Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer in the Finger Lakes

It's that time of year again, when we get out of NYC to escape the heat. So we packed out bags and headed for our favorite summer destination: New York's Finger Lakes. We found ourselves a hotel room in Geneva, on the shore of Seneca Lake, and spent a couple of days driving through the hills, enjoying the views and tasting the wines.

We only had a few days, so we carefully selected the wineries to visit. Too many close together, and the tastings could blur into one. Too haphazard in our approach, and we could spend far more time driving between the lakes than sampling this year's wine. But we managed to do well, picking a handful of excellent wineries to visit. And as an added bonus, we were able to make appointments with some fine winemakers to sit down and chat with them, and try some of their extra special wines.  
View from our hotel room
Our first visit was at Anthony Road Wine Company, where we met owners Ann and John Martini, and their winemaker, Johannes Reinhardt. Johannes took the time to show us around the production facility, which was very interesting compared to the few others we have seen. The larger, more modern facilities may not retain the old-world charm of an older cellar, but modern technology can only enhance the winemaker's skills. Johannes showed us their "cold cellar;" a refrigerated room that allows him to better control the wine's temperature during barrel fermentation to create more balanced Rieslings with lower alcohol content. 

Before we started our tasting, Ann and John took a few minutes to sit with us on the porch off the tasting room, overlooking the lake. They shared with us some of their joys and concerns about running a winery business. Like any sort of farming, it's a hard life, but they seemed content with what they have built, and proud of the benefit theirs and other wineries have brought to the Finger Lakes community.

After all of that, all of us--Ann, John, Johannes, and us--took part in a tasting, sampling their everyday wines alongside the special wines that add depth to their portfolio. Johannes pointed out that, in addition to the dry Rieslings that the Region has become known for, the Finger Lakes can create some wonderfully balanced Semi-Dry Rieslings that offer richer, fruitier flavors and a smoothness that plays with that acidity. And, as a special treat, he shared some of his dessert wines, the Berry Selection and Trockenbeerenauslese (or, "TBA") Rieslings, made it the traditional German style. This wine is made from handpicked grapes and is lovingly handcrafted--and all the rich, sweet unctuousness that can be expected of wines created with this level of care came through. The range offered in the Anthony Road tasting was excellent, and set the tone for our entire visit. It highlighted the level of balance that a deft hand can bring to Finger Lakes wine. It was only 11:30 in the morning as we walked out of the tasting room--but we felt like we had spent a whole day with this wonderful team.
Martini Reinhardt Selection
Given our recent discovery of his wines, we knew we had to visit Tom Higgins at Heart & Hands Winery. The tasting room is closed weekdays except by appointment, so this gave us ample opportunity to ask questions and learn about Tom, his wife Susan, and their craft. Tom explained how he trained in France, California, and New York, and how he wanted to work with the Pinot Noir grape in the Finger Lakes, and in the Burgundy style (all red Burgundy wine is Pinot Noir). It helps to know that Pinot Noir is considered a "difficult" grape to grow let alone produce into good wine, so many winemakers don't even try. Also consider that Finger Lakes wineries have a hard time convincing media and consumers that they can produce a decent red wine besides Cabernet Franc and Lemberger, two cold-climate grapes. 

Tom showed us his vineyard, where he lavishes his Pinot Noir vines with the extra care required to produce the highest-quality wines. Then, he shared with us his wine portfolio: two Rieslings crafted with skill, three Pinot Noirs made in the French style--one called "Polarity" that received no skins during fermentation and was therefore as white as any white wine--and, an amazing sparkling Blanc de Noir. He also showed us some very technical information about land composition, which proved that while tasting wine is an ongoing learning journey, there is vastly even more to learn about growing grapes that is far beyond us. We did learn a bit more about growing the perfect grape and transforming it into the perfect wine.

