CLIFF.HANGER

From Benmarl Winery we drive thirty minutes to Whitecliff Vineyards. Hoping. The road curls over hills, twisting East and away from the tempering humidity of the Hudson. The sandstone and shale crescent of Shawangunk Ridge (from where the wine-region gets its regrettable “get gunked” tag line) hangs in the distance. This ridge likely traps the convection of warm air from the river just enough to grow grapes. Maybe.
Whitecliff’s gravel drive slopes between western-facing vines and parks us around the back of the converted shed. The lot is a stage for their stainless presses and pumps. Proud in their farming roots and hard work (and costly equipment), Whitecliff has little to hide. We wrap around the massive, ridge facing deck and squeeze into the tasting room.

Inside, the tasting bar is mobbed and all the coffee, I mean wine tables, filled by chatting bachelorettes. We bob and weave our way to the counter. Behind it a lone twenty-something pours and drops bottles. Once he wraps up a pack of small-talking couples, he rolls over to us.

With two pages of wines to pick from, we stick to the Estate and Hudson Valley wines. Why try imported Long Island Malbec or Merlot?

The whites are honest.

The 2009 Traminette carries its Gewürztraminer (lit. “spiced Traminer”) roots lightly, with the typical lychee, floral and ginger spice notes wafting about. However, the Cornell University crossing with the Franco-American Joannes Seyve 23.416 adds a watery white melon blandness to the Gewürz. A lack of ripeness might also be to blame.

The 2009 Chardonnay is crisp and fine. No oak or butter here, albeit a bit on the light side.

The 2009 off dry Riesling is fine, although the sweetness might make up for the lack of body.

Whitecliff’s Estate Awosting White blends Seyval Blanc (another French hybrid that handles New York’s cold) and Vignoles (ditto) into a dry white with enough wake-up acidity to stay interesting.

MASSIVE TANGENT ALERT:

[Phylloxera, a nasty sap-sucking aphid, had wiped out most of Europe’s vines by the end of 19th century. Europe scrambled, crossing or grafting their classic Vitis vinifera grapes with hardier American varieties (Vitis aestivalis, rupestris, riparia and to a lesser extent, labrusca). Grafting French grapes onto American vines won out. So to pretend as if nothing had happened, EU wine regions excluded the hybrid grapes. But in cool climate, underegulated US wine regions these hardy new grapes flourished.]

Then there were Whitecliff’s reds.

Their Estate Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Gamay Noir, all from 2008, looked pale and pink in the glass. As if to compensate, the Pinot had an inch of sediment left in the bottle. The cool climate acidity cut across the palate. Finally oak veneered the faint fruit in harsh, woody tannins and toast. Whitecliff’s overly petite French barrels left nothing but forest in the glass.

For kicks (and an extra $2) I tried their Hudson Valley Estate Port, distilled just down the road at Tuthilltown Spirits. The Frontenac grape (a recent French-American hybrid of U. of Minnesota descent) is red and all acidity. Combine that with 22% alcohol, toasted oak and 5.2% residual sugar and you have a maraschino cherry factory that’s burning to the ground to sip, very, very slowly.

While waiting for our pourer to stop talking about guitars, Whitecliff starts to clarify. The flanking couple follows Whitecliff’s mailing list religiously. Since the winery makes roughly 1,500 cases a year, getting a hold of anything takes will. Yet brand affiliation seems strong.

Whitecliff’ has the will to experiment and learn but at the cost of focus. Having Merlot or Malbec might meet customer demand for fruity, warmer climate reds, but labeling them Whitecliff Vineyards is a bit of a lie.
There is even a Redtail red that claims to be their thirteen dollar “answer to Yellowtail”. But why drag yourself into that battle (7.5 million cases -vs- 1,500)? New York wines will never be the soft, full bodied and cheaply mass-produced wines of the Aussies because the sun and available vineyards are not here. Competing on that level distracts not only the customers but the winemaker from learning what their vineyards do best. Also, now that Australia’s wine market has hit a hard patch, such comparisons only lower expectations of your wine.

The only way to win is to trust your grapes and your location. Sell on the merits that differentiate you from the rest and find ways to take your customers there.

Next Time: garage wine with Brimstone Hill.

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