Foxy terroir – what are foxy wines?

The beautiful Finger Lakes

I was working on my notes from my trip to New York’s Finger Lakes the other day and I was reminded of something that I had wanted to share with you. My first wine visit of the trip was to Swedish Hill Winery and it was a real eye opener for a non American in many ways.

wine regions of New York state – click for a larger view

Swedish Hill is a most attractive winery and vineyard in the northern section of Cayuga Lake – named after the Iroquoian people who lived around its shore before Europeans settled here. Indeed as far as I can discover all the lakes, except Hemlock, have names of native American origin.

the Finger Lakes wine region – click for a larger view

Swedish Hill grows all three types of vine in the vineyard and it was fascinating to see native varieties, hybids and vitis vinifera side by side. Amazingly there are around 60 different species of vine and we traditionally make wine from just one – vitis vinifera.

There are some species of vine though, that are indigenous to north America and as these  hardy native grapes are resistant to Phylloxera they have been used to make wine there. It varies from state to state, but the successful growing of vitis vinfera in the United States is quite a recent thing – 1962 in New York’s Finger Lakes and the 1970s in Virginia. In the north eastern states the leading species are vitis labrusca and vitis rapira – the latter is used for making wine, but not as widely as labrusca and its most important modern use is as root stock for grafting vines.

Cabernet Franc compared to Golden Muscat – a native and not a Muscat at all.

The natives are much sturdier plants with bigger fruit than the weedy looking vinfera, so a European coming here in 1612 or so must have thought he was in paradise. Remember the first European visitors to this part of the world were so impressed by the grape vines that they called the entire place Vineland. It seems that this might not actually relate to vines at all though as vin with a subtly different accent is the old Norse for both wine and pasture.

Head winemaker Ian Barry told me that they get much better continuity and predictable results with the native grapes, although they always need to chaptalise, something that changes from year to year with the vinifera crop. I found it interesting that the grapes themselves are very different from the European varieties, not only are they much larger, they are solid – I couldn’t crush one – the skin can just slip off too, leaving the fruit whole and the flesh itself is gelatinous rather than mushy.

Hybrids are crossings of vitis vinifera with native vines; Baco Noir, Vidal and Vignoles are all examples that are grown in New York State, whereas Seyval Blanc is a hybrid that is grown in the Finger Lakes, Virginia and England.

Ian gave me a wide range of his wines to try and they were very good. We started with his 2008 Swedish Hill Dry Riesling – he told us that there is no legal definition of dry in the US, so it is up to the winery. He feels that 10g/L is the cut off and indeed this wine had exactly that amount of residual sugar – it was lovely, well balanced, enjoyable and very long.

Now I am not a fan of the grape and avoid it if possible, but Ian’s 2009 Goose Watch Pinot Grigio was very good, nicely balanced with good weight and a soft palate – apparently the secret was a little skin contact to add depth and mouthfeel.

I was also quite excited by his 2007 Swedish Hill Optimus (a Meritage) this blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot was an excellent medium-bodied red with lots of concentration and a smooth, lush texture.

From a learning point of view though it was the wines that he had not wanted to show me that were the stars of the show. I had only tried wine made from native grapes once – his Goose Watch Diamond as it happens – so was really interested in the whole subject and badgered Ian to let me try the wines from his range that are especially popular locally.

N.V. Swedish Hill Svenska Red is a blend of 50% Concord (vitis labrusca) together with Niagara (itself a cross of Concord and Cassady, both vitis labrusca grapes) and Catawba whose parentage is uncertain, but is a hybrid.

We also tasted his classic N.V. Swedish Hill Old Fashioned Country Concord. Not growing up in the States I had never experienced Welch’s grape juice, although it is now available in the UK, so these were a shock to me and all the other Brits in the party. Americans are seemingly brought up on this flavour with Welch’s grape juice, jelly (jam) and a myriad of sweets flavoured with it, so they all declared these wines be ‘so grapey’.

Well, not to a European they aren’t. The flavours take some getting used to, as do the aromas, the sweetness and the texture which is a little like drinking unset jelly (jello), but the wines are not unpleasant in any way.

It is really hard to describe the aromas and flavours of these native grapes without sounding rude, a bit like red Burgundy. I do not mean to be rude or to put you off, because these are really interesting everyday wines. The aromas are strange taken in isolation, they are traditionally said to be ‘foxy’ and certainly have a wild note of an animal’s lair or something that has been doused in mouth-wash. Some of those notes follow through on to the palate, but it often seems to show as a eucalyptus sort of character, which is traditionally smoothed out by making the wines sweet and soft.

From a scientific view it seems that the vitis labrusca vines do not actually smell of animals or anything like that, it is just that they are actually much more aromatic than other types of grape and this shows itself in this intense aroma. Apparently the compound that causes it is methyl anthranilate, which is found in higher concentration in vitis labrusca than any other vine.

I was thrilled to try these wines as they provide a fascinating insight into the traditional wine culture of this part of the world, which I would never have been able to experience unless I was actually there. It is amazing to realise that a local wine culture has been alive and well in most of the states of north east America for well over a century. Local wine has been the drink of choice here for many generations and much as the wineries now make international styles of wines, and do it well, this local tradition is surely part of terroir and should be celebrated and more widely known.

It was thrilling to see that although their Swedish Hill’s modern vinifera wines are very good, they continue making the traditional wines of the region that the local people enjoy so much.

If you have never been able to try a wine made from native American grapes, you can now buy Welch’s Purple Grape Juice in the UK from Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda. This is made from Concord grapes and will give you an idea of how very different the aromas and flavours are from the grapes we are used to in Europe.

5 thoughts on “Foxy terroir – what are foxy wines?

  1. Hello, this is very interesting. Perhaps you’ll like to know that in Italy (as in France and Spain), vitis labrusca is very common and appreciates as a fruit. Though foxy wine, that we call Fragolino (“Strawberry wine”), is now for some strange reason illegal to make and commerce in Italy!

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