Finger Lakes Region Forges Ahead

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Riesling makes its mark in this New York wine region

The latest issue of Wine Spectator magazine has a nice article on the Finger Lakes area in New York.

James Molesworth
Issue: February 28, 2013

Vintners in New York's emergent Finger Lakes region have found a formula for success, based largely on Riesling, and they're gaining experience quickly. The latest evidence is the 2011 vintage, when they proved their expertise as heavy rains late in the season made for a tricky harvest.

"In general, the 2011s are broader and without really bright acidity," says Bob Madill, owner of Sheldrake Point Winery on Cayuga Lake. "But people are more adept in the vineyards and winery than they were even five years ago. A vintage like 2011—had it happened a few years ago—could have been a real disaster."

"The growers who didn't stay on top of their spray program were shown no mercy," says Morten Hallgren of Ravines Wine Cellars, which recently moved into a new facility on Seneca Lake. Leaf-pulling for better air flow around clusters to reduce disease pressure and reducing yields to fully ripen the grapes were other techniques critical to success in 2011, notes Hallgren.

This is Wine Spectator's first formal tasting report on the Finger Lakes, though I have covered the region for several years and regularly visit the area to meet with producers and growers. During the past 12 months, I have reviewed more than 325 Finger Lakes wines in blind tastings in our New York office, two-thirds of which received ratings of 85 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, including 28 wines that earned outstanding ratings of 90 or more points. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

About a five-hour drive northwest from New York City, the Finger Lakes region now has 118 wineries, up from 69 just 10 years ago. The majority ring the three lakes of Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka. These deep lakes, carved by glaciers, provide a moderating influence that allows vines to thrive during the growing season and survive tough winters. While Finger Lakes producers have historically relied on native and hybrid grapes, the best continue to focus on European vinifera varieties, primarily Riesling and other aromatic whites, along with promising reds such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Lemberger.

Among the vinifera varieties, Riesling leads with approximately 540 acres of vines, about one-third of the total acreage planted to vinifera grapes, though the region does not have exact figures. In addition, producers are homing in on proper site selection for new plantings, reducing yields for quality and showing a growing willingness to compete for customers outside of their local base.

The finest Finger Lakes Rieslings are dry, crisp, taut and fresh-styled wines, with flavors ranging from slate and lime to peach, jasmine and green apple. There are very good to outstanding off-dry and sweet versions as well, though they are in the minority. Riesling is clearly the Finger Lakes' best hope at the moment for competing on the world stage. Of the nearly 150 Rieslings reviewed in this report, half are from the 2011 vintage.

The Hermann J. Wiemer winery produced three of the top bottlings, including the late-release Riesling Finger Lakes Dry HJW Vineyard 2010 (92 points, $39). (The winery has not yet released its 2011s.) The highest-rated 2011 bottlings are the debut Forge Cellars Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2011 (91, $25), a gorgeous white from Rhône vigneron Louis Barruol, and the pure Silver Thread Riesling Seneca Lake STV Estate Vineyard 2011 (91, $25). The Forge, a blend of fruit from several different vineyards, was whole-cluster fermented in oak, an unusual technique for a region that generally relies on the ease and safety of fermentations in stainless-steel tanks. Other leading wineries include Anthony Road, Bloomer Creek, Fox Run, Keuka Lake Vineyards, Ravines, Red Newt Cellars, Sheldrake Point, Standing Stone and Tierce.

Many of the region's top Riesling producers now fashion multiple bottlings, focusing on single-vineyard sources as the hunt for distinctive terroir has kicked into high gear in recent years.

"Really the only single vineyard prior to 2007 was Heron Hill's Ingle Vineyard," says Fred Merwarth, owner and winemaker at Hermann J. Wiemer on Seneca Lake. "But the natural evolution for a region is to figure out what varietal works. Then the next step is to really prove it belongs there, and that it isn't something that just works OK. To do that, the varietal needs to replicate a sense of place based on specific sites. And we're now dedicated to doing single-vineyard bottlings every year at Wiemer, to demonstrate what Finger Lakes Riesling can do—and how site-specific it can be."

