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Chepika - New Wines with Old School Style

A long, long time ago, on an island far, far away, I used to drink wines made from the Catawba grape.

Alright, that’s only sort of true.

It wasn’t all that long ago (but I won’t say how long, for fear of dating myself.)

And the island wasn’t that far away – it was Put-in-Bay, off the northern coast of Ohio in Lake Erie.

And I really didn’t drink that much Lake Erie Catabawa wine which was sweet and a little funky in a very grapey way. I preferred weak, watery beer as my island tipple.

This funky/grapey flavor actually has a name: foxy. And no, that’s not ‘foxy’ in the sense of the cute boy who sits behind you in math class. Catabawa, and other vitis labrusca family members like Delaware, Niagara, and Concord, are the vines that grew wild throughout the northeast (and yes, I know labrusca is a species, not a family.) This was truly a long, long time ago - as early as the 1600’s, they were called ‘foxgrapes.’ What the name or flavor has to do with actual foxes is as raging a question as what the fox says.

Weird word entomology (and creepy Norwegian music videos) aside, these foxy grapes were distinctly different from their tamer, cultivated vitis vinifera cousins (European grapes like chardonnay, pinot noir and poulsard.) But different isn’t a bad thing – and these labrusca grapes were once used as a force of good in the 1800s when they were made into some of the world’s most well-regarded sparkling wines. But times change, and these days, they’re mainly used to make sweet wines and fruit juice. Not exactly the dark side, but certainly not a bright spot in the wine universe.

Skip forward to a time a many months ago, when I arrived late for a drink meeting at Rouge Tomate. My drink meeting mates were already sipping from two glasses – blind wines had been poured. They were both sparkling, with the more-foamy-than-full-on bubble that signals ‘petillant naturel’, the newly cool old-school method of getting bubbles into bottles. I took a sniff and a sip.

No way! Could it be? It was grapey, a little funky, floral and fruity…. some might even say ‘foxy.’ But delicious. Definitely floral, in a way that reminded me of the muscat grape, but muscat, even the dry ones, are more peach and orange blossom. This one was all green grape blossom. And much more delicate, almost lacy. There was a racy streak of acidity and those happy, foamy bubbles to balance the fruit.

So was it? Was it Catawba?

Why yes, it was.

It was a pre-bottling sample of a little project of Pascaline Lepeltier MS, recently of Rouge Tomate, and Nathan Kendall of N Kendall winery. “Little” might be overstating it. This first vintage, they made a little over 800 bottles across two different wines. That’s less than 100 cases. They had managed to track down a source for organically grown labrusca grapes up in the Finger Lakes where Nathan makes his own wine, and turned them into petnat using low-tech/no-tech winemaking. Sort of a throwback to the days when these grapes played starirng roles in the best wines of the world.

At the time of the tasting, the wine didn’t have a name, but they eventually decided to call the project chepika, derived from the Lenape word for ‘roots’, the Lanape being the Native American people indigenous to this area. The label is a minimalist interpretation of the five Finger Lakes. And the pop top…. that’s just classic petnat style.

There are two different wines on offer. One from Catawba grapes and one from Delaware grapes. Both are dry, petnat, with no added SO2 or anything else. I have a soft spot for the Catawba, but the Delaware is not to be missed either. It’s a little less grapey – a little more citrusy, sort of like lemon/lime seltzer.

I think both bottles should stick together, so I’m offering a 10% discount if you buy one of each, or $64 for the set.

(The discount will be applied manually since my web site isn’t quite up to the task.)