Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
July 2004 The Finger Lakes Rediscover Riesling
When I first visited New York's Finger Lakes region a decade ago, Pinot Noir was all the rage. "Sure, we make Riesling," they would say in the tasting rooms when we inquired, "but you should try our Pinot - it's what will make the Finger Lakes' reputation."
Five years ago, when I wrote my first article on the Finger Lakes, Pinot Noir was an afterthought, a footnote. Wineries such as Lamoreaux Landing, Fox Run, and Silver Thread were producing worthy versions, but most of the rest were insipid, pale and acidic. "Try our Cabernet Franc!" was the marketing buzzword
Cabernet Franc has been a great success in the Finger Lakes, as it has been elsewhere in the Eastern United States. There are some darn fine Gewurztraminers produced there as well. But in my recent return to the region, I found that Riesling still is putting the thrill in Finger Lakes wines.
Not all of it, mind you. Good Riesling from the Finger Lakes ranges in style from a nice, simple quaff of a patio wine (most of them) to a tightly focused wine capable of exciting the palate and aging in the cellar (a growing number). These latter wines are usually labeled "Dry," but some are labeled "Semi-Dry." Some are labeled Dry but seem like they really are Semi-Dry. But never mind. Sweetness isn't the issue. The better Rieslings - as is true from any region - feature a balance of sugar and acidity, with abundant fruit backing it up. Think citrus zest, especially lime, with a mineral backbone
And this is part of the problem from the consumer's standpoint: It is impossible to tell from the label exactly what style of Riesling is in the bottle. A Dry Riesling may be one with ambitions for greatness, but there are some tart and insipid Dry Rieslings, while others marked Semi-Dry can thrill, with little or no perceptible sweetness because of the excellent balance. It's still hit or miss, even if the hits are increasing in frequency. There's also a problem with consistency, as some wineries can score big with one Riesling and fall flat with the next
But is Finger Lakes Riesling getting better? Yes, according to Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan, along the western slopes of Seneca Lake. Bell and Scott Osborn, Fox Run's owner, host an informal group of winemakers for regular tastings and brainstorming sessions. Their goal: to define and promote a style of wine that shows the Finger Lakes region at its best.
So what defines a top-notch Finger Lakes Riesling? Bell admits he gets impatient with comparisons to Rieslings from Germany's Mosel region, as those from New York tend to have more alcohol and body, and to his palate at least, taste "cleaner" than many German counterparts.
"Finger Lakes Rieslings are distinctive because they have some of the smoky mineral lime character of some of the best Germans, but with more alcohol and structure," Bell says. These characteristics make the wines food-friendly and age-worthy, he adds
Appreciation for this style has grown over the last decade among winemakers and consumers, Bell notes. "It used to take several years to sell out a vintage of Riesling," he explains. "Now several wineries sell out in months." He credits better winemaking and increased consumer demand for "non-Chardonnay wines."
There may be some terroir at work as well. Jeff Houck, winemaker at Lucas Vineyards in Interlaken, on the western side of Cayuga Lake, finds the minerally citrus flavors in Rieslings from Keuka Lake to the west, and from those along the western edge of Seneca Lake. Further east, on the morning side of Seneca and along Cayuga, Houck finds "classic tree fruit flavors" of peach, apple and apricot "with a backside of citrus and spice."
Mother Nature may also play a role in Riesling's resurgence in the Finger Lakes. Riesling was the first vinifera varietal championed for the region decades ago by Dr. Konstantin Frank and later by Hermann J. Wiemer, a winemaking émigré from the Mosel. Part of the reason they planted Riesling was its ability to withstand northern winters. Advances in winemaking techniques helped other varietals flourish and gave rise to the Chardonnays, Cab Francs, Pinot Noirs and other varietals that tend to overshadow Riesling today. But 2003 was a wet, sloppy vintage, bookended by brutal winters.
Temperatures dropped well below 0F for several days this past winter. When I visited the region in May, winemakers were still trying to assess the damage, but many were fearing the worst. Houck described the carnage as "relatively catastrophic," with many vines killed to the ground, especially if growers did not "hill up" their vines to protect the roots. Fox Run lost its best Pinot Noir vineyard in the winter of 2003; this year knocked out blocs of Merlot, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay
But Riesling seems to have fared best of all the varietals, perhaps confirming the wisdom of its early adherents. These recent tough vintages have given today's winemakers increased respect for Riesling. "It's winter-hardy, does well in any year, and grows anywhere," Bell notes.
From my recent and previous tastings, these are wineries to look for when exploring Finger Lakes Riesling (in alphabetical order): Anthony Road, Chateau Lafayette-Reneau, Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars, Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, Hosmer Winery, Fox Run Vineyards, Lakewood Vineyards, Lucas Vineyards, Ravines Wine Cellars, Red Newt Cellars, Silver Thread.
The following Rieslings, all current releases, were my favorites from a blind tasting in May at Fox Run Vineyards, arranged for me by Scott Osborn and Peter Bell. There were 32 Rieslings from 14 wineries in the tasting.
Heron Hill Ingle Vineyard 2002 Johannisberg Riesling. An exciting wine! Mineral oil on the nose, zesty, vibrant fruit and an eye-opening long finish. Wow.
Lakewood 2002 Dry Riesling. Apricot, honey and citrus flavors. Seems to have some sweetness, but the balance is perfect. Long finish. I also liked Lakewood's 2002 Riesling, which showed very similar characteristics.
Fox Run Vineyards 2002 Dry Riesling. I had trouble figuring this one out, there was so much going on in the glass. The mineral-acid structure hints at a long and delicious life ahead of it. The Fox Run 2003 Riesling is more straightforward.
Glenora 2003 Riesling. Zesty citrus, fine acid/sugar balance and good depth. Also good, Glenora's 2002 Vintner's Select.
Lucas Vineyards 2003 Riesling. Nice citrusy aromatics, with lemon and lime zest and good depth. I had similar notes on the Lucas 2002 Riesling and the Lucas 2002 Dry Riesling.
For yet another sign of their quality, Finger Lakes Rieslings earned 33 medals at the 2004 International Eastern Wine Competition, sponsored by Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine in May at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. The Heron Hill 2002 Riesling Reserve won "Best Dry Riesling" in the "World Riesling Championship, a subset of the competition that was won overall by Carlson Vineyards 2003 Riesling from Colorado. But that's another article. (I was a judge at the IEWC, though not in the Riesling championships.)
So as we sail on through summer, remember to drink more Riesling!
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.