Friday, January 24, 2014

Fenn Valley, from the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival

What I particularly looked forward to trying at the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival was Fenn Valley's red blend, Capriccio, which I had tasted at a friend's house within the last year. Amid the hubbub of that big-tent, county fair style Fest, I peered about like a tourist anxious to see the right things, and luckily there it was: Fenn Valley's table, ice buckets, wines, signage, and staff. I handed over a ticket and got my one ounce pour. I sipped, nodded sagely, and was satisfied. Just as good as I remembered.

Capriccio is a very friendly, fruity red blend made up of about 70 percent chambourcin and the remainder Meritage, that is, the remainder the Bordeaux blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot which American wine makers may legally call "Meritage" if they wish. One pronounces Meritage to rhyme with heritage, although many people say mehr-ih-TAJH because the spelling of this invented word looks so French. My hastily scribbled notes say helpfully, "fruity, medium body -- !!" One hundred point scales are quite beyond me as yet, although at least I've given up explanatory smiley faces.

Chambourcin is a hybrid grape introduced, according to The New Wine Lover's Companion, in France's Loire Valley by Joannes Seyve in 1963. Further information from Appellation America -- which is now a subscription-only website, by the way, although its cached pages are still available gratis -- tells us that despite these details, chambourcin's origins remain mysterious. M. Seyve "based [the Chambourcin] on a number of undetermined Native American species and Seibel hybrids," and it seems in turn there are a large number of these, developed by French hybridist Albert Seibel (1844-1936). The New Companion credits Seibel with ten in just one short paragraph.

The point of hybridizing grape varieties, of course, is to get two parent plants of different species to pass the best of their characteristics to a new variety. Mixing the gene pools of Europe's vitis vinifera and North America's vitis labrusca has long been a tempting challenge: growers want, say, a pinot noir's fine elegant flavor with a Concord's hardiness and abundant production (not that that particular marriage has ever been attempted to my knowledge, but gracious mightn't it be interesting?).

All this makes the chambourcin a 47-year-old hybrid of hybrids of hybrids. And it seems M. Seyve hit something of a jackpot with this one. Appellation America calls the plant "high yielding, cold resistant, disease resistant, and extremely vigorous," its grapes thick skinned and high in tannins and acidity. That's the recipe for a wine of good structure -- in other words, a wine which gives you something to chew on besides sweetness or jamminess or an alcohol kick. It is widely planted in its hybrid home, the Loire, as well as in the northeastern and midwestern United States, in Canada, and in "the humid conditions of" Australia's Hunter Valley.

All that remains to be found out is the reason for chambourcin's name. My French dictionary tells me, on the page where that name should be, chambrer means to keep something under lock and key, or to keep (wine) at room temperature. Good to remember, next time I have access to some nice Capriccio.

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