Long before anyone in Napa Valley stomped on a grape, residents of the Valley had been making wine; the French Huguenots planted the first vineyards in New Paltz in 1677. Over the years, the region has been best known for producing “soft, approachable reds, and minerally, delicate whites,” says Hudson-Chatham Winery owner Carlo DeVito.
But a number of local wineries also craft fruit wines, using strawberries, raspberries, apples — even cranberries. In recent years, cassis, made from black currants, has exploded onto the Valley’s wine scene. In fact, the area has become the largest producer of artisanal cassis in the Western Hemisphere.
How did this happen? “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” notes Phyllis Feder, owner of Clinton Vineyards, who, with her late husband Ben, was the first to make cassis locally “in 2003 or 2004.” The wine was an instant success: “We won the gold medal at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition the first time we entered it [in 2005],” she says. “We’ve won lots of awards; in fact, I don’t enter it in competitions anymore. The greatest award is the customers who drink it and love it.”
Those familiar with commercial cassis — it’s often mixed with Champagne to make the cocktail called Kir Royale — probably have tasted the French variety, known as créme de cassis. This “syrupy, cloyingly sweet” liqueur is quite different from Clinton Vineyards’ product, says Feder. “Our cassis has a sweetness and a tartness, with an herbaceous quality that comes through.”
Along with the Feders’ success, agronomy has played an important role in the emergence — or, more accurately, re-emergence — of cassis. Native to northern Europe, black currant plants came to the U.S. with the earliest settlers. They thrived in temperate areas like New York and, by the early 20th century, the state led the nation in black currant production, most of which took place in the Valley. At about the same time, however, a disease called “white pine blister rust” infected the plants, which then passed it on to white pine trees, killing many of them — and sounding alarm bells in the lumber industry. By 1911, federal and state bans against growing black currants were issued and remained in effect in New York State for more than 100 years.
Once the ban was lifted in 2003, local farmers started growing these plants — and winemakers are snatching up the tiny, tart berries and transforming them into alcoholic libations. Warwick Valley Winery, for instance, has been offering its Black Currant Cordial since 2006. “We start by distilling the fruit into a spirit, then we add some fruit back in to give it that intense color and flavor. And we add some honey for sweetness,” says co-owner Jeremy Kidde.
No fewer than eight Valley wineries now sell a black currant product. This overnight popularity, says Kidde, could be due to “the renewed interest in cocktails — whether Champagne or spirit-based. People are getting a little more creative when sourcing ingredients for them.”
Besides sipping it, Feder recommends using cassis in the kitchen. “I sometimes put a little bit of it in my salad dressing. I’ll take a pastry brush and slather a side of salmon with it on the grill. For dessert, cassis sorbet — or marinated fruit or berries — is refreshing.”
“People sometimes give dessert wines a bad rap,” Feder says, “because they’ve only tasted the syrupy types, not the more elegant, flavorful, distinctive wines. Our cassis is complex and delicious — like love itself.”