Noting that all three of his top Riesling vineyards were harvested on the same day in October 2011, Merwarth thinks each provides a distinct flavor and acidity profile, giving him the evidence he needs to pursue single-vineyard bottlings. But while the single-vineyard concept is catching on, there are still many wineries that produce Rieslings by blending various sites.

"The single vineyards are the individual instruments, but the ‘dry' bottling is the orchestra," says Paul Brock, who with his wife, Shannon, recently bought Silver Thread Vineyard on Seneca Lake. "I like to show what the single vineyards bring, so I keep some separate, but I really like to put the components together and make the best possible wine I can make that way."

The Silver Thread Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2011 (89, $16), which blends three vineyard sources, is an excellent value, as are the Ravines Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2011 (89, $17) and Keuka Lake Vineyards Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2011 (89, $18).

These are only a few of the many well-priced wines on offer from the Finger Lakes, which teems with value. Overall, there are 130 wines in this report that cost $20 or less while earning scores of 85 points or better, including many frontline Riesling bottlings. Look for wines from Atwater Estate, Billsboro, Damiani, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Rooster Hill and Wagner, among others.

In addition to Riesling, other white varietals such as Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay are the region's most consistent. But strides are being made with red wines as well. Cabernet Franc has often been considered the Finger Lakes' best bet, yet Pinot Noir and other cool-climate wines have caught up quickly, in some cases surpassing the best Cabernet Francs despite their shorter track record.

Pinot Noir lovers should start taking a closer look at bottlings from the Finger Lakes. Difficult to grow and vinify, the grape is being taken more seriously by producers, such as Tom Higgins, owner and winemaker at Heart & Hands on Cayuga Lake, who are willing to lower yields for quality and deal with Pinot's idiosyncrasies.

"If you look at benchmark places around the globe, the underlying current is that the best wine grapes are found on limestone-based soils," says Higgins. "And given the landscape of the wine world, Pinot Noir is the most notorious for demonstrating a sense of place. That combination means the Finger Lakes has a wonderful opportunity to present itself as something unique and different in terms of wine."

Higgins worked with Josh Jensen at California's Calera winery and then moved to the Finger Lakes to stake his claim, founding his winery in 2006. After locating some spots in the region with limestone soils, he was convinced he could make quality Pinot Noir; today, 1,300 of the 2,100 cases he produces are Pinot. The Heart & Hands Pinot Noir Finger Lakes Elaine's Vineyard 2010 (87, $31) shows plum skin, blackberry and black currant fruit, with flickers of cinnamon, black tea and clove. Billsboro, Damiani and Shalestone also made very good Pinots.

Exploring the potential of other cool-climate red varietals is Nancy Irelan, who with her husband, Michael Schnelle, founded Red Tail Ridge on Seneca Lake in 2004. Planting 20 acres of vines in three years, the couple started with Pinot Noir, while also including small parcels of Teroldego, Lemberger (also called Blaufränkisch), Lagrein and Dornfelder.

"Teroldego was very intriguing given that it's grown in alpine vineyards at the base of the Dolomites. Winters can be extreme in this location, and Teroldego shares a parent with Syrah, an established cool-climate wine cultivar," says Irelan, referring to the need for vines to survive the cold upstate New York winters. "As for Blaufränkisch, I believe the variety has demonstrated its fitness in the Finger Lakes. Hopefully you will see more plantings of this variety in the next few years. Blaufränkisch has been such a popular wine for us that this past spring we pulled out some Riesling, if you can you believe it, and planted around 900 vines."

As the region's steadily growing ranks of winemakers gain experience, homing in on the best grapes and vineyard sites, the Finger Lakes is quickly becoming an excellent source for quality and value. It's time for serious wine consumers to take notice.

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of the Finger Lakes.

Finger Lake Wine Ratings
Thanks Mike, nice read. Keep an eye on Traminette from Cornell. Similar to Gewürztraminer,more depth than Riesling. It has become my favorite white. The best part is , I am about 10 miles from a grapery that supplies most of the varieties mentioned.