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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Vignoles - Finger Lakes, New York, USA

Generally speaking, establishing the pedigree of man-made crossings and hybrids is a pretty simple task.  The people who create these new grapes are typically working in a research laboratory environment and they tend to keep detailed notes and logs about their efforts.  Even those grape breeders who are working outside the confines of a university (like our old friend Elmer Swenson) tend to keep written records of their experiments and to meticulously track the pedigree of each grape that they create.  Pedigree reconstruction for these grapes is supposed to be an easy thing because we don't have to try and reconstruct a process of nature.  A person was not only there for the birth of a new grape, but was directly responsible for putting both of its parents together.

Despite this, it does occasionally happen that the parentage of a man-made grape comes into dispute.  A few months back we took a look at the Emerald Riesling grape, which was created by the legendary Dr. Harold Olmo at UC Davis in 1948.  Olmo's own paper announcing the release of the grape lists the grape's parentage as Muscadelle of California and White Riesling, but the Oxford Companion to Wine online edition lists the parentage as Muscadelle and Grenache.  As mentioned in my post on Emerald Riesling, the OCW declined to provide any additional details about their claim, other than to assert that the parentage given by Olmo was incorrect.  They promise that their new book on wine grapes, which will be published later this year, will provide more details and we'll just have to wait and shell out the $125 to read all about it then.

Part of the pitch for this new book from the OCW publishing crew is that they brought a grape geneticist on board who not only reviewed and incorporated some of the most up-to-date literature on grape DNA analysis, but also conducted a number of analyses himself explicitly for inclusion in this particular book.  My guess is that whatever new parentage they've uncovered for Emerald Riesling is the result of this private research.  I'm very interested to read their take in this new book and hope that these results turn out to be more viable than their assertion that Hondarrabi Zuri and Noah are the same grape.

I personally find it unlikely that Harold Olmo would be mistaken about the parentage of a grape that he created, but if he was (**UPDATE** he was), it turns out that this wouldn't be the first time that something like this has happened.  The subject of today's post, the Vignoles grape, was created in France by a private breeder named J.F. Ravat around 1930.  The grape was known as Ravat 51 until 1970 when the Finger Lakes Wine Growers Aassociation renamed it Vignoles.  The parentage of Vignoles was reported as Seibel 6905 (also sometimes known as Subereux) and Pinot de Corton.  This parentage is given in a number of different sources (Iowa St., Wikipedia, the OCW, the VIVC and the National Grape Registry, among others) with a few minor variations.  First, it turns out that there isn't any grape known as Pinot de Corton, so some assume that Pinot de Corton refers to a clone of Pinot Noir from the Corton region of Burgundy and thus report Pinot Noir as a parent rather than Pinot de Corton.  Additionally, Wikipedia reports the other parent as Seibel 8665 rather than Seibel 6905 (which is almost certainly a mistake), while the OCW simply says that the other parent is Seibel (which, as far as I know, is not a name given to any individual grape, but is rather used generally to refer to the thousands of various grapes that Albert Seibel created during his career).

The problem, it turns out, is that neither Seibel 6905 nor Pinot Noir are actually the parents of Vignoles.  In a study published in 2008 (see citation 1 below), a research team from UC Davis and Cornell University examined a number of hybrid grapes that are commonly used by the Cornell breeding program to see whether their purported parentages were accurate.  Of the 24 grapes that they examined, the given parentage was confirmed for 20.  Two of the others were the result of a vague description and one other had Gamay reported as a parent but was actually the offspring of Pinot Noir.  Vignoles was the 24th grape, and the team was able to conclusively rule out both Pinot Noir and Seibel 6905 as parents.  Unfortunately they were not able to identify the actual parents of Vignoles, so that bit of its history remains a mystery.  The research group tested two other samples of Vignoles to be sure that they didn't have an anomalous grape and both of those samples came back identical to the first sample.  They offer as a possible explanation that perhaps what is known in the US isn't actually Ravat 51, but it's hard to know how at this point how that might be tested.

Vignoles was introduced into the US in 1949 and was given the catchy moniker P17857 (or sometimes 181481).  As mentioned above, it was renamed in 1970 by the Finger Lakes Wine Growers Aassociation, though I'm not sure what led them to choose the name Vignoles.  The grape buds late, which helps it avoid early spring frosts, and has small berries with thick skins.  Despite that, the berries are not only prone to cracking, but are also very susceptible to botrytis cinerea infection in both its good and its bad forms.  It is naturally high in sugar and acid and as a result many wines made from it are either made in an off-dry style or as a late-harvest style dessert wine.  It is moderately cold hardy which has made it popular in cooler climates like the Finger Lakes region of New York.

