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Firecrackers from the Finger Lakes
By Linda Murphy
Oct 9, 2012
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New York’s Finger Lakes is one of the most dynamic and diverse wine regions in America.  More than 30 grape varieties are planted there --  a mix of Vitis vinifera, hybrids such as Cayuga, Niagara and Vignoles, and native labrusca -- in vineyards that snuggle up against Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka lakes, as well as the eight other water bodies that comprise the Finger Lakes chain.

For all of its viticultural diversity, which includes Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, Merlot, Pinot Noir, icewine and Dr. Konstantin Frank’s beloved Rkatsiteli (made from an ancient grape native to the Republic of Georgia), Riesling is the real firecracker from the Finger Lakes, whose mineral-rich limestone and shale soils and typically chilly climate are conducive to producing racy Rieslings that can stand toe-to-toe with the best of Germany, Austria and Australia. 

They are made in a gamut of styles:  Dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, sweet, icewine and sparkling, and for the large part are exceptional values, given their quality and complexity.

The Finger Lakes’ normally cool growing conditions support the retention of natural acidity in the grapes, no matter how ripe they become.  Thus, a sweet or semi-sweet Riesling can be as texturally bracing as a dry Riesling with no residual sugar, thanks to that refreshing acidity. 

Vines are planted on steep hillsides exposed to the cooling influence of the long, narrow, glacially-carved Finger Lakes, which prevent cold air from settling over vineyards, and thus discouraging frost.  But there is no protection from growing-season rains, as vintners experienced in 2011, when mold and mildew hampered their efforts during a contradictory mix of warmth and wetness.

As the 2012 harvest winds down in New York, the 2011 Rieslings are arriving in the market, and the quality of those I’ve tasted is admirable, particularly given the conditions.  The true test of skilled viticulture and winemaking is in making high-quality wines from difficult conditions, and 2011 is a testament to both in the Finger Lakes.

Conditions vacillated from very wet in spring, to warm and dry in the summer months, to wet in fall.  The Riesling harvest occurred three weeks later than normal in most areas, and yields were down as growers and winemakers had to be very selective in the grapes they brought into their cellars. 

“Excessive rain during ripening caused some rot and separated the good growers from the not-so-good,” said Lucas Vineyards’ Jeff Houck during an online tasting of the 2011 Rieslings conducted by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance.

“Twenty years ago, this would have been a disaster.  But canopy management is different than it was in 1987; that was a similar vintage with a warm summer and then it rained like crazy.” 

“2011 was a challenging vintage,” added Ravines Wine Cellars owner/winemaker Morten Hallgren, “but it validated certain (viticultural) practices.”  While wet conditions encouraged the development of Botrytis in the grapes -- which can be a positive for those producing late-harvest, dessert-style Rieslings -- Hallgren is focused on dry Rieslings, and he thanked vigilant growers for delivering clean, healthy, relatively Botrytis-free clusters to his Keuka Lake winery in 2011.

Hallgren, a native of Denmark who grew up in Provence, France, and made wine in Texas, North Carolina and at Dr. Konstantin Frank before founding Ravines, has his Riesling grapes hand-harvested (machine harvesting is common in the Finger Lakes) so that bunches infected with Botrytis don’t go into the picking bins.  The grapes are whole-cluster pressed -- not crushed as berries -- so weeding out of bunches with rot in the vineyard and at the sorting table are paramount to superior wine quality.

“The Finger Lakes has a continental climate that is more extreme than in Germany, Champagne or Burgundy,” said Hallgren.  “Yet it is perhaps the most promising, and we have a responsibility to shape and form it.”

Whereas Ravines purchases its Riesling grapes, Bob Madill, partner and winegrower at Sheldrake Point Winery on the western shore of Cayuga Lake, uses estate-grown fruit farmed on his 44-acre vineyard.  He noted that specificity of site is important in Finger Lakes vineyards.  “One hundred feet (change) in elevation can mean a six-degree temperature difference, top to bottom, in a vineyard,” he said.        

Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, of Rkatsiteli fame, is actually better-known for its Rieslings.  Ukrainian immigrant Dr. Konstantin Frank was the first to show that vinifera vines, which he planted on the shores of Keuka Lake, could thrive in the chilly, damp conditions.  He established his winery in 1962, and his grandson, Frederick Frank, skippers the ship today in its 50th year.

“Riesling’s benchmark in the Finger Lakes is its consistency,” Fred said.  “With the changing weather year to year, we still make Rieslings that win awards and get good reviews.  We’re expanding with new vineyards, gaining more credibility and notoriety.  In 1962, there were a dozen wineries in the Finger Lakes.  Now there are 330 and counting.” 

Also counting is the number of markets Finger Lakes wines are reaching outside their home state of New York.  Dr. Konstantin Frank wines are now distributed in 30 states.  Ravines and Hermann J. Wiemer Rieslings have cracked the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets, and an astute retailer in Napa Valley, Daniel Dawson of Back Room Wines, sells the Ravines Dry Riesling to locals who appreciate a minerally, angular wine style that few places in California can duplicate. 
Kudos also go to the International Riesling Foundation and the Finger Lakes winemakers who have adopted the IRF’s Riesling taste scale -- a small graph on back labels that informs consumers of the level of sweetness of the wine.  The scale goes from dry to sweet, in measured increments, and vintners place an arrow at the point on the graph that indicates how sweet each particular wine is. 

Not everyone in the Finger Lakes uses the scale; Fox Run Vineyards, Knapp Winery, Lakewood Vineyards, Lucas Vineyards and Sheldrake Point Vineyards are among those who do.  It’s a great service to consumers, and I hope more producers world-wide adopt the scale.

Many American wine drinkers expect Riesling to be sweet and shy away from the varietal because of that.  The IRF scale tells them what to expect from a wine they might inspect in a store by reading the back label, as it factors in the interplay of acidity and residual sugar for how “sweet” or “dry” an impression a wine can make on the palate.

Finger Lakes Rieslings are superstars in the American winemaking world, and they are only now being recognized, globally, as such.  It’s high time.