In 1972, Cornell released its first locally adapted wine cultivar, Cayuga White. Selected for its cold-hardiness, disease tolerance, and high yield, Cayuga White was the first of many grape varieties bred specifically for the challenging growing conditions of the Finger Lakes. Its lineage contains both European (vitis vinifera) and American (vitis labrusca) stock. Cayuga White’s release continued a long tradition of French and American grape breeders’ hybridizing efforts going back to the 1800s. Although some producers, including Silver Thread, initially shunned the locally adapted varieties in favor of vitis vinifera, many are taking a second look at them given the perils of climate change and the need to grow grapes more sustainably.
From 2011 to 2017, Silver Thread used the French-American hybrid Vidal Blanc as a major component of the Good Earth White blend. Primarily chosen for its lower cost, we were able to blend it with Riesling and Gewurztraminer to make an elegant yet value-priced wine. In 2019, we embarked on a different path by using locally adapted varieties NY-45 and NY-81 (both developed at Cornell) blended with Riesling. These unnamed grapes provide a lower-acid, highly aromatic aspect to our Good Earth White blend that people find instantly appealing.
We currently purchase the locally adapted varieties from the Cornell/Finger Lakes Community College Teaching & Demonstration Vineyard on the west side of Seneca Lake. However, we will be planting 1.5 acres of NY-81, NY-45 and Regent (a red hybrid developed in Germany that will be an important part of the Good Earth Red blend) in our new Good Earth Block in 2022. In addition to the high quality wine we are able to produce from these varieties, they can play an important role in our sustainability efforts.
NY-45, NY-81 and Regent all have fungal disease resistance in their lineage. Powdery and downy mildew are endemic to the Finger Lakes region, but the American parentage of these grapes reduces their susceptibility to many fungal diseases. Therefore, they require less fungal disease control, and our organic and biological pest controls are more effective. We hope to farm the Good Earth block with 100% organic practices.
Extreme weather is increasing in frequency due to climate change. Polar vortex conditions in winter can damage vines and reduce their crop size the following season. Locally adapted varieties are more cold tolerant than vitis vinifera and therefore are more reliable year-to-year.
Locally adapted grape vines yield a higher quantity of fruit than vitis vinifera while maintaining quality. Losses are common during the growing season, whether from animals eating the grapes, the fruit rotting, or other hazards. By starting with a higher volume of fruit, locally adapted varieties are more resilient to these losses.
Including livestock as part of a farming system is an important part of regenerative farming. Locally adapted varieties have a downward growth pattern. As a result, they can be trained on a high wire trellis where the new growth flows down toward the ground. Animals can graze on the vineyard floor without being able to reach the fruit. We plan to raise ducks and sheep in the Good Earth block. The livestock will eat harmful insects, reduce the need for mowing and add important nutrients to the soil.
We remain focused on premium vitis vinifera grapes such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc that we know produce outstanding wines in the Finger Lakes. However, we are excited to diversify our estate vineyard with locally adapted varieties to ensure our future success and demonstrate the viability of sustainable practices at Silver Thread.
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