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.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chardonel - Finger Lakes, New York

Researching hybrid grapes can be brutally and mind-numbingly boring sometimes.  There are the occasional interesting cases of older grapes like Delaware, but the closer you get to the present day, the less interesting the back-stories for these grapes tend to be.  Generally speaking, these hybrids have been created in a laboratory setting in order to meet a specific need, such as cold-hardiness or disease resistance, and their status as engineered products puts off a lot of people who are seduced by the romance of nature in grapes and wine.  Most of the information that is published about these grapes reflects this utilitarian functionality and is aimed more for growers and for researchers than for consumers.  It tends to be loaded with descriptions about the vine's temperature preferences, disease resistance and susceptibilities, yields, and more physical description of each part of the plant than you would ever want to know.  There are few places to try and get a good narrative foothold since there's rarely any kind of mysterious back story or human angle in the grape's creation.  Sure, the grapes are ultimately made by people (scientists are people after all), but the creation stories for these grapes almost never focus on them, opting for information about their pedigree and behavior in the field instead, which ultimately ends up coming across as sterile and dull.  They're basically plant catalogs whose function is to convey a certain kind of information as simply and efficiently as possible.

This certainly isn't the case for all hybrids and crossings.  Some of the older hybrids and crossings are interesting because there is a distinct human element present in their story.  Grapes like St. Croix, for instance, which was created by an amateur in Wisconsin in his own back yard.  Or grapes that were created by people like Harold Olmo or Albert Seibel who were prolific in their efforts and were extraordinarily successful in creating a large number of grapes that are still somewhat widely cultivated today.  I like to think of these guys as mad scientists in flickering rooms cluttered with arcane equipment who are hell bent on unleashing their huge armies of Frankengrapes upon the world.  People like that are out of date now, though, as most grapes are created by teams of scientists at breeding institutions who are fortunate if any of their creations are ever made available for public use.  In the case of the Chardonel grape, the published paper announcing the grape's release has eleven authors on it, which should give you some sense of the collaborative effort required for its creation.  One man who creates a dozen grapes is interesting but a dozen people who create one grape is a different story altogether.

But Chardonel was created and it is available for commercial propagation.  Since I was able to track down a bottle of it, I'm going to tell you the most interesting things that I've been able to find out about it.  Chardonel was created at Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, in 1953 from a crossing of Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay.  Seyval Blanc is itself a hybrid which is grown mainly in cooler climate regions like the Finger Lakes in New York and, surprisingly, in England.  The full pedigree for Chardonel can be seen here and it's an interesting view of just how grueling it can be to create a viable hybrid.    If you just stopped the family tree at Chardonel's parents, it would look like a fairly simple project, but as you go deeper and look at the family tree for Seyval Blanc, it gets dizzying in a hurry.  All of those fields that are simply letters and numbers are other hybrid grapes created by other hybridizers which were never deemed good enough for commercial release and thus never named.  The letters represent the hybridizers last names (S = Seibel, for example) and the numbers correspond to whatever numbering convention each hybridizer used to catalog his own creations.

Though the Seyval x Chardonnay crossing responsible for Chardonel happened in 1953, the fruit was not observed until 1958 and the vine wasn't chosen for experimental propagation until 1960.  The grape wasn't released to the public until 1990, though, for reasons we'll get to momentarily.  I mentioned above that the paper announcing Chardonel's release had 11 authors and implied that they were all involved in the grape's creation, but the fact of the matter is that the very long time between the grape's creation and its release makes it difficult to say for sure who was involved and in what capacity.  The VIVC and this page at Iowa State University lists the grape's creators as Reisch, Pool and Einset.  Reisch and Pool are the lead authors of the announcement paper, but Einset is only mentioned in the acknowledgements.  I'm not sure who the other 9 people given an author credit in the paper are or what their role actually was.

Like most grapes created at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Chardonel was bred specifically to be able to handle cold conditions.  Seyval Blanc is noted for its winter hardiness and the hybridizers were hoping that they could create something as hardy as Seyval with the flavor characteristics of Chardonnay.  And to some extent, they were successful.  Chardonel has much better winter hardiness than Chardonnay and is rated as hardier than Seyval in Michigan but as slightly less hardy in most other places.  It does ripen late, though, which is a problem for cooler areas with short growing seasons like New York.  Wines made from the Chardonel grape are generally regarded as preferable to those made from Seyval, and wines made from grapes grown in warmer areas like Missouri and Arkansas are considered superior to those of New York.  The reason that the grape wasn't released for 30 years is that the fields tests being done in New York weren't promising enough to warrant release.  Some vines were planted experimentally in Michigan and Arkansas, though, and the results from those vines were so encouraging that the grape was finally named (it had been known as New York 45010 at first and then as GW9 prior to 1990) and released.

I was able to find a bottle of Chardonel at Bully Hill Vineyards on my trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York a few months back.  I've previously written about my experience at the winery and interested readers can find that information here.  Bully Hill is weird about their vintages and this wine isn't labeled with one.  It cost me about $8 in their tasting room.  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was very reserved with a whiff of pear if I used my imagination, but overall it was a total blank.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  It is one of the few dry offerings that Bully Hill has.  There were zippy lemon and lime citrus flavors with some green apple and citrus peel with a touch of green melon on the finish.  The wine was bright, lively and interesting, which was much more than I was really expecting.  The label on this wine honestly put me off of it for a long time and I kept looking at it in my cellar and dreading the thought of opening and drinking it, but I found it very nice.  I would gladly pay $8 for this again and am now very curious about these superior wines being made from Chardonel elsewhere in the US.

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