Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chambourcin Anyone?

Wow, has the local Chambourcin wine been flying out the door in recent weeks! For whatever reason, customers are ordering Chambourcin in unprecented numbers. But while they are ordering a lot of it, most of them do question the wait staff about what kind of wine it is before they order it.

How to pronounce it is another frequent question. Pronouncing it correctly involves mastering two French nasal vowels that are very difficult for Americans, so we encourage people just to say "Shamber sin." It might not be correct, but it does flow off of English-speaking tongues.

Chambourcin is a hybrid of French and American grapes, named Seyve 26-205, after the famed French hybridizer who created it. The Phylloxera outbreak in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century saw breeders producing many hybrids in an effort to add Phylloxera resistance to classic French vine stock by crossing resistant American parents with noble grape parents. Phylloxera is a root louse that kills vines and for many decades wreaked havoc on European vineyards.

For much of the 20th century, hybrids such as Chambourcin were the answer to the Phylloxera problem, but in the long run, grafting noble grapes onto American rootstock proved to be the better answer. Still, some hybrids such as Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin do survive, and interestingly enough, both grapes do extremely well here in Virginia. Sadly, when Seyve died, he left no records of the parentage of Chambourcin, so its heritage remains a mystery.

Chambourcin became commercially available in 1963 and it was planted most heavily in the Nantais, the cool coastal region of the Loire river valley, where it meets the Atlantic ocean. Over the years, the French AOC, partly for reasons of both taste and xenophobia, have discouraged hybrids or even outlawed them, so what Chambourcin that remains in France is limited to legacy plantings largely in the Loire Valley. But, Chambourcin has found a following in the eastern US and Canada, with New York and Ontario among the first to plant the grape.

The vines are fairly cold hardy, but growers in New York and Ontario are finding that their winters are too cold and their growing seasons a bit short, thus the grape seems to be migrating further south into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina where its resistance to fungus is a plus in our humid climates. The growers with whom I have spoken say that the vines are vigorous and reliably high producers and the key to success is careful removal of excess fruit.

Chambourcin produces an intensely ruby-hued wine whose color is reminiscent of Syrah/Shiraz. It also has a bit of spice that speaks of Syrah as well. Although it has good tannins and acidity, both desirable characteristics, it makes an approachable wine in the same way that Merlot does.

Next time you’re in, why not try a glass of local Chambourcin? I’ve never had anyone not like it when I have recommended it. Well, there was one guy, but he wasn’t going to like any wine made in Virginia, no matter how good. We have Chambourcins from both Fabbioli Cellars and North Mountain Vineyard.

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