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Tasting Wine Cultivars by Region

Researchers in Northeast evaluate wines from the multi-state NE 1020 project

by Linda Jones McKee
wine grape northeast cultivar sensory
Researchers with the NE 1020 project collected participants' scores for sensory characteristics in an effort to determine which U.S. regions are best suited to various wine grape cultivars.
Geneva, N.Y.—Thirty-three winemakers, growers and industry researchers eschewed time in the vineyard or lab Aug. 15 in favor of attending a wine tasting in Geneva. The “Cultivar by Region” tasting provided the first opportunity to taste and compare wines made from grape cultivars grown at various sites in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut as part of the NE 1020 project, a comprehensive study that involves researchers in 24 states from California to Vermont.

Initially funded through the Viticultural Consortium via the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project began Oct. 1, 2004, and will continue until Sept. 30, 2017. The purpose of NE 1020 (NE 1020 is the number assigned by the USDA to the project when the grant was first submitted) is to evaluate the performance not only of the major global cultivars, the Vitis vinifera, but also of new or previously neglected wine grape cultivars in the different wine grape growing regions across the United States. The ultimate goal is to provide information to grape growers and wineries that will aid them in making planting decisions and will ultimately improve the entire industry’s competitiveness in the world market.

According to Denise Gardner, Penn State extension enologist, scientists at approximately 15 universities that focus on viticulture-based research came together to organize and develop a standardized viticulture protocol to evaluate the performance of both existing and emerging wine grape varieties across the upper Midwest and the East. Because of the range of climates within the East, not all the same varietals were planted at each site. Similar, but different, varietals were determined based on the growing season and dormant season temperatures.

For example, there are two Penn State research vineyards—one located in Biglerville, Pa., at the Fruit Research and Extension Center near Gettysburg, Pa., in the southeastern region of the state, and a second vineyard in North East, Pa., near Lake Erie. The Biglerville site is designated as “warm/hot, mild” site—a warm/hot growing season, mild dormant season—while the North East vineyard is listed as a “warm, cold” site because of its warm growing season and cold dormant season. Each location in Pennsylvania has 20 varieties planted. For example, core varieties planted in Biglerville include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, while Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc are grown in North East.

NE 1020
It took four to five years after the NE 1020 project started in 2004 to establish which cultivars to grow in different locations, then plant the vineyards and get them into production. Anna Katharine Mansfield, assistant professor of enology at Cornell University, told Wines & Vines that the Geneva Research Station now has three years of background data about the core varietals planted in New York. Varietal trials in New York include white wine grapes Aromella, La Crescent, Traminette, Vidal Blanc and Valvin Muscat, as well as red cultivars Chancellor, Corot Noir, Noiret and St. Croix.

A guidance committee for the NE 1020 project established the protocols for standardization of viticultural practices and procedures across the different sites. All vines were sourced from the same nursery; spacing, number of vines and replicates were based on committee expertise from the region. Standard viticultural measurements are collected each year, including cane pruning weight, nodes retained at pruning, shoots per vine, shoot length, shoot weight, leaf area, yield per vine, clusters per vine, cluster morphology, berry weight, pest predation and disease status and cold hardiness. Harvest dates are determined by berry sampling. After harvest, grapes are analyzed for soluble solids, pH, total acidity, color and organic acids.

The guidance committee also developed protocols for wine production and for the wine analyses to be performed—such as those for pH, TA, residual sugar, color, free total SO2 malic, lactic, tartaric and acetic acids. It was specifically established that enough wine should be produced so that wines from different regions could be evaluated at several locations.

The winemaking experiment
For the past two years, researchers at Cornell, Penn State and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station have worked together to produce wines from the NE 1020 sites within those states. Because the Connecticut station does not have the facility to produce wine from grapes grown at their site, the grapes were made into wine at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Mansfield was responsible for the wines made at Cornell, and Gardner produced the wines at Penn State.

The organization of the sites in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania and the funding of the winemaking for the Connecticut site grapes came under the auspices of the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant Grape & Wine Quality: Eastern U.S. Initiative, which is headed by Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech. That funding also enabled enologists in the three states to conduct fermentation parameter trials that investigated the effects of yeast and tannin management protocols on wine quality.

The Cultivar by Region tasting was set up to explore the site differences between several varietal plot vineyards included in the NE 1020 project in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. A total of nine flights were arranged by variety and by processing trials such as different yeasts, and included 46 wines made from white vinifera, white hybrid, red vinifera and red hybrid grapes. Participants in the tasting were requested to give sensory input about the various wines such as the wine’s “likeability” and its “commercial potential.”

Site-to-site comparisons from the 2012 harvest included the following varietals:
1. Grüner Veltliner: Connecticut and Pennsylvania (North East vineyard)
2. Vidal Blanc: Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania (North East vineyard)
3. Cabernet Franc rosé: Pennsylvania (Biglerville and North East vineyards)
4. Chambourcin: Connecticut and Pennsylvania (Biglerville and North East vineyards)

Other flights included Noiret NY 81 (an un-named white hybrid from the Geneva, N.Y., research station) and Rkatsiteli from Connecticut; Chancellor and Valvin Muscat, as well as the recently named varietals Aromella and Arandell from New York; and Albariño, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio from Pennsylvania.

The wines made at Cornell involved several wine yeast trials, including wines fermented with Vin 13, a yeast strain that is known for its ability to release thiol-related volatile compounds that are important to aromatic varieties. Other yeasts including Cross Evolution, Elixir, EC 1118, GRE, ES 488, Rhone 4600, ICV Opale and NT 116 were evaluated in wines from all three states. Gardner used Top Floral and ES 488 in some of her wines, and she also looked at the differences between a monoculture (a single commercial yeast strain) and dual culture (inoculation with two commercial yeast strains at one time) in the Cabernet Franc rosé wines.

Bench trials
One of the attractions of attending the Cultivar by Region tasting was the chance to taste samples of wine made from two recently named New York hybrid grapes, the white varietal Aromella and the red varietal Arandell. As the name of the grape suggests, the wines made from Aromella were quite aromatic, with floral and Muscat characteristics. One wine had a decided banana aroma along with other floral notes. The two wines made with the Vin 13 yeast strain definitely reflected that yeast’s reputation for enhancing the aromatic qualities of the resulting wines.

The wines in the Arandell flight came from two vintages, 2011 and 2012. The variables under consideration in these wines were whether the vines were own-rooted or grafted and which trellising system the vines were grown on—VSP or high-wire cordon. The wines from 2011 included samples from both own-rooted and grafted vines grown on each training system, while in 2012 the wines came only from grafted vines. The wines made from grapes grown on grafted vines on high-wire cordon in both vintages had berry fruit flavors with some hints of black pepper as well as a good tannin structure.

The only flight—that of Vidal Blanc—where the wines came from all three states reflected the differences both in climate of the region and differing grape and wine chemistries. The fruit from Erie County in Pennsylvania was higher in sugar (21.4° Brix) than that from either New York (17.7° Brix) or Connecticut (18.7° Brix), and the total acidity in the finished wine varied from a high of 9.08 g/L in the Pennsylvania wine to a low of 7.3 g/L in one of the New York wines. The Connecticut wines were much higher in malic acid than tartaric acid, which seemed to affect the flavor of the Connecticut wines and made them seem less typically Vidal-like. The Pennsylvania and New York wines, on the other hand, had the light peach-citrus flavors and crisp finish often associated with Vidal wines.

The researchers associated with the NE 1020 project in the three states have not yet determined when or how the data from the tasting will be compiled. Additional information about the NE 1020 project is available at

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