New York’s not exactly famous for its fine wines - but it's well worth heading up to the Hudson Valley to check out the local grapey goods
When you think of great wine-producing regions, you think Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, sunny California... New York State is hardly an area that immediately springs to mind. So I was intrigued to find myself wandering around the hills and valleys of upstate New York, looking for what is said to be the oldest winery in America.
After a couple of false starts – including accidentally driving through the highly-secured entrance of West Point military academy and trying to convince the chap with a gun I was merely an innocent tourist and, just an hour later, being apprehended by the local police for taking photos of a local craft village (the second armed man-based inquisition of the day was to enquire why I was taking photos of the quaint and very pretty tourist attraction... hmm) - I eventually found what I had come here for: the Brotherhood Winery (www.brotherhoodwinery.net).
Although the rest of the world remains relatively unaware of the Hudson Valley’s grapey goods, locals in Orange County’s Washingtonville and surrounds have long been proud of their wine-producing heritage, ever since the early 1800s, when a Frenchman (it had to be, didn’t it, really?) planted the first vineyard. By 1839 the winery was dishing out esteemed vintages and continued to do so until prohibition put paid to well-made commercial plans. Craftily, the owners wrangled their way around the country-wide ban on booze by continuing to produce wine for religious ceremonies, an enterprise that apparently led to a significant surge in the local clergy population.
The first brick cellars, dark, damp and lined with huge wooden barrels, are still intact and it was on an atmospheric walk around these that I got to know the rather fabulously named Cesar Baeza, the Chilean wine master who’s been at the helm of the Brotherhood since the 1980s.
After exploring the cellars we retired to the large wine hall upstairs, filled with bottles and handily decked out with several tasting bars. Despite having quaffed the odd glass, shall we say, of vino in my time, and in most instances knowing my pinot from my merlot, I am hardly what you call an expert. An hour with Cesar soon educates me to feel confident enough to offer a tentative opinion (‘smells a bit oaky...’). While some of the grapes come from Cesar’s native lands, many of them are grown upstate and we spent a highly enjoyable hour sampling crisp Rieslings, sweet dessert wines, robust reds and even a fine champagne. Given that it’s made from 100 percent Hudson Valley chardonnay grapes, and grown here, rather than in France, it's obviously not an official champagne. However, it’s recently been awarded Best Sparkling Wine of North and Latin America by Vino Challenge International, which, given the quality of wine coming from South America and the west coast, is a pretty impressive achievement.
‘Mariage’, Cesar’s own blend of bright, young Cabernet Sauvignon and a rich oaky Chardonnay, has become a collector's item and there are also a couple of curve-ball specialties to sample, including Sheba Te'j Honey Wine, based on an ancient Ethiopian recipe, and a sweet, fragrant mead that boasts the accolade of being the official tipple of the New York Renaissance Faire.
The Hudson Valley provides a fittingly stunning backdrop to the old winery buildings, and guests are invited to sit in the cobbled courtyard, admiring the view and enjoying a picnic washed down by their purchase of wine. On the wintery day I took the tour, the bone-shatteringly cold weather kept me firmly within the confines of the cosy tasting rooms; however, Cesar was very excited about the forthcoming opening of their fine-dining restaurant and tapas bar. Whilst production is too small to start shipping many bottles over the world, Cesar and his team hope the new facilities will attract more custom to this deserving little winery and they were busy planning a gourmet menu to complement the great selection of wine for the launch in April.
Cesar also tells me that the Brotherhood, as well as being the oldest of its kind, was actually the first winery ever to offer cellar tours and tasting sessions, and that California and, indeed, the rest of the world soon copied this winning formula. And who am I to argue? The man’s been plying me with delicious wine all afternoon. What I do know is that the Brotherhood wine tour was well worth negotiating the military, answering to the cops and getting lost in the Hudson Valley for. And these days you don’t even have to join the priesthood to indulge. I look forward to returning for a taste of the tapas bar and the restaurant and, hopefully, a great cheeseboard.
Find the Brotherhood Winery at 100 Brotherhood Plaza Drive, Washingtonville, New York 10992. Other local sights worth visiting include West Point Military Academy (www.usma.edu; take a guided tour and at least you’ll justify a potential strip search at the gates) and Sugar Loaf Art and Craft Village (www.sugarloafnychamber.com), a gorgeous little village of artisan outlets and cosy cafes - just don’t take too many pictures or you might get arrested.
Where to stay
Anthony Dobbins Stagecoach Inn Bed & Breakfast, in Goshen: dating from 1747, it’s packed full of antiques and wood burning stoves.
Cromwell Manor Inn, in Cornwall: historic country estate in seven acres of parkland.
Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly to New York from £259 return.