It has been called “unique” and “iconic” – and has developed an almost cult-like following since it first appeared more than two decades ago. McGregor Vineyard’s Black Russian Red is a field blend of two varieties of Eastern European origin – Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni. Finger Lakes pioneer Bob McGregor created the blend in the early 1990’s as an alternative to classic Bordeaux blends that require varieties that are challenging to consistently cultivate in Upstate New York, releasing the first vintage in 1991.
Based on its early success, the wine has been produced every vintage since. Today, continuation of the Black Russian Red heritage is the responsibility of Mr. McGregor’s son, John, who oversees the operations of both the vineyard and winery at McGregor.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with John at the 2015 version of what has become known as the “Black Russian Red Bash.” The event marks the official release of the wine each year and has evolved into something of a pilgrimage for dedicated fans of Black Russian Red. The 2015 Bash included two days of Black Russian Red vertical tastings at the winery along with food and wine pairings at the winery’s bistro. The weekend was highlighted by the Black Russian Red Wine Dinner at Snug Harbor Restaurant.
During our conversation, Mr. McGregor shared his thoughts on the wine, his trailblazing father, McGregor’s winemaking philosophies, the Black Russian Red Bash festivities and the winter of 2014-15.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Lindsay Prichard: Black Russian Red is a wine with a long history. I believe next year marks the twenty-fifth vintage.
John McGregor: Yes, the first vintage was in ’91. We started growing the grapes that we use in the wine, Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni, in 1980 along with Sereksiya Rose’ and Rkatsiteli. By ’85, we were producing wines from all of those grapes separately. Because of the limited quantities and because it was experimental at that time, we put them in half-bottles. But they were selling in ’86 and ’87 when they hit the shelves.
At that point I was a teenager, so I wasn’t really thinking about it too critically or understanding necessarily how special or unique those wines were. But my Dad was pretty intrigued with them. As good as he thought those wines were, for his palate, they were somehow lacking on their own.
His winemaking approach since he started in the 60’s as a home winemaker was always to pay attention to the wine regions that were successful. He always thought that the French had it right; that blending is a key component to creating wines with depth, complexity and stature. So that’s what he started doing. He started blending those two together and found that the results of those blending trials were far more interesting than the wines were offering on their own.
LB: Your father was something of a pioneer in the terms of winemaking in the Finger Lakes.
JM: There were very few people other than him and a few others that believed that the future of the Finger Lakes wine industry was vinifera, and to take it even further, red vinifera.
It was pretty clear for anyone who was paying attention that white vinifera varieties were really making some delicious wines – and consistently. But some still had questions about whether they could survive the winters that we get and whether they could mature in our growing season to consistently make at least base-level wine, let alone one that is on-par with major settled regions of the world that have been using those varieties for quite a lot longer than we had. That’s where I think my father I think fits into this region’s history. He had the drive to work with red vinifera and figure out how to grow them consistently and cleanly, and to get a baseline that you could translate into a wine of interest and quality. Today, you have dozens of wineries creating delicious red wines from these grapes. But that was not the case back then.
LB: Does anyone else make a blend similar to yours?
JM: No, ours is not a traditional blend. I’ve never seen a blend of those two grapes anywhere. We didn’t start by saying “Okay, we’re going to make a Meritage.” The first thing you do when you have no experience or knowledge of what a variety tastes like or what the grapes translate into wine-wise, you start by producing them on their own and get a feel for what their flavor profiles are. It was really through that process that the idea came to blend the two together.
LB: Has the blend stayed fairly consistent over the years?
JM: Actually, yes, it has stayed fairly consistent. Our plantings have expanded, but by and large, the wine is a field blend. The vines are planted together, we harvest them together and we treat them together. So it has been fairly consistent over the years.
LB: With nearly twenty-five vintages, I’m sure it is hard to remember them all. But of the recent vintages of Black Russian Red have there been any that really standout?