During my vacation to that area last year, I picked up three different wines made from Vignoles, all from the same producer but each in a different style.  The first wine was the standard table wine offering from Anthony Road on Seneca Lake.  I picked this up for about $13 from the winery and tasted it at our beautiful cabin on the lake (seen in the background of the picture at right).  In the glass this wine was a medium gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with white peach, grapefruit peel and pear fruit along with a touch of something vaguely floral.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and was off-dry. There were flavors of honey, white peaches, grapefruit peel, and pineapple.  There was a touch of something bitter on the finish that was a little disconcerting, but overall this was a very nice wine, especially for the money.  It is somewhat Riesling-like in its balance of sweetness and acidity, but isn't quite as graceful as some of the best Rieslings.

The second wine that I tried was Anthony Road's "Sweet Dream," which is a late-harvest dessert style wine made from Vignoles grapes.  This wine was from the 2007 vintage and set me back about $16 for a half-bottle.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light amber-gold color.  The nose was pretty intense and pungent with pineapple, ripe peach, baked apple and orange marmalade fruits along with something that I couldn't quite identify but which smelled kind of like kerosene or like an old camping lantern.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity.  It was very sweet (16.2% residual sugar) and had flavors of pineapple, honey, orange marmalade and orange peel.  This wine finished with the same kind of bitterness that the table wine had, but it was more pronounced here.  Overall the wine was OK, but that assessment may have something to do with the fact that I drank it the day after the next wine that I'll be writing about, which is a wine that it had no hopes of being able to compete with.

The final wine that I tried was the 2008 "Martini-Reinhardt Selection" Vignoles Trockenbeeren, which I picked up from the winery for $75 for a half bottle.  If that price sounds extravagant, well, it kind of is.  This wine is made from grapes infected with noble rot, botrytis cinerea, which, as mentioned above, Vignoles is particularly susceptible to.  It is extraordinarily rare for grapes to be infected with noble rot in the Finger Lakes region, but in 2008, the conditions lined up just right for some of the Vignoles and Riesling vines at Anthony Road to fall victim to the fungus.  The winemaker at Anthony Road recognized what was going on and decided to make a sweet wine in the style of the great Trockenbeerenauslese wines of Germany or the Sauternes wines of France.  These wines are typically very expensive because you get very little juice from the desiccated grapes (in Sauternes it is said that an entire vine yields a single glass of wine) and because the grapes have to be monitored daily and hand picked cluster by cluster and sometimes berry by berry in order to ensure that the best grapes are being used.  It's a labor-intensive process that requires an experienced eye and a lot of extra time.

In the glass this wine was a medium amber gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of marmalade, honey and stone fruit along with the same very pungent, almost kerosene like smell.  It was much stronger in this wine than in the other and may have been a by-product of the botrytis fungus itself (some of the berries for the prior wine may have picked up a little botrytis on the vine but not enough to make a wine in this particular style).  On the palate the wine was full bodied with high acidity.  It was lusciously sweet, clocking in at a whopping 26.5% residual sugar.  There were flavors of ripe peaches, orange marmalade, honey, green apple and lime curd.  In a word, this wine was extraordinary.  It was impeccably balanced with an amazing tension between the electric acidity and the rich, dense, explosively sweet fruit flavors.  It is well worth every penny of its steep price tag and if there's a better wine on earth made from Vignoles grapes, I'd be extremely surprised.


1. Bautista, J., Dangl, G.S., Yang, J., Reisch, B., & Stover, E.  2008. "Use of Genetic Markers to Assess Pedigrees of Grape Cultivars and Breeding Program Selections."  American Journal of Enology and Viticulture.  59(3).  pp 248-254.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Rob - I recently had the 2002 Trockenbeeren from Anthony Road. Only(!) 21% RS, and poured like syrup. What surprised me about it was how very dark it was, not unlike a Rutherglen muscat. Not at all oxidized, though lingering with an odd flavor that I wouldn't call diesel fuel, as you've indicated, just darkly and strongly herbaceous. Not my favorite sticky, but very intriguing.