaves her Sauvignon Blanc on the lees of Seyval Blanc, and she may add a small amount of semi-dry Riesling to Pinot Grigio in order to add some fruit flavor.
While most additions to varietal wines are made using finished wines at the end of the fermentation process, it is also possible to make a “field blend.” Hosmer has one row of Petit Verdot, which Hoyle will pick along with the Cabernet Franc grapes and send them through the fermentation together. There is are so few Petit Verdot grapes included that the vintage is called a Cabernet Franc, but the Petit Verdot fruit adds spiciness and their acidity makes the tannins in the wine stand out more.
The take-home point is that varietals are not necessarily purely one grape and this is a good thing. The idea of using the grape variety as a name for a wine is relatively new and historically many iconic wines are blends, so blending is part of the tradition. Winemakers know what qualities make a good wine, and they stay within their own conventions — more so than being bound by government regulations — in order to get those qualities into the bottle.•