JM: Absolutely. And it’s not only a testament to the growing seasons that we’ve had over last decade and a half, but also my winemaker’s understanding of an approach to these grape varieties.
My father’s rule-of-thumb was always that you are really lucky in this region to have one or two great vintages per decade that make you stand back and say “wow!” In the decades of the 2000’s, there were arguably four or five great vintages out of ten. 2001 was just a benchmark year. It was one of those years where everything worked out for making wines with enough depth and enough structure to go the long run. And those are still wines that are maturing nicely in the bottle right now. 2005 was another outstanding year, for reds in general across the region. I am in love with the 2007, 2008 and 2010. In each of those years we ended up having long growing seasons and for the most part, adequate amounts of rain. But the maturity of the grapes coming in from those vintages was just gorgeous. With those year, we would say “how it could ever be better than this?” But then one of two years, later, along would come another great vintage.
LB: Are there other keys to your success with Black Russian Red?
JM: My winemaker has gotten a really perceptive understanding of what to do with these vintages in the cellar. Our winemaking technique with these grapes has evolved over time too. The easiest example of that is oak treatment, how we approach these wines in the barrel. We have a really nice program that has gotten us to the point with this wine where there is a consistency of flavor and mouthfeel profiles that wasn’t as consistent in the past.
LB: How would you describe the ideal Black Russian Red wine?
JM: That’s highly individualistic. Some people really go for it for one reason, others for another. I’m in it more for the long haul; I really enjoy a well-aged Black Russian Red. Almost regardless of vintage, the sweet spot seems to be 8 to 10 years out where the tannins have mellowed out and you get this beautiful, velvety mouthfeel, the bright fruit has settled down into more dried fruit character, there are some herbal qualities, and the oak is more integrated. For others, it’s that fresh young thing that just grabs your tongue and doesn’t let go.
For me, a great vintage is one where sugar levels are in harmonious balance where through the winemaking process, we can get the acids down enough to still certainly be present, but still leave a little bit of FLX “zing.”
I think 2008 Black Russian Red was first overshadowed by the 2007, and then again by the 2010. The ’07 and ’10 vintages were the ones that everyone is jazzed up about. Those were wines that were super-approachable right off the bat. You had the richness, the sugar and lower acid levels. It is actually a little more difficult to get a sense of where they are going to be in 5 to 10 years. On the other hand, the 2008 was a little more typical in that it had the grip that I look for which gave me a better sense that this is going to be something to watch down the line.
LB: I have heard about McGregor’s wine library. What vintages of Black Russian Red do you have in the library?
JM: Every vintage including 1991. But we made a mistake in the 90’s. We were guinea pigs with a new product, synthetic corks. They were the promise of the future. And they were a miserable failure for us. We used them for our ’96 through ’99 vintages. The ’98 and ’99 have held out longer than I thought they would. But those vintages have flavor profiles that are completely “outside the box” compared to vintages before and after. The ’96 and ’97 completely fell apart long ago – prematurely. They have entirely sedimented out. I have opened some of the ’96, and when I turned the bottle over to pour it, literally nothing comes out. We actually had the sediments analyzed because there was so much. They were a lot different from what we’ve seen with not only our aged wines, but those in general.
On the other hand, our ’91 has zero sedimentation in it. I was fortunate to go to a household two years ago where they shared a bottle that had been bought at auction for a ridiculous amount of money – $850. That was the last one that I was willing to sell of maybe 3 or 4 that we had. The couple that purchased it said “you’re going to be with us when we open it.” It was an experience. When we opened and poured it, everyone’s eyebrows because there was no bricking and no brown; it was bright and vibrant. When we raised it to our noses it was full of fruit and was starting to open up. We were all saying to ourselves “what is going on here?” I was thinking that this is not going to be just okay, this is going to be really good. We all took a sip at the same time. It was one of the finest wines I have ever tried. And it was young and really vibrant. I wouldn’t be afraid to hold that for another 5 to 10 years without even starting to think that it is in danger of it going downhill.
LB: Do you anticipate making any changes with the wine?
