Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Dry Concord

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 Gew├╝rztraminer, 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.

Key arguments

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.


  1. Thank you Paul for providing an excellent choice of wine for those of us who have matured beyond the syrupy sweet wines, but not the great flavor of those native grapes. I live down at the southern tip of the Finger Lakes; centrally located in Corning NY and I'm beginning to see more dry varieties of the naturally sweet grapes we all love. You do not mention what winery you're associated with if any. Please bring your wines to the Finger Lakes Wine Festival at Watkins Glen Raceway in July 2008! Nobody is producing the dry Concord and I have a friend who is still hounding the liquor stores to get it in down here. Rockstream winery (Seneca Wine Trail) is producing dry Niagra and it's excellent. Thank you for experimenting and providing wine lovers another taste dimension to savor.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. It's also good to know that some dry Niagaras are being made commercially. Mine would typically qualify as a '0' on the sugar scale though - I let fermentation complete entirely and then move my wine into cold stabilization. I guess 1% r.s. is good business sense, if nothing else :)

  3. So how did the oaking go? I am going to try a dry concord and was thinking about oaking as well. I will also be making a black raspberry that I may split off a gallon and oak as well. What do you think about that?

  4. I would point that is just a matter of taste to say that good wine cannot be made from labrusca.

    Labrusca type Isabela is used in east-europe to make excellent wines by local people. Isabela is well adapted as a patio-shading vine and the people are using the grapes for making wine.

    And as they say, that home-made wine is better than the store bought one.

  5. I liked your article, though I have used H20 to help control the acid in my concord wine. I may have to brave it and make a batch with no H2o just to see what I can do. I also enjoy a dry wine and have found concord grapes can make a wonderful dry wine. I have used Lalvin EC1118 and it has worked well. This fall however I'm going to try Vinters Harvest MA33. It's a risk I'm willing to take because I've read good things about it. I'm using it in my rhubard wine right now and it's going very well. A dry rhubarb wine is amazing. If you haven't made it you should. In my concord wine making I've also used Malolatic fermentation along with cold stabilization to deal with the acid. I've also oaked my wine with light french oak chips keeping the oak in contact with the wine for just a short period of time. I've also did this with heavy American oak cubes which worked pretty darn well too. I grow concord and Frontenac grapes in my small yard and seem to always come up with very nice wines. I wish I had more time to tend to my vines, but life is busy and I tend to do the basic upkeep and it works. I also like to experiment so no two wines I've made in the past 7 years have been exactly alike which makes it fun and interesting. Thanks again for the good article. Sincerely, dwinemaker

  6. I agree. Don't fear Concord. She just misunderstood and masked like a painted bird.

    I made 5 gallons of New York Concord last year with the same goal, dry, not sweet ripple flavors. I'm no expert, but having read about the acid issues, I decided to use enough water to take it down a notch, but added sugars to keep the brix level high enough to keep well in a bottle for years, which diluted down some of the rich, thick, Jessica Rabbit caliber body I tasted in all the commercial varieties over the years (and in communion wine as well as that famous sweet sabbath wine).

    I used Montrache yeast, thinking it best for fruit wines (I used the voracious EC-1118 for my Niagra which turned out very well, especially in the fight to tame heavy fish flavored meals).

    I also shocked and cleared the yeast it at 28 degree for a few weeks, which had worked like a charm with Niagra.

    The result was awesome, and gets very good feedback from everyone who tries it in blind tastings and I dare say would stand up very well to any meatball sandwich in red sauce ever devised.

    For desserts, I may add a little sugar with herbs for unique, if not more healthful flavors, but no need to complicate matters here.

    This year, I'm using honey (no need to boil it) to keep the brix constant as I trim down the more dangerous, notorious curves of what's been called North America's most "foxy" grape... [cue the Jimi Hendrix music to take us outie: "comin to gettcha"].