This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Jun. 25, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20070625.php.
Judging New York wines
Some might ask "why?" With its image as urban center, industrial Northeastern state and a place where winter runs long, harsh and deep, New York State hardly strikes most people as a likely place for wine production. Certainly its climate is a far cry from the balmy, temperate Mediterranean conditions that prevail in many of the world's wine-producing regions from the coasts of sunny California or Australia to Tuscany's Latin sun.
But come up with a different list of wine regions to compare, and you'll get a different perspective. Long Island, a gravelly spit surrounded by the tempering waters of the North Atlantic, isn't entirely unlike Bordeaux; and check the soils and climate of the Finger Lakes and you're looking at something akin to the Rhine, the Mosel or even Burgundy, albeit with a bit more vine-protecting winter snow.
Accordingly, although many wine enthusiasts would never guess it, New York State ranks third in the U.S. in wine production, trailing only the West Coast states of California and Washington State. The Empire State boasts more than 200 wineries - about half of them in the Finger Lakes region - and produces one-fourth of 1 billion bottles in an average year.
Historically, it's true that much of New York's wine hasn't fallen into the style categories that serious wine lovers crave. Sweet, jammy country-style or kosher wines made from native American grapes like Concord still own the lion's share of the state's wine production. These, along with fruit and berry wines and the less familiar flavors of cold-resistant hybrid grapes with odd names like Chambourcin and Seyval and Baco Noir, don't often win high point ratings from the wine-geek publications, which in fact rarely mention them at all.
But here is New York's secret: As interest in wine has grown in the U.S. over the past generation, with commercial wineries in all 50 states, New York's established wine industry and diverse climate have made it one of the first Eastern states poised to break out into a broader market.
What's more, younger generations at old-line wineries and newer artisan producers have been paying serious attention to making wines from familiar grapes well suited for the regional climate: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and perhaps most of all, Riesling.
I had the opportunity to taste quite a few of them over the weekend, first as a wine judge on Saturday at the New York State Fair wine competition in Syracuse, then at "NiagaraCool," a sociable picnic of online wine enthusiasts on Sunday in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area.
For a change of pace this week, I thought you might enjoy a few quick comments on some of the wines I tasted as a State Fair judge. Although wines were presented "blind," without any information about the producer or exact label, we were told the varietal grape (or other fruit) makeup of each wine and its sweetness as measured by percent of residual sugar.
The 24 judges were divided into six panels of four, and each panel tasted about 40 wines in preliminary judging, then another 40 or so in a final "sweepstakes" round in which all judges tasted the top-rated wines in each division and the seven candidates for "Best of Show."
Sadly, this division kept any of us from getting a good sampling of every wine type available - I was able to taste only a couple of Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Francs and Merlots in the final rounds, for example - the daylong event still gave a good sense of the diversity - and the quality - of New York's wines.
Sparkling vinifera - A flight of seven sparklers, all extremely high in acidity, made quite a challenging breakfast. All seemed well-made and flavorful, but that screeching acidity almost demanded a more substantial food accompaniment than the bites of bread provided.
White blends - There were only three wines in this limited category, but one of them - a blend of 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Seyval Blanc - definitely caught my attention and, speaking of food pairings, made me want a plate of nicely chilled oysters.
Riesling - Many wine experts argue that Riesling is the ideal grape for fine, high-end Finger Lakes production, and certainly the eight in this flight showed promise. Several showed pleasing minerality, and most presented the transparent clarity of flavor that makes Riesling special. A couple seemed over-sulfured, and in general, this 2006 vintage, although adequately acidic, lacked the steely acidity that marks Riesling at its best.
Vignoles - Perhaps my favorite white French-hybrid variety, Vignoles (also known as Ravat 51) is occasionally made dry but most often vinified as a sweeter wine. The six in this flight ranged from almost dry (1 percent residual sugar) to the sweeter side of off-dry (5%). I was impressed with them all and would list Vignoles ("Veen-yole") as another grape to watch in New York.
White native - If you dismiss native American grapes as hopelessly sweet, thick and "foxy," overwhelmed by the characteristic "Welch's Grape Jelly" character of the Vitis labrusca species, you might (if you have an open mind) try getting your hands on a well-made Niagara. The six Niagara-based white wines in this flight certainly showed the characteristic "grape jelly" flavor, but wrapped up in nicely balanced sweet-tart packages that made them surprisingly refreshing and not at all one-dimensional.
"Other" Vinifera reds - A mixed bag, this "catchall" flight of eight wines made from less commonplace vinifera grapes was led by two good if lighter-style Syrahs; a splendid Zweigelt, peppery and juicy-ripe, and one Gamay that could easily have passed as a ringer in a flight of Cru Beaujolais. Two Lembergers, a Pinot Meunier and another Gamay were less impressive.
Chambourcin and Baco Noir - These French-hybrid red varieties aren't particularly to my liking with their charred-grain "hybridy" aromas and, in the case of Chambourcin, high acidity that's out of whack with the fruit. That said, however, they were varietally correct and well-made. A brandy-fortified Baco Noir "Port" fared less well on my score sheet.
Non-fortified fruit dessert wines - I'm familiar with this genre from its popularity among Indiana and Kentucky wineries closer to home. Success in fruit wines rests in making a beverage that truly represents the aromas and flavors of the fruit and presents them with sweetness and acidity in balance. In this round of eight, two blackberry wines got it best.
Ice wines - Although Ontario's Niagara Peninsula has sought to capture toothache-sweet ice wines made from naturally frozen grapes as the regional specialty, upstate New York also lays a credible claim. Both stylish Riesling and more "feral" and "wild" flavors of Vidal Blanc worked very nicely indeed; a red Primitivo (Zinfandel) ice wine flawed by pickle-juice volatile acidity was just plain weird.
And that's the way it is in New York: Traditional wine makers still producing the old traditions; newer producers trying a little of almost everything, trying to find what works. Overall, there's a real sense of renaissance and some optimism about the opportunities that increased interstate wine shipping may allow.
As time goes by, chances are that most of us in the rest of the world will gradually begin seeing more wines of the Finger Lakes and other New York regions available at local retail or by Internet and mail order. My advice: Don't sell them short.
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