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, January 16, 2013

Seyval Blanc - Haverhill, Massachusetts, USA

Hello friends and neighbors and welcome to Fringe Wine's 250th post!  We've covered hundreds of grapes over the course of the previous 249 posts, but there are still literally thousands of others out there.  My ambition is not to try all of them, but merely to try as many as I can and write what I learn about them and what I think about the wines they produce.  Today I'd like to take a look at a hybrid grape that's relatively common around where I live (the northeastern United States) and in a few other (cold climate) places, but which isn't very well known outside of these limited areas.  The grape I'm talking about is called Seyval Blanc, or more cumbersomely Seyve-Villard 5276.  It was created by the French father and son-in-law team of Victor Villard and Bertille Seyve who were themselves disciples of the great French hybridizer Albert Seibel, creator of thousands of grapes like Chancellor and Verdelet.  Bertille Seyve was also the father of Joannes Seyve, who created the Chambourcin grape, and Bertille Seyve, Jr., who also tried his hand at breeding grapes, but was not as successful as his brother and father.

Seyval Blanc was created in Saint-Vallier, France (the name Seyval is a contraction of Seyve and Vallier), by crossing Seibel 5656 with Rayon d'Or.  Both of these grapes are complex hybrids, which just means that they have more than two different grape species in their lineage.  A simple hybrid would be the result of a crossing between two grapes that were of different species and which had no other species in its its parentage.  A pure Vitis vinifera crossed with a pure Vitis labrusca would produce a simple hybrid.  If we crossed this simple hybrid with a pure Vitis aesitvalis, the resulting offspring would have three different species of grapes in its lineage and it would be a complex hybrid.  This pedigree chart (from the publisher of Wine Grapes) shows just how complex Seyval Blanc's lineage is (it is erroneously listed as Seibel 5276 on the chart and is on the third row from the bottom towards the left of page 2).  While Seyval Blanc isn't quite as complex as Traminette, there are still many different grape species in its pedigree as well as several vinifera vines as well.

Seyval Blanc is also important as a parent variety and was used to breed Cayuga White, Chardonel, La Crosse and Melody, among others.  It is prized by growers and breeders alike for its high yields, disease resistance and its cold hardiness as well as its lack of foxy aromas and flavors.  It can generally be found in cool climate areas where other varieties, especially vinifera varieties, are unable to get fully ripe.  It was at one time the most widely planted grape in the UK, but its plantings have fallen to less than 100 hectares as of 2009 (which is still 6.5% of the total vineyard area of the country, though).  It is also popular in Canada and the mid-western and northeastern United States, where it was once the most widely planted grape in that region (and still may be, but I haven't seen any recent statistics).

Inside the barn/tasting room
A few months back, I was in northern Massachusetts and paid a visit to Willow Spring Vineyards in Haverhill.  I met with Jim Parker, owner of the winery, and he gave me a tour of his vineyards and of the grand centerpiece of the whole endeavor, the 18th Century barn located on the property.  When Jim and Cindy bought the property, the barn was in a state of dilapidation and disrepair, as was the land surrounding it.  Very shortly after finalizing the purchase, the pair received a letter from the city building inspector informing them that the barn was a condemned building and must be either torn down immediately or repaired.  Jim promised the barn's former owner that he would fix up the property, and so that's exactly what he set out to do.  Jim's a handy guy and so he decided to do the renovation himself.  He bought the property in 2001 and has been working on it for more than 10 years at this point, but the finished (or near finished) product is remarkable.  When I arrived for my scheduled visit, Jim was out front with some of his friends and a backhoe putting the finishing touches on the front entrace.  That entrance leads into the tasting room which still has much of the original lumber used to build the barn.  It's a wide open area that also doubles as an event center.  There's a large wraparound porch that Jim has added that looks out onto his vines.  The winery itself is located underneath the main floor of the barn (see the white door beneath the deck in the picture below).

Exterior of barn.  The wraparound deck is now covered.
Jim knew when he bought the property that he wanted to grow something on the land, but wasn't sure exactly what.  After visiting a micro brewery with some friends on a ski trip, Jim's friends suggested that he grow hops, but for some reason, Jim said he saw vines growing on the property.  He had never tried to grow grapes before, but that didn't stop him from jumping in with both feet.  Jim read widely and voraciously on viticulture and enology, met other local winemakers and went to conferences to learn as much as he could.  He started out planting Vignoles, Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch and Leon Millot and has since added a few vines of Chardonnay as well.  The vineyards are on a south facing slope so they get maximum exposure to the sun and the cold air flows down the hill to protect the vines from frost, which is very important this far north.  Jim and his friends tend to the vines themselves and Jim's daughter Brandi has recently joined the team as head winemaker after an apprenticeship at another local winery.  When I visited, Willow Spring was available to visit by appointment only, though they plan to open to the public soon.  Those interested in visiting can email Jim directly at jim.willowspring@yahoo.com, and I highly recommend that you do as the barn is beautiful and Jim is an engaging and gracious host whose enthusiasm for his project is infectious.

When I was there, I picked up a bottle of his Leon Millot, which I'll be writing about a bit later, as well as the last bottle of his 2011 Seyval Blanc (his wines are not labeled with a vintage, though they are vintage wines, and he told me this was the 2011).  This bottle cost about $14 in the tasting room.  In the glass the wine was a very pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was somewhat reserved with aromas of green melon, pear, golden apple and banana.  On the palate the wine was light bodied with high acidity.  It was maybe just a touch off-dry with flavors of lime, green apple, tart pineapple and green melon.  It clocks in at only 11.5% abv and is lean, racy and sharp.  I love high acid white wines and this particular bottle was right up my alley.  It's difficult to believe that these guys have only been making wine for a few vintages as this was a very polished effort that definitely shows a lot of promise.  Willow Spring is a winery to keep an eye on and is a place I will certainly be visiting again before too long.

Those interested in learning more about Willow Spring should check out this video feature on YouTube and this article.  


Peter F May for The Pinotage Club said...

Congratulations on your 250th post. Here's looking to many more, but I suspect it's getting harder to source new varietals.

As you say , Seyval Blanc was widely grown in English and Welsh vineyards and I liked it for its crisp acidity and green apple flavours.

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