Observations from TasteCamp 2014

Outstanding pinot noir, cabernet franc, and more in New York’s Hudson Valley

In Wine
on 15 Oct 2014

The concept behind TasteCamp is simple: it’s impossible to taste the best of an entire region in one weekend, but we can certainly try. I have enjoyed past TasteCamp experiences and was thrilled to attend this year’s event in the beautiful Hudson Valley, a few hours north of New York City.

Millbrook chardonnay harvest and grapes

With cold winters, spring frost, and the threat of autumn hurricanes throwing constant challenges at wine producers in a state that’s only now beginning to achieve worldwide recognition in wine, the Hudson Valley is an exciting and demanding wine region. The nearby city and its restaurants and moneyed locavores provide growing retail support and strong tourism, but this fairly young region must also make a case for both high-quality hybrids (more on that in a moment) and a handful of really promising vinifera options. Here are my top takeaways from this excellent event. I’m grateful to the growers, winemakers, winery staff, and owners who took time from their busy harvest schedule to share their livelihood with us.

Tocai Friulano in New York may be an excellent idea. Millbrook’s 2013 tocai friulano, one of the first wines I tasted last weekend, made me wonder why I don’t see more of the grape in New York. It was totally recognizable for the style, elegant and fresh and rich and round.

”Find the vinifera that works.” This line from Robibero winemaker Kristop Brown really stuck with me. Having spent most of my wine life in cool or cold regions, I’ve encountered the tension between hybrids (which are weather-hearty and easier to grow than vinifera, but lack the notoriety and are often associated with lower quality) and vinifera (which are the best-known of wine grapes but may or may not ripen properly in certain climates) in many forms. I’m familiar with the struggle winemakers face when it comes to public perception of hybrids, and I tend to be sympathetic, both because I’ve tasted many excellent hybrid wines and because I’m wary of the wine industry’s tendency to fear the new. Brown offered a good middle ground: hybrids, he told us, make his most popular and best-selling wines, and that’s important to him. But to be a legitimate wine region and receive critical acclaim, he said, a region must “find the vinifera that works.” For Robibero, that’s cabernet franc for now, though they’re one of the Valley’s newer wineries and are in the process of planting more land for estate fruit.

Robibero vineyard rows

I didn’t hate a gamay. Dinner at Whitecliff featured many excellent wines, but my favorite was made from a grape I wouldn’t normally even try: gamay. Rather than the candy-fruity flavors I usually associate with the grape, Whitecliff’s gamay showed ash, gunpowder, and fig notes, and I liked it so much I bought a bottle. (Note: This may have been foreshadowing for a really mind-blowing beaujolais experience I’d have later in the week. Stay tuned.)

Hybrids can be stunning. I understand the need to offer at least one consistent vinifera cultivar, but Hudson Valley’s best hybrid wines were really amazing. Victory View Vineyard offered up 2013 marechal foch and marquette in perhaps the best examples of the grapes I’ve encountered. Both had firm but balanced structure, clean, fresh fruit, and beautiful plum/pepper/cherry flavors throughout. I felt better about my marquette––which is currently finishing up its malolactic fermentation––knowing that this kind of quality is possible.

Hudson-Chatham, which has long been a favorite New York winery of mine, is doing a single-vineyard baco noir program that really makes a case for the grape. Lively, fresh, Burgundian in their wistful grace and meaty, old-soul feel, Hudson-Chatham’s baco noir bottlings are better than most pinot noir I’ve had in New York.

But riesling and pinot noir are not to be forgotten. Tousey, the host of TasteCamp’s annual BYOB dinner, really wowed the room with a vertical flight of estate rieslings. These showed mineral grace, just slightly less searing acidity than Finger Lakes rieslings, and dead-on lemon and lime flavors, and aged beautifully. But Tousey’s pinot noir 2013 was one of my favorite wines of the weekend. For a challenging vintage, this wine showed real mastery, giving the round and bare-skin sense of being encompassed in the arms of a lover.

Hillrock owner Jeff Baker leads a tour

Hudson Valley has spirit. Last but not least, the distilleries of the Hudson Valley were excellent, offering brandy, grappa, rye, and bourbon that showed creativity and command. I visited my first-ever maltster when we stepped inside Hillrock, a distillery committed to the expression of terroir within its very fine spirits. They floor-malt their own grain, turning it into bourbon, rye, and Scotch-style whiskey (infused with peat for a Speyside/Islay smokiness) that’s pricey but undeniably impressive.

I’ll be writing more on the wines of the Hudson Valley as I open the bottles I brought home with me.

Julia Burke is a wine educator and writer.