Friday, March 4, 2011

Seyval Blanc

Note: this is an article that I have migrated from It was orginally published in March 2008. I have updated it slightly.

Call it the Rodney Dangerfield of wine grapes. Although one of the most successfully grown grape varieties in the Eastern US, Ontario, and the UK today, Seyval Blanc is a grape that commands little respect, even among wine cognoscenti. Part of the issue is that it is a hybrid grape, a cross between an Old World wine grape (Vitis vinifera) and a native American grape (V. labrusca). V. labrusca rarely makes good wine and its hybrids are held in contempt by a large part of the wine growing and consuming world. Moreover, because it contains non-vinifera genes, Seyval Blanc does not meet the European Union standards for "quality wine" and therefore cannot be marketed in Europe proper.

Ironically, the grape came from Europe. French hybridizer Seyve-Villard (Bertille Seyve and Victor Villard) produced the Seyval cross in the early 20th century from hybrids Seibel 5656 and Seibel 4986, also known as Rayon d'Or. The most successful of Seyve-Villard's hybrids, Seyval Blanc is officially known as Seyve-Villard 5276. Many such hybrids were produced in response to the outbreak in Europe of an American pest, phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, a root louse), in an effort to create resistant vines by crossing resistant American grapes with so called noble or Old World grapes.

Despite the issues with the EU, the grape is gaining a growing following especially in colder, shorter growing season areas because it buds early, grows vigorously, ripens early, yields large clusters of medium-sized green berries, and is fairly resistant to low temperatures and to disease. Seyval Blanc produces wines of good acidity and in more northern climates, such as Ontario and the UK, the wines are crisp and exhibit hints of grapefruit. Some have likened these wines to those of Chablis. In our warmer climate here in Virginia, where the grapes can ripen longer, the wines are often fuller and a bit softer, and better to my taste.

Seyval is not without its challenges, however. For the grower, if the grapes are not extremely ripe, the acidity can get out of hand producing nearly undrinkable wine. And, its vigorous nature requires growers to remove canopy (to focus the plant on producing fruit rather than leaves and to allow the sun to reach and ripen the fruit) and to remove fruit in the vineyard (to help concentrate flavor in the remaining fruit). And care is needed to pick the grapes at maximum ripeness, but before they begin to rot, which is Seyval's habit.

Making wine from Seyval requires care as well. Seyval is not successful if fermented with the skins on, so the juice must be separated from the skins before fermentation. To preserve the fruity components, it helps to ferment the wine slowly at cool temperatures. Once the wine is fermented, the clear wine must be taken off the sediment (a process called racking) or the wine can develop undesirable flavors and odors. Although some producers age their wines in oak, I find that a wine that has seen nothing but stainless steel to be much more desirable.

With care, Seyval gives a finished wine that is crisp and dry with firm acidity, and hints of green apple, grapefruit, grass, hay, and sometimes honeydew melon. Think Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is generally light in body, moving to a medium body in warmer climates, with a greenish cast, sometimes going to a straw color.

Wines with higher acidity are very good food matches as the acidity both cleanses and refreshes the palate. Seyval Blanc is no exception: it works with the same foods as Gavi, Sancerre, Albariño, and crisp classic Sauvignon Blanc (not a tropical New Zealand one). While I often pair our local Linden Seyval with white fish, shellfish, and appetizers, it seems to be the one wine that I constantly recommend with our crab cakes.

I hope that you will try a Seyval in the near future, both to experience something new and to taste what could prove to be one of the most promising wines that we make in Virginia.

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