A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chambourcin - Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, USA

I first had wine made from the Chambourcin grape at an airport.  Many years ago, the airport in Charlotte, NC used to have a tiny little wine bar tucked away in one of its darker corners that focused exclusively on wines made in the state of North Carolina.  During a layover there one year when I was flying to visit my parents, my wife and I spotted it and since it was much less crowded than any of the other airport bars, we decided to give it a shot.  I was fairly ignorant about wine at the time and was looking more for a drink than anything else.

The pourer was very nice and knowledgeable, but most importantly he was very patient.  He was clearly used to people seeing North Carolina wines as a kind of novelty and he seemed determined to try and change that perception.  The little wine bar offered several different flight options that covered a wide variety of styles made within the state, and I remembered being very impressed with many of the wines on offer.  At the time, I knew just enough to know that North Carolina wasn't exactly a wine powerhouse, but I didn't know enough to be predisposed to the idea of North Carolina wine one way or the other, which it turns out is a pretty good way to discover an awful lot of things.

One of the wines that we enjoyed and ended up buying a bottles of was a Chambourcin.  At the time, of course, I didn't know the different between Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc, and I had no idea that Chambourcin was anything other than a regular old wine grape.  I always remembered it, though, as it made a very favorable impression on me at the time, and I was a little vexed that I couldn't find anything called Chambourcin at my local wine shops.  Over time, as I became more experienced with wine, I started to understand that Chambourcin wasn't just any old grape, and today I'd like to tell you a little more about it.

Chambourcin is one of the French Hybrids, so called because, well, they were created in France.  See, after phylloxera devastated the European vines in the mid 18th Century, the French were desperately trying to find some way to keep their wine industry afloat while combating the tiny louse.  The major French agricultural research schools were devoting nearly all of their time and resources to understanding and defeating phylloxera, but many growers still had to earn a living, so they turned to Native American varieties as a stop-gap measure, since many of those grapes were naturally resistant to the louse.  It turned out that the Native American grapes have a particular kind of aroma and taste derisively referred to as "foxiness" that the European palate could not adjust to, and it was quickly realized that pure Native American varieties were not going to be the long-term answer.  Many private growers began to experiment with crossing the European vinifera varieties with these Native American species to see if perhaps they could breed some of the unwelcome flavors out while retaining many of the positive features of the grapes, such as their resistance to disease and their high levels of productivity.

Depending on your perspective, their results were either incredibly successful or incredibly dismaying.  They did succeed in creating many different hybrid species that lacked the signature foxiness of their Native American forbears, but the resulting species were (and for the most part still are) still considered vastly inferior to their European forbears.  The growers loved the hybrid grapes because they didn't have to spend as much money on pesticides and fungicides and the crops that the hybrids produced were heavy and profitable.  The hybrids were especially popular in northern France where the climate is marginal for vinifera grapes for the most part, but where the hybrids and their cold-hardiness thrived.  The French government wasn't too happy about it, as the booming hybrid production in northern France affected the prices for much of the bulk wine produced in southern France, and they decided to do something about it.  In the 1950's and 60's, France outlawed the use of hybrids in any designated French wine, meaning that producers could not (and still cannot) even use the lowly vin de table designation for their wines with hybrid grapes in them.  From a peak of nearly 1,000,000 acres of hybrids planted in France in 1958, the total has fallen to under 50,000 acres today.

Despite what many of them would have you believe, the French are not the only people on Earth who grow grapes and make wine, though, and many of the French hybrids are still in use today in European countries like Germany and the UK that have many areas that are too cold to reliably grow vinifera grapes.  The hybrids also found a home in the United States in areas where the climactic conditions are too extreme for vinifera cultivation (namely, anywhere that isn't on the west coast).  The criticisms of wines made from these grapes are still around and are still mostly salient, though, as the wines produced from them are never going to have the depth and complexity of the finest wines in the world, but growers and producers in many of these regions just don't have any other viable options.  It's not just that vinifera grapes wouldn't fully ripen in many of these areas, it's that the climactic conditions may actually kill the vinifera vines, and it takes time and money to replant and regrow vines after they die.  I'm not defending hybrids planted absolutely everywhere, but I am saying that they aren't absolute evil wherever they pop up, and if you run across one, approach it with an open mind and you may be surprised.

Chambourcin is one of the hybrids that it is worth taking a chance on.  It is widely regarded as one of the better French hybrids, and it still is the third most planted grape in the Muscadet region of France (though I have no idea what they do with the grapes there).  It was created in the 1860's by a French hybridizer named Joannes Seyve who must not have kept very good records, as the grape's exact parentage is a mystery (it is thought to be a crossing between a Seibel crossing and another of Joannes Seyve's hybrids, but this far removed from the process, it is virtually impossible to say with any certainty).  It is also known as "Joannes Seyve 26-205," but some official French body changed it to the much snappier Chambourcin.  It was not commercially available until 1963, for some reasonIt has a fairly long growing season and isn't as cold hardy as many of the hybrids are, so it tends to be planted in warmer areas.

The wine bar in the Charlotte airport closed a year or two after I first discovered it, and I don't trust my notes on the wine I had to be of any value at this point in time, so unfortunately I won't be writing about that experience.  A few years later, though, I was visiting my sister in law in Philadelphia and I wandered into the Clover Hill Winery shop in the King of Prussia mall (which has also, sadly, closed, though the winery is still in business).  I was very excited to see that they made a Chambourcin, so I picked up their 2008 offering for about $15.  In the glass, the wine was a deep purple-ruby color that was opaque nearly all the way out to the rim (Chambourcin is well-known for its deeply colored wines). The nose was nicely aromatic with black cherry, spice box, blackberry and toasty vanilla notes.  It had a lot of oak character to it, which had me a little on edge at this point.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acid and low tannins.  There were tart blackberry, sour cherry and raspberry flavors with some baking spice, charcoal and smoke.  The wine was very tart and surprisingly thin, and the oak influence was very noticeable.  Overall, it was clunky and out of balance, I thought, and needed more weight on the palate to carry the oak that it was richly covered in.  It had a good amount of complexity, but ultimately was just an OK wine.  There are much better examples of this grape out there, and I'd encourage you to visit your local winery and see if they are doing anything with this grape.  Even if they aren't, visit your local winery anyway and discover what kind of treasures your backyard may have to offer.


Tracey Werner said...

Thank you for featuring the Lehigh Valley region of eastern PA in your writeup on Chambourcin. Our nonprofit wine trail is home to 8 wineries, each of which produces Chambourcin. It's the official wine grape of our region and we host an annual weekend event each October to feature it.

In the greater Lehigh Valley, there are more than 40 acres of Chambourcin, which ferment into 150,000 bottles of wine.

Chambourcin is very versatile in the wine cellar and the wineries craft it into several styles of wine including Nouveau, Rosé, Semi- Sweet, Sweet, Dry Barrel Aged, Sparkling and Port.

We'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the other varieties of Chambourcin made here since each one is a little different then the next thanks to the terroir. Cheers!

Fringe Wine said...

Hi Tracey:

Thanks for your comment. I don't find myself in the eastern Pennsylvania area too often, but I'll be sure to check out some of the other wineries when I get a chance.

I've had this Chambourcin from Clover Hill twice. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but wasn't as happy with this bottle. I also have a bottle of their De Chaunac which I hope to drink and review soon.

Thanks for reading,