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, December 7, 2012

Vidal Blanc - Massachusetts and Finger Lakes, New York, USA

Vidal Blanc is either a grape you've never heard of or a grape that you can't get away from, depending on where you live and, to some extent, how you shop.  Here in the cold northeastern United States, Vidal is seemingly everywhere, but only if you go to the local wineries to sample their wares.  It is still difficult to find on store shelves in the Boston area, and if you do run across one in your local shop, chances are it's a Canadian ice wine.  I've made many visits to most of the wineries in Massachusetts and to many others throughout New England, though, and I came across so many Vidal Blanc based wines that, for awhile, I thought that perhaps Vidal Blanc wasn't really a fringe grape.  I was surprised, though, when I saw some of the planting statistics for the grape.  Canada certainly leads the way in Vidal plantings at nearly 2,000 acres, much of which is ultimately used to make ice wine, but I was shocked to learn that Virginia actually leads the way in US plantings of Vidal at 150 acres,* followed closely by Michigan  (145 acres) and Missouri (118 acres) before dropping off precipitously to 35 acres in Indiana and 32 in Illinois.  Clearly the vine isn't quite as ubiquitous as it seemed to me, so I decided to write about the Vidal Blanc grape itself and a few local wines that I've come across recently.

Vidal Blanc was created in 1930 by Jean-Louis Vidal, a French grape breeder who was trying to create new grapes for Cognac production.  Jean-Louis created Vidal Blanc by crossing Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano Toscano, one the grapes still most commonly used to make Cognac) with Rayon d'Or, which is itself a hybrid created by our old friend Albert Seibel by crossing two other Seibel hybrid grapes together (Seibel 405 & 2007, for those filling out your pedigree charts at home).  Jean-Louis Vidal created several thousand different grapes throughout his career, but Vidal Blanc has definitely been the most successful and is easily the most widely cultivated grape bred by him.  Even though the grape was created in France by a French breeder, it is virtually non-existent there today.

Vidal Blanc came to the New World, or at least to Canada, in 1945, when a man named Adhémar de Chaunac imported 35 French hybrids (one of which was Vidal Blanc) and four vinifera varieties into Canada.  De Chaunac was the technical director at TG Bright winery in Niagara Falls, and he was looking for new grapes to grow at his winery other than the foxy native American varieties that had been widely used to that point in Canadian wine history.  Most plantings with vinifera varieties had not gone well, as they were generally unable to tolerate the harsh Canadian winters, so De Chaunac was hoping to find some cold hardy varieties in this group that could withstand the difficult climate and still make European-style wines.  Test plots were planted and wine making trials began and by the 1960's, the hybrid grapes that showed the most potential were gaining ground in the Canadian planting statistics.  Maréchal Foch, Seyval Blanc, Verdelet, De Chaunac and Vidal Blanc were the most popular, and many of those grapes are still somewhat widely planted throughout Canada.

Vidal Blanc is perhaps best known for the ice wines created from it in many parts of Canada and the northeastern United States.  As mentioned in my post on an ice wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon in Canada, true ice wines are made from grapes that are left on the vine well after the regular harvest and allowed to freeze there.  The frozen grapes are harvested in the dead of night (to prevent their thawing) and are pressed while still frozen.  What happens when a grape freezes is that much of the water in the grape turns to ice, but most of the sugar doesn't freeze, so when you press the frozen grapes, the solid ice stays behind, but a concentrated, sugary syrup comes out.  This syrup is then partially fermented, since it is impossible to convert all of that sugar into alcohol, and the result is a rich, lusciously sweet wine.

It may seem like a simple thing to just leave some grapes on the vine and harvest the frozen juice, but not all grapes are suited to making good ice wine.  First of all, the grapes need to stay on the vine a very long time, and as grapes hang on the vine and ripen, they tend to lose their acidity.  Acidity is key in sweet wines, though, since without it, wines just taste syrupy and cloyingly sweet.  Secondly, the longer grapes hang on the vine, the greater the chance that they can be damaged either by diseases such as molds or mildews, by insects or birds, or just from the wind and weather.  Thick grape skins help protect grapes while they are waiting for the first freeze to arrive, so while thin-skinned varieties like Semillon are valued for the production of botrytised sweet wines (since their thin skins allow the botrytis to more easily infect the grapes), thick skinned varieties are preferred for the production of ice wines.  Vidal Blanc happens to have thick skins and relatively high acidity, which makes it an ideal grape for ice wine production.