JM: I have a few ideas that I am thinking about. We probably won’t make any changes for regular production releases of it. But we have had success with some extended barrel aging. One of the wines we are tasting this weekend is our 2007 30-month barrel reserve. We usually age Black Russian Red for eighteen to twenty months in the oak, which still is rather significant depending on how new the oak is. But when we tasted the ’07 vintage after it had been in oak for months, it was still powerful with a ton of fruit. And it did not feel overdone at all. So I said to our winemaker Jeff (Dencenburg) “Let’s just keep half of this in the barrel. I don’t know how long. But we don’t have to worry about it – we’ll figure it out later.” Then it dawned on me that it is going to be our 30th anniversary so we decided to hold it for 30 months. Right now it’s displaying beautifully. It’s a beautiful wine.
LB: Is the Black Russian Red Bash and this weekend’s festivities designed more for more for new customers or for old friends of the wine?
JM: Both really. It’s a mixed bag. The Black Russian Red has become one of those wines that has achieved cult status within the region. People get really jazzed up about it. Its flavor profile is fairly unique. It’s also a big wine and is uniquely flavored. So it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But if people like it, it really grabs them. We get a lot of excitement through our wine club with members who come here every year for the next release.
During the weekend we also do a dinner that is very popular. This year we did essentially no advertising for the dinner and it sold out. And it wasn’t just club members. There were neophytes there. But year in and year out, we also see the same faces that have been coming to it the event since its inception. Some people drive as far as Michigan and New Jersey come to the event. We try to reach out to the general public more for this event to introduce people. We do the (Black Russian Red) vertical to show people that it is a nice wine and has aging potential. If they like the elegance of a mature wine, this is a wine that’s worthy of doing that to. And during the event I can show you.
LB: Are new customers sometimes surprised by the style of Black Russian Red when they taste it for the first time?
JM: We still fight with this idea of what Finger Lakes wines are. Even some locals still hold that old belief that you can’t make a good red wine not only in New York, but in the Finger Lakes. That’s utterly not true; it’s been proven time and time again.
This (Black Russian Red) is one of those wines that is a little more in the mix today, but when it was released, in the early 90’s really stood out. There was nothing like this. My folks had that experience with our first vintage of estate-grown Pinot Noir in 1980. People could not believe that that was a New York wine, they just would not believe it. When I came back to the winery fifteen years ago, I would still get stories about that wine from customers coming in. They would say “I haven’t been here since the 80’s. Your Dad made this wine (the 1980 Pinot) back then and I drove to every liquor store I could find that had it.”
LB: Which vintage are you releasing at this year’s Black Russian Red Bash?
JM: This weekend is the official release of the ‘11. It was released to my wine club in January for one of their wine selections. We always give it to them first. But this is release for the general public.
LB: What has the reaction been to the wine?
JM: Very good. It was the most popular from a sales standpoint so far this weekend. There has been a lot of great commentary on it. The ’12 that we are tasting are barrel samples. One of the reasons we give the barrel sample alongside current and then aged vintages, is to show people how much this wine morphs. It really develops, it changes enormously from what’s in the barrel. With the barrel sample, the wine is bright, full, tannic with the oak is in your face and fruit all over the place. But when you taste another wine that has been in the bottle for a year, what a difference. You really get a sense of progress. I think progress. The elegance that comes about through aging of these wines is special.
LB: One final question that is on the mind of every Black Russian Red fan – how did the vineyard handle this year’s winter weather?
JM: I would say not bad all in all. Clearly there’s going to be bud damage out there I think. Most people anticipate that and are leaving extra canes in their pruning or adjusting their pruning techniques. There is very little worry of any kind of serious vine death. This snowpack is the perfect insulator for the graft, the grafted unions. I’m not anticipating any kind of disaster scenario by any stretch of the imagination. The potential for lowered yields is there as it was last year and last year proved to be a surprise. Right now, if I’m going to talk about how the year is looking, it’s going to be okay.