By Ben Stiebel
New York’s winemakers were nervous all summer. Grapes need hot, dry weather to reach full maturity. Without adequate heat and sunlight, sugar levels remain too low for the juice to ferment into wine and the flavors tend toward green and vegetal rather than lush and fruity. The cool, wet summer of 2017 offered nothing promising. But none of that tension was in evidence when I visited Millbrook Winery on a cool day at the end of October. Every once in a while, a wine region will experience what is known as a “miracle vintage.” The weather suddenly turns hot and dry at the end of a cool summer and the grapes develop to full ripeness. The unseasonably warm October of 2017 gave New York’s winemakers what they needed for a miracle vintage.
Millbrook Vineyards sits on a scenic collection of hills at the eastern end of the Hudson Valley. Scott Koster, their Director of Sales, explained their story. The owner and founder, John Dyson, graduated from Cornell and served as Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of New York and later as New York’s Commissioner of Commerce. This was back in the 1970s when the bulk of the wine production in the state was dedicated to inexpensive sweet wine, sometimes known as “church wine.” Dyson was a wine lover and he deeply wished that New York’s agriculture could provide something more pleasing to the palate. In his role in the state government, Dyson was able to promote regulations that were favorable to local wineries and came up with marketing campaigns to promote New York products.
In 1979, Dyson bought an old dairy in Millbrook and began experimenting with various kinds of grapes to see what would grow well in the Hudson Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon did not do well. The climate in New York was just too cold for a varietal that has seen its greatest successes in the southwest of France and in California. One of Cabernet Sauvignon’s parent grapes is the lesser-known Cabernet Franc, which is still widely cultivated in parts of France. Dyson succeeded with Cab Franc and also with Riesling, a German grape varietal known for making sweet wines of quality.
Experimentation continued at Millbrook. Dyson patented his own system of trellises train the grapevines to receive optimal sunlight. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot all succeeded to one degree or another. On a trip to Italy, Dyson discovered a wine called Tocai in the Friuli region. That region is subject to cool, wet weather not unlike New York. Cuttings were taken and sent back to be adapted and one of Millbrook’s signature wines, Tocai Friulano, was born.
Millbrook’s Tocai Friulano is a light, refreshing white wine. Floral aromas rise from the grass and on the palate, the wine is light and refreshing. It is a good sipping wine that does not need to be paired with food. It sells at the winery for $20 per bottle.
Grapes are available from the Finger Lakes and also from Long Island, so Millbrook does not have to grow all of the grapes they use. Nevertheless, their production is impressive. Some plots sit in better soil and get more sunlight than others. Those are designated as single vineyard plantings and they make Millbrook’s top tier wines. For example, the Lollipop Hill Vineyard produces the grapes for Tocai Friulano Lollipop Hill. Millbrook also makes what are called estate or proprietor’s bottlings. Those wines are made from grapes sourced only from the winery. The French term “terroir” translates as something like, “Taste of the place.” By making wines in tiers like this, Millbrook is able to capture the terroirs of their estate and of their best vineyard sites
The natural layout of the hills provides the winery with constant airflow through the fields. This helps prevent frost, mildew, and rot: three of the principal enemies of grape cultivation. Ponds are strategically placed throughout. Some of the best wine regions in the world are located close to large bodies of water. This is called a maritime climate and it helps mitigate extreme temperatures. How effective the ponds are at regulating the temperature is unclear. The winery hosts tours and events on a regular basis and the ponds add to the beauty of the landscape, so they serve a purpose either way.
Difficult and sometimes troublesome as the planting, growing, and harvesting can be, the work is far from over once the grapes are harvested. After the grapes are brought in, the process of winemaking begins. Millbrook uses old dairy vats for the fermentation process. These vats are equipped with features that allow the winemaker to control the temperature at which the wine ferments. This ability creates a more stable fermentation. I had the chance to taste a bit of Riesling juice that had just started fermenting. Most of the sugar had not converted to alcohol yet, so it was like drinking cloudy grape juice. Despite the raw quality of the juice, the citrus flavors of Riesling were unmistakable.