Pinot Noir Grapes at Heart and Hands
Our next step was a big contrast. Scott Osborn from Fox Run Vineyards showed us around his farm, explaining all the practical concerns of one who has been farming in the region for decades. He pointed out the drought damage already starting to show in the vines, and discussed the amount of labor that would go into hand watering the vines if it didn't rain soon. From there, we visited his enormous production facility, and he touched on a topic near and dear to our hearts: his support of all things local. He talked about how he commissioned the first stainless steel tanks from a local welding company, and after showing them how to build a higher quality tank, they have become the largest supplier of tanks on the East Coast. He talked about the challenges of competing with South American wines on price, while still providing his employees with a living wage and health benefits. And he talked about the relationship with the local community, and how supportive the public is to local wines, even when local restaurants and wine shops don't embrace them. It wasn't all practical though; he did spend a lot of time with us in the tasting room. He shared his Geology Series of Rieslings--wines crafted from specific vineyard plots to begin to fully understand the terroir of their property. He shared his Lembergers, Cabernet Francs, and the range of blended wines they create with the two. And, we closed with his dessert wines. The "Hedonia" was a special treat; a floral and funky wine made in the style of Port from the Traminette grape, a hybrid grape found throughout the Finger Lakes. An interesting visit for us as we learned both about the excellent wines crafted at Fox Run, as well as about the reality of the business concerns Finger Lakes winemakers face.

Bottling room at Fox Run Vineyards
Our next day started at Heron Hill. We'd visited their Seneca Lake tasting room in past, but this was our first time to their vineyard on Keuka Lake. We spoke with winemaker Bernard Cennac about the trials and tribulations of working in a cold climate, and tasted a range of their wines, incuding their Ingle Vineyard Series. Ingle Vineyard is operated and maintained by the owners of Heron Hill, and is the only Vinifera vineyard on Canandaigua Lake. The Ingle Vineyard Cabernet Franc is a "field blend": when the rows in the vineyard were first planted, there were a few vines of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignion mixed in with the Cabernet Franc. There is balance in their Rieslings, like at other wineries, that almost suggests those highly acidic white wines are a thing of the past--almost. While we tasted, we chatted a bit about the support for Finger Lakes wines in NYC restaurants, and how there is still a very limited few who have any real offering of New York wines on their wine list. This year's releases will feature updated and refreshed labeling that might help propel Heron Hill to the next level.

View from Heron Hill tasting room
Since we were in the neighborhood and we had time between appointments, we dropped by Dr. Konstantin Frank. We had just missed their 50th Anniversary celebration, and the official release of the 2011 vintages, but we looked forward to enjoying their wines on a quiet weekday. Given our newfound enjoyment of the more balanced Semi-Dry Rieslings, we gave the 2011 a try. Ironically, it was similar in profile to the 2010 Dry Riesling which was an excellent vintage, with ripe peach flavors against natural acidity. The Rose of Pinot Noir which was right in our wheelhouse: light bodied and earthy minerality at the same time. And our favorite of this quick tasting was the new release of Rkatsiteli (2010). This is a rarer white wine; this vintage is both crisp and smooth, herby with hints of banana and vanilla. 

Our last stop was a special treat. Lamoreaux Landing is Wine & Spirits Winery of the Year (2010), and after spending some time with co-owner Josh Wig and trying their wines, it is easy to see why. Focused on freshness, they pride themselves on being able to get their grapes from the vine to storage in two hours, in an attempt to reduce the natural oxidation of fresh picked fruit. This means despite they fact that they have 110 acres of vines, each small block is handled independently, and tracked during the barrel aging process, allowing them to better understand the different terriors of the vineyards, and blend as needed to achieve the perfect wines. We tasted through their different wine "programs." The Riesling program again showed us how different plots of land can effect subtle differences in the flavors, like a skilled jazz performer improvising slightly different tunes around the same main theme. The 2007 "76 West," a red Bordeaux blend, knocked our socks off. And most surprising was the Chardonnay program. In the past, we have written off Finger Lakes Chardonnay, but this trip showed us that like Pinot Noir, it can produce great wines if the winemaker embraces the cool climate and doesn't attempt to create a California style wine. Most interesting was their dedication to showing that the Finger Lakes can produce age worthy wines as well; Lamoreaux Landing sets aside cases of each vintage of their best wines to age in their cellar. Every year, they release wines from their cellar until they reach their peak, giving everyone, including those of us who lack our own wine cellars the chance to see what it means to age a wine.                                                
A wine barrel at Lamoureux Landing
In fact, many of the winemakers expressed to us that their wines could benefit from aging. Tom Higgin's told us his Reserve Pinot Noir would be best in 2018, and Johannes Reinhardt and others are confident in the age-ability of their Rieslings. This goes against current teaching that Finger Lakes wines are best within a year of release. Every time we visit the Finger Lakes, we're impressed. They seem to be in the midst of a major transformation: from sickly sweet wines in the 1980s to really acidic Rieslings in past years, the new phase is all about finding balance and suggests the Finger Lakes is maturing as a wine growing and wine consuming region.

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