Whitecliff Vineyards: A hidden treasure in the Hudson River ValleyNovember 16,2012
Wine production in America has long been dominated by the West Coast. Ever since the 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” the wines of California have thrived on the international stage, and the wines of Oregon and Washington were quick to follow in their footsteps. Together, these three states have combined to produce a West Coast centric view of American wines, with the wines of New York State serving as the only evidence that quality wines could be produced on the East Coast. Sadly, faced with distribution challenges, small scale production, and myriad sources of competition in an American wine market that is becoming ever more globalized, most New York State wines have remained an undiscovered treasure for most wine consumers.
However, the exposure being afforded to New York wines has expanded rapidly in recent years. This development is not surprising, as Vitis vinifera vines were not planted in New York until the late 1950’s, when Dr. Konstantin Frank demonstrated that Riesling, and subsequently other noble grape varietals, could be grown in New York’s cold climate. Prior to that time, viticulture in New York had been largely limited to Vitis labrusca grapes (e.g. Concord and Catawba) which are native to the region. When compared to California’s viticultural history, where the growth of Vitis vinifera vines can be traced to the 1860’s, it is easy to see why New York’s evolution as a world class wine producing region has only recently begun to be recognized.
Much of the publicity surrounding New York’s wines in recent years has focused on the Long Island and Finger Lakes regions. Lettie Teague, of the Wall Street Journal, and Eric Asimov, of the New York Times, have each written articles praising the emergence of both regions’ wines — red and white. Although Riesling has historically been the signature grape of the Finger Lakes, and to an extent, of New York wines in general, other grape varietals, including Gewurztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Lemberger (Blaufrankisch), are rapidly emerging as New York varietals to take note of. Yet, with all the attention that has been focused on Long Island and the Finger Lakes, another historic New York region has been largely overlooked.
New York’s Hudson River Valley is one of the four major wine regions in New York (Lake Erie is the other). It is home to the oldest vineyards in the state (planted by the French Huguenots in 1677), and to the oldest continually operating winery in the United States (Brotherhood Winery, established 1839). Yet due to the fact that the region doesn’t receive a plethora of critical attention, on my first visit earlier this year, I had little idea what to expect.
A small family run estate, founded in 1979 by Michael Migliore and his wife, Yancey, Whitecliff Vineyards was far and away the most impressive wine tasting experience that we enjoyed on that trip. While I was taken with the winery’s small family atmosphere, the stunning views of the nearby Shawangunk Cliffs that loom over the vineyards, and the overall tasting lineup, I was most impressed by the winery’s 2010 Pinot Noir during my initial visit to Whitecliff. Given the relatively cool climate in the Hudson Valley, I was somewhat skeptical about the region’s capability to produce quality Pinot Noir. Yet, as I put my nose to the glass, I was greeted with bright, vibrant aromas of red cherries, balanced by notions of earth and smoke. The wine was similarly impressive on the palate — elegant, lithe, and light-bodied, with flavors of bing cherry, mineral notes, and good acidity. It could have easily been confused for a leaner red Burgundy from the Cote de Beaune, or a slightly more robust Cru Beaujolais.
I returned to Vermont that evening, toting a bottle of Whitecliff Pinot Noir that I planned to enjoy later that summer. We opened the bottle in September and it was every bit as delicious as it had been in the tasting room. As we sipped the wine, I wondered if the Pinot Noir had been produced from estate fruit - that is, grown on site at Whitecliffe, or if it had been sourced from a neighboring region, like Long Island, or the Finger Lakes. Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow, and although I had read that top-quality Pinot Noir was emerging from New York, a small part of me wondered if the grape could thrive in a cold, northerly climate, without the moderating effects of a lake or ocean. Was the Hudson River Valley really capable of producing top-flight Pinot Noir? I wondered. I decided to contact the winery to find out.
After a few rounds of phone tag, and email exchanges, I was able to connect with Tristan Migliore, Whitecliff’s Wine Club Manager, and son of owners, Michael and Yancey. Tristan wasn’t sure of the percentage of the Pinot Noir that was estate grown, but he assured me that a good percentage of the grapes used in the wine were grown at the estate. Tristan told me that Whitecliff attempts to grow as many grapes on site as was possible, and then augments the estate grapes with grapes from a combination of vineyards that they manages in the Hudson Valley, the North Fork of Long Island, and the Fingerlakes. Tristan explained that the varied growing conditions with each vintage influenced the amount that could be grown on site.
“The percentage of grapes grown on site varies year to year and from varietal to varietal and we always try to grow as much as we can on site,” Tristan said. “In general, I’d say that anywhere from 40%-60% is grown on site.”
“We grow a large variety of different vines on site and plant more almost every year,” Tristan continued, noting that Seyval Blanc, Traminitte, Noiret, Pinot Noir are the most widely planted varietals among the twenty-plus that are currently planted at Whitecliff.
The first three are hybrid grapes, which are common in cold climate wine growing regions, as they are bred to withstand the cold conditions. However, given the nature of Northeast winters, I was surprised and extremely impressed by the fact that significant estate plantings of Pinot Noir not only existed, but were thriving at Whitecliff. When determining what grapes to plant in the Hudson Valley climate, the Migliore family’s decision is based in large part on trial and error.
“We usually plant small portions of new varietals and see how they do in the winters and spring. If they can handle the weather, then we plant more!” Tristan said enthusiastically.
Though not all the grapes are grown on site, a trip to the Whitecliff tasting room is ample evidence to conclude that significant winemaking expertise exists at the estate. In September, my girlfriend and I returned to the Whitecliff tasting room, to find that the 2011 vintage of the Pinot Noir had been released, and the 2010 Pinot Noir had sold out. The Pinot Noir was young, but showed the promise of its predecessor from 2010. In addition, a new wine, a Merlot-Malbec blend from the 2011 vintage, now graced the tasting room table. After one sip, my girlfriend and I looked at each other, and knew that we’d found something special. Warm aromas of honeyed red fruit, and floral notes wafted from the glass, while vibrant flavors of fresh black cherry coated the palate. I grabbed a bottle of each to take home, as Whitecliff wines are not currently distributed in Vermont.
Until Whitecliff wines obtain broader distribution — Tristan assured me it was something the winery was looking into — my girlfriend and I will continue to be content to visit the tasting room on trips to New Paltz, and buy a few bottles to take home to Vermont. The drive from Burlington is only about 4 hours each way, making it two hours closer to Vermont than either the Finger Lakes, or Long Island. Those regions may get the lion’s share of publicity when it comes to wines from New York State, but the wines from Whitecliff present a compelling reason not to forget the Hudson Valley. In addition to their stellar reds, Whitecliff also produces a lineup of white wines which are definitely worth exploring, and include the winery’s best selling wine, the Awosting White. A blend of Seyval Blanc and Vignoles, it is named after a lake and waterfall in the nearby Minnewaska State Park Preserve, home to fabulous scenery and hiking. Combining a hike at Minnewaska, followed by a tasting at Whitecliff, makes for a great day for any lover of great wine and natural beauty.
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