When the fermentation is done, the yeast will have converted most of the sugar to alcohol and the result will be Millbrook Dry Riesling. I was able to taste the Proprietor’s version, the one sourced only from the winery. Honey and citrus were prominent on the nose. Those citrus notes delivered on the palate along with fairly high acidity that would make the wine good with food. The usual recommended pairing is Indian or Thai, as the flavors of Riesling are quite complimentary to those dishes. Like the Tocai, that wine retails at the winery for $20 per bottle.
Not all of the Riesling goes to fermentation immediately. Among the great dessert wines of the world is Eiswein. That is wine made from grapes that were left on the vine until after the first autumn frost. This means that the grapes are as ripe as they can possibly be and that the frost extracts much of the water from the grapes, leaving behind only a pure, sweet nectar. This process is risky as it leaves the grapes exposed to the elements and to the local fauna for an extended period of time. The freezing reduces the already diminished yield, so the final production is much less than one would get from standard harvesting. For that reason, Eiswein can cost hundreds of dollars a bottle. Millbrook Late Harvest Riesling is produced by storing the grapes in a produce freezer, mimicking the effect of the frost. This Riesling has similar qualities to the dry Riesling but is much sweeter and has a thick, mouth coating quality that stays with you. When it is available, it is a fraction of the cost of traditional Eisweins.
Chardonnay is a perennial favorite among drinkers of dry white wine. Millbrook offers an unoaked Chardonnay that gives a very crisp, clean expression of the varietal. For those more familiar with California style wines, their entry level Chardonnay is made by aging the wine in a used French oak barrel. Oak aging changes the taste of a wine, making it thicker and heavier. French oak is less aggressive than American oak and a barrel that has been previously used will be even less aggressive. The final result is a wine with a little added weight and body that still retains its original character. The price for both Chardonnays is $18 per bottle.
A proprietor’s Chardonnay is also available. This wine is made from grapes sourced entirely from Millbrook’s holdings around the winery. The wine is full bodied and rich, one might even say opulent. Everything about the wine is noticeably more that the regular Chardonnay, including the oak treatment. The overall experience is just a really bold, full Chardonnay. The Proprietor’s Special Reserve Chardonnay is available at the winery for $25.
Reds are also available. Pinot Noir is a notoriously thin-skinned grape that is difficult to grow in its native Burgundy and not always cooperative even there. Nonetheless, the New York growers have experienced some success. Millbrook Pinot Noir presents the sour cherry notes that the varietal is known for along with some notes of fruit preserves. The wine is full bodied but elegant. Millbrook sells it for $22.50 a bottle.
Despite the success of Pinot Noir, it has not come the forefront of New York reds. That honor goes to Cabernet Franc, one of Dyson’s early successes. Depending on how ripe the grapes get before harvest, Cab Franc can present notes of bell pepper, raspberry, or both. To mellow out the harsher aspects of this wine, it is a common practice to blend a little bit of Merlot in and Millbrook does just that. Millbrook Cabernet Franc presents a spicy nose that leads into a plush, full wine that would pair well with red meat dishes. That sells for $22.50 a bottle.
Millbrook also makes a proprietor’s Cab Franc. That one uses less Merlot, something like four percent of the total blend. The wine is earthy, rich, smooth, and finishes with spicy notes that showcase the varietal’s rustic qualities in the best way. It would be a great pairing with lamb. Millbrook Proprietor’s Special Reserve Cabernet Franc sells for $35 per bottle.
Though the emphasis is on their New York wines, Millbrook also has properties and partnerships in California and Tuscany, so wines from those places are available at the winery as well. They also have a gift shop that sells glassware and other wine related items. For those looking for more of an experience than a memento, the winery offers tastings and classes.
To many people, “New York fine wine” is almost a contradiction in terms. Thanks to the efforts of people like Dyson and his crew, the region has started to carve out a place in the fiercely competitive world of wine. I still love the more established wine regions but it is good to see the local guys turning in a worthy effort. Wine is experiential. The taste is determined in part by the setting, the food pairing, and the company. I can honestly say that my trip to Millbrook was a great experience.