Our Orange Hybrid Obsession
La Ciguapa is enchanting New York.
She is aromatic, structured, refreshing. This first vintage from sommelier Nicolle Borrero is a skin-contact stunner–and with a context full of both history and progressive spirit, the wine is as delicious as it is thought-provoking.
We caught up with our friend Nicolle about working with hybrids, her journey to the cellar, and the experience making her first vintage. Read on below!
You've worked all over the wine world–retail, wholesale, restaurants–is there a specific wine that's defined your experience in some way?
This is a no brainer: Domaine Chapel, Beaujolais-Villages 2019. Any bottling from Domaine Chapel always tugs at my heartstrings after having worked the 2019 harvest with them in Beaujolais. I was lucky to work that harvest with my partner and it was where we decided we would dive headfirst into this wine thing. It was also my first real peek at the life of a grower winemaker and what it means to carry that work with integrity. While I am not completely dogmatic when it comes to natural wine, there were many lines drawn in the sand for me, as far as farming is concerned, after spending that time with Michele Smith and David Chapel.
Whenever I hear thunder in Brooklyn, I am reminded of how the storms roll in and brew over Brouilly, visible from Chapel's kitchen porch in Régnié where we had our harvest lunches and countless beers. -- I'll never forget when I finally got my hands on a bottle of their Beaujolais-Villages from that vintage during the summer of 2020. The pandemic was raging here in NYC; I was dealing with a great personal loss. But holding that bottle in that moment - on the other side of the world from where I had a hand in making it - was a saving grace.
OK, we have goosebumps now. After that experience, what led you to making wine in Pine Bush, NY?
In late summer of 2020, I spent a couple weeks visiting regeneratively-farmed vineyards and some of the most progressive winemakers on the West Coast. (Almost every single producer is represented on your shelves, actually!) The trip began in Napa and wound through Sonoma, Dundee, the Willamette Valley, and finished in the Columbia River Gorge. The trip was organized by Jirka Jireh (Co-founder of Industry Sessions) for a small group of women of color in the wine industry, at a time when the pandemic was still very new and raw for all of us.
Equitable labor practices, experimental grapes and winemaking techniques dominated our conversations in that overpacked car. I really have to credit Jirka with helping me arrive at the conclusion that I should seek out my own production. She connected me with Todd Cavallo at Wild Arc Farm, who was looking to support new winemakers. Wild Arc is an immensely special place: Todd and his wife Crystal experiment with stacking the functions of what you can grow and reap in New York state with compassion and immense generosity. They welcomed me into their home and let me take up space in their small winery at a time when it was dangerous to meet new people. I'll never forget that and am determined to pay it forward when I am in a position to do so myself.
As you mentioned, we're at many inflection points as an industry–including how we think about grape varieties beyond traditional vinifera. What drives you to work with hybrids?
I wish I could evangelize American hybrid fruit from a mountaintop! Supporting New York State wine as well as vineyards that grow this fruit is very important to me. During that West Coast trip, Napa was on fire all around us. Even our pruning lesson and tasting with Steve Matthiasson had to be cut short because of the terrible air quality. The week after we left the Columbia River Gorge in August 2020, the fires ripped up the coast and devastated the livelihoods of many of the farmers I'd just met. Some people lost entire homes, vineyards, winemaking facilities and even previous vintages. [I must make note here that, physically, the people who suffered the most were the migrant workers who spent grueling days trying to salvage what was left of the vintage. In the US, our agricultural workers are almost always Mexican migrants. These are the people who never get the glory, not to mention adequate pay or healthcare. This is true for almost every single piece of food grown in our country.]
The shock of seeing everything I'd just born witness to being incinerated is something I'll never forget. On a micro level, it has made me exceptionally sensitive to smoke-taint in wine. Truly, it is something you can never unsee or un-taste. On a headier macro level, it made me question what terroir can even mean anymore when an erratic and violent climate puts our farmland under extreme duress and changes not only its physiology but also the chemical makeup of your wine. We may not have fires here in New York but our agriculture suffers greatly from frost and disease pressure. These factors are as unpredictable as ever due to climate change. When it came time for me to choose which fruit to use for my wine, I knew I wanted to work with hybrids, which are designed to be more resistant to frost and disease.
Hopefully, if a new generation of winemakers buys more of this kind of fruit, it will encourage more hybrid planting. I think there is an enormous potential here, for consumers and producers: I didn't arrive at this project through generational wealth or a winemaking family history. Since hybrid fruit isn't as highly sought after as, say, Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, the relatively gentle cost of the hybrids made my first foray much more accessible. Riesling is also plentiful and relatively affordable here in New York.
Finally, and I'll be honest here, before my trip to the West Coast in 2020, I drank very little domestic wine. Like many others in our industry, I fell into the trap of devoting myself solely to Euro-centric wine studies for several years. It is such a shame that here in NYC, one of the best markets for wine on the planet, we don't do enough to honor the wines (or ciders!) made in our own backyard. We should be supporting our emerging wine region as much as possible in the most progressive way we can.
Could not agree more–wine is an often overlooked piece of our history here in NY and it's so exciting that you're a part of crafting this next chapter for us. Speaking of which...what is the history behind La Ciguapa?
La Ciguapa is named after a folktale told in the Dominican Republic, where my mother was born. It is just one of the many stories from her childhood that she passed along to me during mine. Children are warned against venturing out into the woods alone unless they want to meet la ciguapa. Her call draws you in until she reveals herself: a woman with large, dark and enchanting almond shaped eyes and with thick, ankle-length black hair draped on her body. Most tales describe a demon which lives in deep caves and lures lonely men with her beauty and sensuality in order to consume them, much like a siren.
In addition, the Taíno symbol for ‘frog’ is placed on the black label and here it represents the Puerto Rican coqui (pronounced ko-kee). This small arboreal frog makes a “ko-kee” sound that can be heard at night in a great cacophony across the island. I've used it here to represent The Taíno, an indigenous people of the Arawak Nation in the Caribbean. At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of what is now Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, and the northern Lesser Antilles. It is estimated the Taino population reached its peak at 3 million inhabitants before the arrival of Europeans. The Taíno were declared extinct shortly after 1565 when a census showed just 200 members of the tribe living on Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Although many Caribeños have traces of this indigenous DNA, the Taíno people have been eradicated. You can still see their cave drawings in the mountains of the Dominican Republic to this day.
Was the wine intentionally made to reflect this context, or did the finished wine drive the connection?
My intention at the outset was to make a partial skin-contact wine. I didn't want to put the cart before the horse and name it before it was finished. In the end, the name was chosen to marry a contemporary wine with my native heritage, serving the bittersweet duality that any immigrant's child will tell you comes with being a first generation American.
What was the most surprising part of making your first vintage?
The thing that everyone tells you when you make wine for the first time is that something will go wrong and you shouldn't be too hard on yourself when it does. An unexpected part of making my first vintage is that nothing went wrong at all; I was able to craft it in the style of many wines I love to drink. It's clean, crisp and aromatic. I really couldn't have asked for more. The other really surprising thing was how my community and friends really showed up and helped me during the process. There are great sommeliers who have tasted my wine throughout every stage of its life to give me feedback and friends who lent me their cars countless times so that I could pull this off.
Probably difficult because this wine is absolutely delicious, but: how would you describe La Ciguapa in three words?
New New-World Edelzwicker
Thank you, Nicolle ~ and cheers to La Ciguapa!