Saturday, December 18, 2010

They Grow Up So Fast

So, on Tuesday, the first of our babies moved out of the nest.
Hard to believe, isn’t it?  Just a few short weeks ago, these grapes were still on the vine.   Picked, crushed, pressed, settled, racked, fermented, racked, blended, coarse-filtered, cold-stabilized, sterile-filtered, and bottled all in record time.  Who is this star performer?  None other than the lowly Cayuga.
This mighty little Engine-That-Could is the end-product of a long and complex lineage.  Boiled down it would make a frightening beast of a flowchart, but all this careful crossing resulted in a grape variety which is vigorous, achieves ripeness during a relatively short growing season, and produces an abundant crop without negative consequences in terms of grape quality.  Cayuga is also moderately cold-hardy; it can withstand temperatures as low as -10 to -15°F.  To top it off, it is only moderately susceptible to crown gall and downy mildew and just slightly susceptible to black rot, Botrytis bunch rot and powdery mildew.   
Why is this important?  Macroclimate vs. weather, my dears.
In general, the macroclimate of the Finger Lakes provides growers the requisite conditions to successfully grow a wide range of grapes.  Specifically, we need 2400 or more growing degree days (we typically see 2400 to 2600), a minimum of 180 frost-free days (we average from 190-210) and winter low temperatures which do not typically drop as low as -15°F (yep).  
We’re lucky –we are one of only a few regions in New York whose macroclimate affords the opportunity to grow wine grapes.   Most of the state is just too cold.   
It’s largely our lakes which make our region not only beautiful, but suitable for grape-growing.  The contour of the land, i.e., sloping shores, provides vineyard sites with good air drainage.  Additionally, the lake waters have a moderating influence on temperatures; a degree or two of additional warmth can have a profound effect on the survival of a vineyard during a winter-low event.  
On paper, the Finger Lakes is the ultimate wine growing region.  Disregarding momentarily my opinion of this region as the ultimate place to make wine in terms of both wine quality and inter-winery camaraderie, there are a few realities which need to be faced.  
Namely, while we typically achieve 2400 degree days, some of our summers are downright chilly.  Or, sometimes we have sufficient heat, but very little direct sunlight.  Sometimes we have steady rain followed by gloomy skies for extended periods of time.  Perfect conditions for growing molds and mildews, wouldn’t you say?  
In winter, we occasionally fall below our grapes’ temperature threshold.  Depending on the duration of the extreme cold, one single dip below -15°F can result in significant winter-kill.  
Obviously, a grape variety which has intrinsic resistance to winter-kill will need less springtime replanting than other, tenderer varieties.  Cayuga’s natural defenses against attack from molds, mildews and bacteria (at least, Agrobacterium vitis) mean that it will require less vineyard intervention than more-susceptible grapes during the growing season, even if the weather is damp and chilly.
This is all good news—not only for growers, but for consumers.  Because we typically don’t need to invest as much capital and labor into maintaining Cayuga as we do some other varieties, we can pass the cost-savings on to you.  That makes everybody happy.  
Did I forget to mention that Cayuga tastes great?  
To be frank, Cayuga will never match the beauty of Riesling, although the two are often compared.  Or, rather, Cayuga is often offered up as being “similar to Riesling”.  In some ways, it is.  Wines made from Cayuga often display lemon and melon aromas and have firm acidity, however, they lack complexity and length.  They tend to be simple and tasty—nothing wrong with that, especially at Cayuga’s customary bargain price.  
Furthermore, Cayuga grapes which are left to hang on the vine late into the season often show their labrusca heritage, and display aromas particular to native varieties (think of the grapey-grape flavor of Concords.)  The aroma compound is called methyl anthranilate, and should never be present in Riesling.  As such, this marker is another difference between the two varieties.   If you want to impress someone at your next party, holding a glass of Cayuga, swirl, sniff, and pronounce, “I detect melons and lemons, naturally, but also just a whiff of MA.”  OK, you run an equal risk of annoying said someone, but you’ll undoubtedly get his or her attention.
Because Cayuga grows so nicely here in the Finger Lakes, and because it is such a tasty little sucker, most wineries have at least one Cayuga offering.  
Fox Run’s incarnation, Arctic Fox, is semi-dry and very fresh.  Don’t be afraid of the small amount of sugar in this wine—it works much like sugar in lemonade.  Light delicate flavors and bright acid tempered by sweetness, all packaged in a cobalt-blue bottle with a captivating depiction of a white fox on the label--fabulous.  Because it’s inexpensive and delightful, we call it our “cheap and cheerful wine”.
That’s not to say there’s no place for Cayuga in fine dining.  We recently had the opportunity to taste Lucas Vineyards’ Extra Dry Finger Lakes Sparkling Wine, which winemaker Jeff Houck makes exclusively from Cayuga.  It was pale gold, almost straw-colored, with intriguing fruit aromas and nicely textured bubbles.  Is it as complex and alluring as sparklers made from Chardonnay or Pinot noir?  No.  Was it fresh and delicious?  Yes.  And we aren’t the only tasters to applaud their accomplishment.  Check out this link:  
For those who don’t want to jump just yet, it explains that at the 17th Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition, Jeff’s sparkling Cayuga was crowned “Best New World Sparkling Wine”, beating out more than 2000 entrants.  Congratulations!  
So, Cayuga’s not a serious wine.  Big deal.  It’s scrumptious.  In fact, we bottled our fledgling wine so soon because we can’t keep it on the shelves.  People love this stuff.  
We’d never treat Riesling this way—it needs time to mature, and time to recover from the winter doldrums Kelby recently described to you.  
Cayuga’s not so persnickety.  It’s never going to develop complex layers.  It’s fresh and youthful now and it will be fresh and youthful in a few months when we bottle another tank.  
One note of caution:  if you buy our newly bottled Cayuga, try to keep your mitts off it for a little while.  The poor darling is going through a brief period of bottle shock—but that’s a topic for another blog.
If you’re looking for more information on Cayuga, these websites will surely be as useful to you as they were to me:

By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

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