When I visited the Finger Lakes region of New York a year or so ago, I picked up a bottle of the 2009 Vidal Ice from Standing Stone Vineyards for about $25 for a half bottle.  This is not a true ice wine, since the grapes were picked and then later frozen before ultimately being pressed.  In the glass it was a light tawny gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of honey, dried apricot, quince, baked apple and pineapple.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  It was lusciously sweet with flavors of honey, apricot, baked pineapple, and orange creme with a bright, zippy vein of tart green apple running through it.  It was dense and rich, but it was also lively and snappy thanks to the fresh acidity.  I found it really well balanced and enjoyed it an awful lot.  I've bought Vidal Blanc based ice wines from Canada before and have paid almost $100 for half bottles of some of them, so at only $25 per half bottle, this is a tremendous value.

In his Wines of Canada (which I've used extensively throughout this post), John Schreiner gives the following quote about Vidal Blanc from the CEO of the Canadian wine powerhouse Vincor, Donald Triggs: "Vidal is in that magical area of not making a really great table wine but a phenomenal Icewine."  While Canada tends to focus on making ice wine from their Vidal grapes, most American producers make dry table wines from theirs, and I was able to pick up a few local examples recently and test whether Triggs' assessment of its potential as a table wine grape was accurate or not.

The first bottle that I tried was the 2010 Vidal Blanc from Running Brook Vineyards in North Darthmouth, Massachusetts, which set me back about $13.   Running Brook was founded by Pedro Teixeira and Manuel Morais, both of whom spent much of their separate childhoods in the Azores islands of Portugal.  Manuel started his first vineyard in 1975 and was one of the first people to grow grapes commercially in New England.  Pedro was actually his dentist and the two quickly realized that they both shared a passion for the vine and wine and decided to go into business together.  They opened Running Brook Vineyards in 1998, according to their website, though their labels say "Est. 2000."

In the glass, this wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with pear, banana, grapefruit and honeysuckle flower aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity.  It was medium sweet with flavors of honeyed pink grapefruit, poached pear, candied pineapple and coconut.  The image that sprang to mind while drinking this wine was a Dole fruit cup, meaning it was fruity and sweet with a variety of flavors going on, but was still kind of flat and ultimately not that exciting.  Fans of simple, sweet white wines will find a lot to like here, especially for the price, but it's not really my thing.

The second wine that I tried was the 2009 Travessia Vidal Blanc, which I picked up for about $10 (not at the winery, but rather at the Bin Ends discount store in Braintree...the 2011 Vidal Blanc seems to cost about $15 at the winery itself).  Travessia is an "urban winery" located in downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts, which is owned by Marco Montez, who also makes all the wine.  Marco doesn't own any vineyards, but rather he buys most of his grapes from Running Brook and from Westport Rivers in Massachusetts.  He does make wine from California and from Washington St. grapes, but he insists that his wines labeled as being from Massachusetts are made with 100% Massachusetts fruit.

In the glass, this wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was reserved with reserved aromas of honey, pineapple and peach.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with high acidity.  It tasted off-dry with flavors of green apple, under-ripe pineapple and lime with just a touch of peachiness.  It was somewhat tart with sharp acidity, but I found that I preferred this to the flatter Running Brook wine.  Both were somewhat Riesling-like, but the Running Brook was definitely broader and more generous, while the Travessia was leaner, sharper and more austere.  To some extent, this could be a vintage issue, since 2010 was very hot in Massachusetts, and many wineries found themselves with very ripe grapes.  2009 was a more typical, cooler year, so the grapes probably weren't quite as ripe as in 2010, and as a result, the acidity is a bit higher and the fruits aren't quite as generous.  Whatever the reason, this wine is a great value at only $10, and would still be a good value at $15 as well.

*These statistics are taken from Wine Grapes, which indicates that New York has substantial plantings, but gives no acreage for them.  I haven't been able to find any specific numbers for New York myself, since most sources online only list the top 5 or so hybrid grapes grown in New York, and Vidal apparently doesn't crack that list.  Further, New York seems to measure things in terms of tons of grapes processed rather than acres under vine, so even if I could find a number for Vidal, I'm not sure how enlightening it would actually be.


WineKnurd said...

It seems as if both your non-dessert wine examples also had some residual sugar; is Vidal Blanc generally vinified / back-sweetened to achieve an off-dry wine? I am not very familiar with these wines, it seems from your article that NC is just a tad too far south for this vine.

Marco Montez said...

Hello Rob,
Very good post on Vidal Blanc. In regards to my wine, your are correct that 2009 was indeed a cooler vintage and as a result ripeness was a bit atypical for Vidal Blanc. Our current release, the 2011, came as a result of a slightly riper vintage and it shows in the wine. As with most of my previous Vidal Blanc releases, the 2011 is off-dry. To answer WineKnurd's comment, just the right amount of residual sugar helps balance out the usually very high acidity in this grape.

Marco Montez