A New AVA for New York? Proposed Establishment of the Champlain Valley of New York Viticultural Area

In the wine universe, New York’s star is rising fast. We celebrated the establishment of our 400th winery this April. The state was named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. The national and international awards just keep coming in, the Governor has been a faithful ally of the state’s growing wine industry, and now the Feds might be giving us a new American Viticultural Area (“AVA”). On July 2, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a notice of proposed rulemaking to establish the Champlain Valley of New York Viticultural Area. Establishment of this new AVA would give us a total of nine viticultural areas—ten if we count Lake Erie.[1] What’s more, this proposed AVA produces acclaimed wines from grapes that most people haven’t heard of. There’s much more to the Champlain Valley than Riesling!

Colin Read of North Star Vineyard in Mooers, New York, filed the Champlain Valley petition on behalf of the Lake Champlain Grape Growers Association. He describes the proposed AVA as “the area of land bordered by the Adirondack Mountains of New York to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east, the Taconic Mountains to the south and the St. Lawrence River Valley of Quebec to the north.” This 500-square-mile area, which is entirely within New York State, is home to six wineries and eleven commercial vineyards covering a total of more than fifteen acres. As you might imagine, Champlain Valley is a cold climate region.

In “Turf Wars,” we explored the legal requirements for the establishment and expansion of an existing AVA. Those requirements are:

  • Evidence regarding the name of the region (the name of the proposed AVA must be “currently and directly associated with an area in which viticulture exists”)
  • Evidence of the proposed boundary, including the basis for delimitation and identification of commonalities within the boundary
  • Evidence of distinguishing features (as we discussed in “The Law of Location: Reign of Terroir,” those features include climate, geology, soil, physical features, and elevation. [7 C.F.R. § 9.12(a)(3).]
  • Maps and a description of the proposed boundary

The establishment of an AVA is a recognition by the federal government that a particular grape-growing region is unique and that its uniqueness gives distinguishing characteristics to the wines that originate there. Location in a coveted AVA can be an asset to a wine business.

Name Evidence

Champlain Valley is the riparian region adjacent to Lake Champlain. This freshwater lake was named for the French explorer Samuel de Champlain. Read writes that the name “Champlain Valley” is used in official government documents such as the Soil Surveys of Clinton and Essex Counties. He has also included a list of uses of the name “Champlain Valley” as an appendix to the petition. As mentioned above, the region is home to eleven commercial vineyards. It is also part of the Champlain Valley International Wine trail, which extends into Vermont and Québec.

Boundary Evidence

The basis for the proposed delimitation is the length of the grape growing season. Not only is the climate in the Champlain Valley very, very cold (141 days below freezing[2] in the center of the region!), but Read alleges that the growing season in the proposed AVA is significantly shorter than that of surrounding regions, which I’ll discuss below. One of the commonalities within the boundary is the soil composition, which Read describes as “homogeneous soil types based on glacial silt above bedrock, with additional soils based on erosion into the Champlain Valley from the adjoining Adirondack Mountains, and from organic matter created by decay in the hardwood forest to the west of our region.”

Evidence of Distinguishing Features

According to the petition, the principal distinguishing feature of the Champlain Valley is its relatively short growing season. Read writes that a prevailing westerly wind over Lake Champlain creates a milder climate to the east, while a deeper winter snow cover to the west preserves soil temperatures and enables Vitis vinifera varieties to grow. For comparison, Lake Placid in the Adirondacks has 95 days below freezing, while the City of Peru, near the center of the proposed AVA, has a shudder-inducing 141 days below freezing.  The growing season in the proposed AVA is at least two weeks shorter than that of the neighboring Hudson Valley. This truncated growing season “is the single most determinative factor in the choice of grape vines in this proposed region,” Read writes.

So what are the grape varieties of choice in the proposed Champlain Valley AVA? The petition doesn’t name them, but it does imply that “cold-hardy varieties optimized by Cornell University and the University of Minnesota for the proposed region” are best suited to the harsh climate Champlain Valley climate. Reds include Marquette, Frontenac, and Leon Millot, while whites include La Crescent, Seyval Blanc, Brianna, Chardonnel (a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc), and St. Pépin. Vitis riparia, a wild river grape, is the indigenous grape species. According to Read, vitis vinifera does not thrive in the region. Vinifera varieties are grown there nonetheless (at Vesco Ridge Vineyards, for example).

Maps and a description of the proposed boundary

As explained above, the boundaries of the proposed AVA are the Adirondack Mountains of New York to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east, the Taconic Mountains to the south and the St. Lawrence River Valley of Quebec to the north. See the petition for maps.

What's next?

This petition was not as comprehensive as the petition to expand the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, perhaps because the rancor inspired by the Sta. Rita Hills petition  is lacking here. The TTB’s notice was published on July 2, and as of today, there are no comments on it. Furthermore, the proposal has the backing of U.S. Representative Bill Owens, a member of the House Agricultural Committee. Stay tuned for updates, and try a new grape variety in the meantime!

Note: If you follow me on Twitter, this post was not news to you. I tweeted about it on June 30. For the most timely updates, check my Twitter account, where I often tweet about TTB actions before they are officially published—well before I get around to blogging about them.

[1] The multi-state Lake Erie viticultural area includes parts of New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

[2] I am a bit confused by the temperature data in the petition. Compare the following statements:

  • “For purposes of comparison, Peru, New York, in the middle of the proposed Champlain Valley AVA region, has 141 days below freezing.”
  • “The average number of days below freezing rises dramatically east of the Adirondacks. For example, Lake Placid, in the Adirondacks, 40 miles east of Peru, New York, has a growing season of only 95 days, compared with 141 days for Peru at the midpoint of the proposed region.”
  • “For instance, at the 50% probability level and a 32 degree freeze point, South Hero, Vermont, just one mile farther east than the benchmark Peru, New York, and 5 miles farther north, has 166 freeze-free days compared to 141 days in Peru.”