My introduction to Vermont’s Champlain Valley wine region started in the most fascinating spot, with Ethan Joseph’s project, Iapetus, made with Shelburne Vineyard fruit.
Yes, the wine is interesting. To start, Joseph’s Tectonic (the wine I tried) is made from 100% La Crescent. Never heard of it? It’s a cold-hardy hybrid developed by the University of Minnesota that Joseph ferments on its skins, giving the wine a pale coral shade, a white wine made like a red wine. But don’t let unfamiliarity keep you from getting to know Vermont wines.
Joseph is self-trained, a natural resources guy with an identity somewhere between a well-educated gardener and a curious geologist. He named his wine project after an ancient sea that once covered the Champlain Valley and his practice seems to be centered on wine as a conductor, wine as admission onto the earth on which our food system survives. If conveying the terroir of Champlain Valley is Joesph’s goal, what is there to convey? What’s the story in Vermont’s Champlain Valley?
Early days match most of early Eastern American wine history. Wild grapes grew, people attempted to mimic European wines, influence bounced around from British to French and finally, the local growers began to come into their own. This happened in the 1970’s, with progress really heating up in the 1990’s when the potential for hybrids was realized. Besides La Cresent, the playbook includes varieties such as Frontenac, Cayuga, Marquette, Louise Swenson, L’Acadie Blanc and others.
The Champlain Valley Wine Trail, where Shelburne Vineyard is located, crosses the border into Canada, including 22 vineyards in Quebec’s Brome-Missisquoi wine route, a bastion for creative minds and sustainable winemaking. Fold in a handful of wineries on New York’s Adirondack Coast wine trail and combine them with the Vermont wineries and you have an interstate, international wine trail, one that dutifully includes a warning about the limits on wine carried over the border.
In this region, one hears less about warm days and cool nights, the diurnal shifts that are typically the stuff of wine country dreams. In Vermont, credit is handed out to agricultural know-how applied in several directions starting with the grape growers and extending to the University of Minnesota grape breeding program. This enables growers to achieve a drilled-down authenticity. “We aim to craft our product and farm in a way that acknowledges the broad history written into the earth from which we work,” said Ethan Joespeh in a Tweet when asked about name Iapetus (pronounced ī-ˈa-pə-təs) and the region’s bedrock of an ancient, long-gone ocean.
When offered the right support, northern soil can produce an unexpected range. According to the Vermont Grape and Wine Council, the cold-hardy vineyard will survive to “minus 25, minus 35, some even to minus 40 degrees F,” thanks to the hybrid varieties that thrive there. Ecosystems, natural methods, biodynamics and organics all have front-and-center place in the Champlain Valley wine conversation, one that includes a solution-centered approach to making the best wines to reflect the unique local environment.
Joseph, for one, doesn’t want the story of Champlain Valley wines in specific, or Vermont wines in general, to be all about the use of hybrids, however: “We feel the conversation is more about the wine itself than the variety(ies) that comprise it,” says Joseph. “Our goal is to broaden the dialogue beyond the traditionalism that comes with vinifera varieties to one about the wine itself.”