Dunne on Wine: White wine honors go to hybrids
By Mike Dunne - firstname.lastname@example.org
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, July 23, 2008Story appeared in TASTE section, Page F1
A Sacramento-area wine won the best-red sweepstakes at last weekend's 2008 Long Beach Grand Cru, but the white-wine sweepstakes is what left judges buzzing.
First, the local angle: By a surprisingly wide margin, given the diversity and size of the field – 18 nominees – the muscular Mettler Family Vineyards 2005 Lodi Petite Sirah ($25) seized the top honor among red wines.
The white-wine showdown was even more crowded with 20 nominees. They included three sauvignon blancs, two chardonnays, two pinot grigios, two rieslings and a viognier.
When votes were tallied, however, the two wines to tie for sweepstakes honors were varietals largely unknown in the United States, especially in California, though both were American.
The wines were the peachy Wollersheim Winery 2007 American Prairie Fumé Seyval Blanc ($8) and the aromatic, floral and lusciously fruity Goose Watch Winery Finger Lakes Diamond ($9).
Wollersheim Winery is in Prairie du Sac, Wis., in a state better known for milk than wine, while Goose Watch Winery is in Romulus, N.Y.
Both seyval blanc and diamond are hybrid grapes developed to flourish in climates hostile to such traditional vitis vinifera varieties as chardonnay and pinot noir.
While wines from hybrid grapes occasionally shine in competitions – the Goose Watch diamond consistently wins high honors – the Long Beach judging well might be the first where two hybrids tied for sweepstakes.
What's it mean? One of the judges, Jim Trezise, took the floor immediately after the voting to say the results of the white-wine sweepstakes represent no less than a "paradigm shift" in the stature of wines from hybrid grapes.
"It used to be that no one would give any time to hybrids," said Trezise, who as executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to raise the profile of wines from hybrid and native American grapes, which are grown extensively in the Empire State.
He applauded the judges, most of them Californians, for their "open minds" and "open palates" in evaluating wines from grapes and regions that in many instances are only marginally familiar to them.
Trezise also praised the "missionary" efforts of wine writer Dan Berger, chief judge at the Long Beach Grand Cru, who is keen on persuading wineries from beyond California to join the competition.
While most wines in the judging were Californian, an observer wouldn't know it by looking at the 20 wines arranged before each judge during the white-wine sweepstakes. Only eight were from California, though judges didn't know that until after the votes were tabulated. Of the three sauvignon blancs, two were from New Zealand and one was from Chile. Of the two proprietary wines, one was from Missouri, the other from Ohio. Other wines were from Michigan, New York and Washington state.
Trezise is correct in sensing a paradigm shift among wine judges when it comes to wines from hybrid grapes. Part of that could be due to fatigue brought about by the stylistic similarity of such familiar varietals as chardonnay and syrah, coupled with the novelty of the hybrids.
And don't discount the influence of the frequent sweetness of hybrids, which at the end of two days of judging some 1,900 wines in the Long Beach Petroleum Club was refreshing. The seyval blanc has 1 percent residual sugar, the diamond 5.8.
But it wasn't sweetness alone that accounted for the hybrids' strong showing in the sweepstakes round. They are wines of clarity, balance and distinction. Judges had no idea of their price, and the fact that they cost less than $10 each is another sign that exciting things are happening beyond the vineyards of California.
As to the award-winning and other wines from hybrids, Californians won't often find them in wine shops or on restaurant wine lists hereabouts. Compared with such California varietals as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, they are made in small amounts, and sales mostly are often through tasting rooms and winery Web sites.
Californians lucky enough to come across a marechal foch, seyval blanc, traminette, vignoles, diamond or other obscure hybrid while traveling along the East Coast or through the Midwest will discover a whole new wine world rising among the soybeans and corn.