On March 28th, in a room packed with New York state winemakers and industry professionals at the Business, Enology and Viticulture (B.E.V) conference in Syracuse, master grape breeder Bruce Reisch stepped up to the podium. He announced the name of a grape variety he’d spent all 42 years of his career developing. The grape, formerly known as NY81, was named Aravelle, meaning “grace,” “favor” or “an answer to prayers.”
The name is apt for a variety designed to provide a safety net to winegrowers facing an uncertain future, at least in terms of climate.
First developed by Reisch at the school of Integrative Plant Science within Cornell University’s College of Agriculture in 1981, Aravelle is one of the longest tested and best studied of the 14 new varieties Reisch and his team have released over the years, many of which are now grown in wine regions across the northern U.S. These grapes, along with many others developed in North America and Europe, are known as hybrids, or offspring varieties crossed from two or more parent species.
What Is Aravelle, Exactly?
This white wine grape is a cross between the famed Vitis Vinifera variety Riesling and Cayuga White. The latter is a cross between hybrids Schuyler and Seyval Blanc and was created by Cornell in 1972.
Aravelle and the Future of Winemaking
Aravelle’s arrival comes at a pivotal moment for New York’s wine industry. Climate change means that the state’s already variable climate is becoming even more erratic, with extreme weather events increasingly commonplace. Vitis Vinifera varieties—the European species most used for wine grapes—are often notoriously fussy about where and how they grow. Hybrid varieties, however, are commonly bred specifically to be the opposite. Their hardiness, particularly in the face of the Northeast’s cold winters and humid summers, means growers can use far fewer synthetic sprays like fungicides.
Riesling—particularly in its spiritual home of the Finger Lakes, where roughly 80% of New York’s wine is produced—has proven an exceptional variety for the region. But Riesling is also susceptible to fungal diseases like bunch rot and downy and powdery mildew, which are typical problems in a climate as wet as New York’s. Aravelle has been carefully bred to resist such diseases. It’s also easy to grow and even more cold hardy than its Riesling parent.
What Is Aravelle Wine Like?
There are currently only a small number of people who can attest to Aravelle’s flavor profile, drawing conclusions from a small pool of samples. But in the lead up to Aravelle’s release, Reisch and his team shared vines with two New York nurseries who then shared them with interested winegrowers. One of those winemakers was Hans Peter Weis, who planted four acres of Aravelle and uses it to make a wine called “Heart of the Lake” at Weis Vineyards winery on Keuka Lake. The current bottling is semi-dry in style. Once he can plant more of the variety, he plans to make a dry style, too.
“The flavor profile is really approachable for any palate. And it is consistent from year to year,” says Weis of his experiences with Aravelle.
Weis’s wine, as well as three dry versions made at Cornell, were poured for those present at the B.E.V. conference. While Riesling’s racy acidity was there, the variety showed more overt fruit (think apricot, peach and tropical fruit), floral, muscat and honeyed characters than its famed parent variety, and in intriguing textural component, too.
Then again, various yeasts were used in all wines, which can greatly enhance and alter flavor. So, it will be several years more before both winemakers and drinkers can understand Aravelle’s true personality.
In the meantime, wine lovers have a plethora of wines from more longstanding hybrids to choose from, such as Traminette, Vignoles, Seyval Blanc and Noiret. These grapes have been a winemaking staple in New York state—and other cool climate wine regions—for years.
The Hudson Valley region north of New York City has a particularly long history and association with hybrid grapes. But these varieties have never been an easy sell outside the tasting room, as they have a reputation for being difficult to turn into good wine. Not to mention, the varieties’ names can be a challenge to keep straight. For instance, there’s Aromella, Arandell and now Aravelle, which sound more like Lord of the Rings locales than grape names.
But the attitude toward hybrids is starting to shift. For an environmentally-friendly drinker, hybrid grape tick the boxes of being local, green and smashable, with their naturally high acidity and light, juicy profiles. Natural-leaning producers are riding this wave, making drink-now, hybrid-centric wines with colorful labels. These bottlings may or may not even list the contained hybrid varieties, but they often find their way into the hippest bars in Brooklyn.
Reisch may not have been able to predict this new, hipster-led resurgence of the varieties he and his scientists have rigorously and meticulously coaxed into being over the decades. But it seems a meaningful way to conclude a 42-year-long career as a grape breeder. Along with the release of Aravelle, 2023 also marks the year of Reisch’s retirement.
“Since 1981, I’ve made hundreds of other crosses and some of the more recent ones have immense potential for the wine, juice and table grape industries,” says Reisch. “I am excited to see what becomes of these new elite selections. Just like my predecessors left some awesome grapevines in the pipeline for me, I hope I’m doing the same for the new grape breeder at Cornell.”
“A search is currently underway,” Reisch continues. “I’m so excited for what’s to come in the future.”
Last Updated: June 6, 2023