In 2002 I undertook my first attempt ever at making a dry varietal wine from local, Ontario-grown Concord grapes. The project drew its inspiration from two sources: 1) the realization that there was absolutely no dry varietal wine from this heritage grape available anywhere commercially in Ontario, and 2) there was a very fixed view in the literature which stated that Concord, when made into wine, should only be made into sweet wine.
Realizing that many in the wine-loving community equated Concord wine with bottom-rung, kitschy jug wines and syrupy cloying sweetness, I decided to probe the topic — for the simple reason that sweetness in the finish of a wine is something that the winemaker has control over and is not something that modifies the bouquet of a wine. I do not like syrupy-sweet wines and had already come to the conclusion that I wanted to try a wine that had all of the aromatic power of Concord — but with a clean, crisp, tart texture. The fact that such a wine simply did not exist made me want to make it all the more.
There was yet another source of inspiration that I drew upon for the dry Concord project: my successful attempt one year earlier to make a dry varietal Niagara wine. Niagara, which is a white labrusca grape closely related to Concord and used to make Welch's White Grape Juice (it's actually a Concord x Cassady cross that's sometimes referred to as "White Concord"), showed me that a forwardly redolent and intensely floral white wine could do without the syrupy/sticky finish. Dry Niagara was another wine that simply did not exist commercially in Ontario.
Thus was born my dry Concord mission. I reasoned that if the Concord flavour has traditionally been seen as a kid's thing — i.e. grape juice, grape-flavoured candy, grape-flavoured gum, grape jelly & jam — then I want to launch that bold Concord flavour into an adult-amenable paradigm by means of a crisp, lean, dry varietal wine with a structure characterized by firm acidity. Marketability matters not, for it is not mass appeal that is sought; all that matters is that the creation of such a style be eminently doable, thus proving itself to be a legitimate stylistic option. If the number of wine enthusiasts who enjoy dry Concord never rises above a few individuals, yet these genuinely appreciate the paradigm, the effort will have been worthwhile.
Reforming the labrusca wine paradigm
It goes without saying that I had stylistic and methodological nitpicks with almost everything that I had read and heard regarding the "proper" way to make labrusca wines. If you peruse the available literature, you'll see that most of it proposes two specific practices: amelioration and final sweetening with cane sugar. My only nitpick with sweetening the wine has to do with my preference for dry wines; as such, it is not a real nitpick but a choice on my part to forego this step. Amelioration, however, is something with which I have a philosophical disagreement at the most fundamental level. "Amelioration" basically means dilution of the must with water prior to fermentation. The rationale for its use in making Concord wine stems from the fact that Concords, as typically grown, tend to be higher in total acidity than viniferas; therefore amelioration is a cheap and easy way of reducing that acidity. Not only does amelioration reduce acidity, but it dilutes the labrusca flavour . . . and thins down the must. This practice struck me as an ideal way for those who don't really like labrusca to make labrusca wine. If someone enjoys Viognier or Muscat or Gewürztraminer, can you imagine them diluting the musts with water, then adding tartaric acid to the musts — and calling them quality wines!?
There would be no amelioration for my dry Concord. Period. Cold-stabilization was my method of choice for bringing Concord's acidity down if needed. This method results in no flavour loss and certainly no dilution of the must. It was the saving grace that I had been looking for, and it was the method that I employed with unyielding conviction in my quest for purity.
The wine that resulted in 2002 was a revelation: it was leggy, with an intense deep ruby-crimson colour and a pink hue, but a gorgeous scarlet-ruby core. The nose was chaotic and pungent with tutti-frutti/tropical-fruit esters and hints of sweet musk. There was also that floral/grapey tang that one most readily associates with the classic Concord flavour. The wine turned out properly bone-dry, exactly as I had wanted. Final alcohol content may have been as high as 14%, just going by the slight heat on the finish. This heat subsided over the coming months and the wine showed an excellent, tight acidic structure and good texture. The finish was simultaneously crisp and warm with a characteristic candied-fruit/musky labrusca flavour that persisted.
Dry Concord again in 2007
Having made a very appealing, crisp and flavourful dry varietal Niagara for a change of pace in 2003, but then a so-so Fredonia in 2005 and a mediocre Cayuga in 2006, I decided to once again go with Concord for 2007 – it has been a superb, dry, hot vintage that I feel gives me a chance to make a wine to rival if not surpass the memorable 2002 Concord.
As usual, my yeast of choice remains the ubiquitous Lalvin EC-1118. EC-1118 has many strengths: its ability to make varietally-correct wines; the fact that it does not create compounds that obscure varietal character; its vigorous fermentation and high alcohol tolerance ensuring bone-dry wines every time, and its tendency to produce wines with a sound acidic structure.
At the time of this post, primary fermentation is still active, though nearing completion. Already the wine shows impressive structure and balance, and I feel that once clear and bottled, it will indeed be my best dry Concord to-date. I plan to try oaking a small batch of it just to see what that will be like! Stay tuned to this space for updates.
In conclusion, here are some key points to remember when considering dry labrusca wine:
It's often said in plain discourse that "good wine" can't be made from labrusca grapes. What this really means is that labrusca can't emulate vinifera; it really doesn't address the fact that wines of high purity are certainly possible with labrusca, and if high purity is understood as quality, then labrusca grapes can be made into "good wine" — good labrusca wine, of course.
I maintain that the most honourable way of making dry Concord and Niagara varietal wines is to do away completely with must-dilution (amelioration). Select well-ripened, clean and healthy fruit with good acid/sugar balance (learn to recognize this by tasting the fruit), chaptalize where necessary to get a final dry wine with adequate alcohol by volume for stability, ferment using a good neutral yeast such as Lalvin's EC-1118, do an isinglass fining and then cold-stabilize: a large tartrate deposit will form, reducing total acidity without diluting the wine or compromising its purity. Sulfites should be used as with any other quality wine.
The varietal aromas found in labrusca wines are inherent to these grapes. It is best to appreciate them as a distinct category of wine aromas, separate from those of vinifera. Most disappointment with the labrusca aromatic palette is based on the fact that it isn't like that of vinfera. However, how can X be like Y when X and Y are essentially different? Saying that labrusca makes bad wine because it tastes the way it does is akin to saying that grapefruit is bad because it doesn't taste like oranges.
What well-made Concord wine offers is a kaleidoscopic burst of technicolor flavours and unruly tutti-frutti power that you won't get in any other wine. The candied muskiness in Concord and Niagara wines does not readily lend itself to many food-matching situations. However, I have found that because of the dryness of the wines that I make, they actually can work at the table. One very unexpected and workable match for my dry Concord was a German-inspired Hasenpfeffer dish — braised rabbit in a spiced wine-based sauce. Similarly, I found dry Niagara to work well alongside breaded veal schnitzel with all the trimmings. Yet, I felt then and continue to feel now that the dry varietal wines from these grapes work best as stand-alone sippers.