Monday, June 06, 2011

Is a Finger Lakes riesling style arising?

What 27 from the '10 vintage tell us.
by Howard G. Goldberg on Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 9:08am

I’ve been tasting and writing about Finger Lakes rieslings since about 1985. This long-accumulated upstate-riesling experience took a new turn on May 13 when, at the invitation of Bob Madill, chairman of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, a trade organization, and general manager of the Sheldrake Point Vineyard, on Cayuga Lake, I sat down here in Manhattan with a group of riesling fans to taste 27 dry, medium-dry and medium-sweet examples of the 2010 vintage from 20 producers.

These three categories are found on the so-called taste profile created by the International Riesling Foundation (along with a fourth, sweet), which, if carefully and honestly used by vintners on their bottles, tells consumers what to expect.

The tasting took place at Hearth, a restaurant whose proprietor, Paul Grieco, is a well-known champion of riesling. Among the other tasters were the distinguished British-born Stuart Pigott, who lives in Berlin and writes about German wines; his friend Roy Metzdorf, proprietor of Weinstein, a Berlin wine bar; Joshua Greene, publisher and editor of Wine & Spirits magazine; and Prof. Karl Storchmann, managing editor of The Journal of Wine Economics.

Peter Becraft, associate winemaker at Anthony Road, on Seneca Lake, brought the wines (some of them tank samples) and managed the event.

My core takeaway was this: If these bottles, from mostly prominent producers, represented both the quality of the 2010 vintage and a common-denominator level of technical and stylistic maturity, then there is some persuasive evidence that the Finger Lakes has broadly begun to get “it.”

By “it” I mean that, allowing for vintage variations, the young region -- modernity began in 1976, with passage of the Farm Winery Act in Albany -- has begun to find a signature style. In the same way that rieslings from the Mosel, in Germany, and Wachau, in Austria, and Alsace have their own “it,” their own identity.

The wines were light, graceful and easy to enjoy, showing maturity in thought-through grape-growing practices and careful cellar discipline. Fifteen lay in the 11-percent-alcohol range.

Memories fade, but I believe that this collection was the single most-impressive batch of Finger Lakes rieslings I have yet tasted in one swoop. It is entirely possible that in recent years judges in the New York Wine and Grape Foundation’s annual Wine and Food Classic have experienced even better ones (though, inevitably, with more unevenness because of the great number entered.)

In a May 25 e-mail note, Mr. Madill quite reasonably invited feedback. I cannot provide private feedback to the Alliance, because doing so would make me a de facto consultant to the industry, a stance that is incompatible with writing only for the reading public and that heads into conflict of interest. I prefer that he see my thoughts, such as they are, exactly when Joe Sixpack does.

Joe might be interested because the wines ranged in retail price from $12 to $23.99, with a cluster toward the cheaper end. All but three are priced at $20 or under.

“I am very much concerned,” Mr. Madill wrote, “with what I am beginning to see as a developing regional palate that is inclined to operate at the margins of low pH, higher acidity and lighter bodied wines.”

The Alliance tasting certainly reflected that perception. If indeed that’s what happening, it is a strongly positive development, to say the least.

Mr. Madill also said, “My own thinking has been moving from a focus on the really dry to more interest in medium-dry.”

I think that is a good idea. My own preference -- after years of favoring the dry side of my very favorite rieslings, Germany’s -- has begun to shift toward a desire for a pinch of residual sugar, which adds to depth, surprise, complexity and deeper satisfaction.

The wineries represented were Atwater, Lucas, Fox Run, Billsboro, Fulkerson, Ravines, Sheldrake Point, Swedish Hill, Seneca Shore, Wagner, Red Newt, Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Anthony Road, King Ferry (Treleaven), Lakewood, Lamoreaux Landing, Standing Stone, Glenora, Knapp and Thirsty Owl. (Noticeably the wines of, arguably, the Finger Lakes’ most seasoned estate, Hermann J. Wiemer, were absent. “Wiemer declined to participate since their rieslings were not through fermentation,” Mr. Madill explained. )

In my experience, despite an incessant online promotional drumbeat Everest-peak claims cannot yet be broadly and confidently made about Finger Lakes rieslings. I have almost never tasted any that predictably rise to the level of the American benchmark, Eroica, a joint venture of Chateau Ste. Michelle, in Washington State, and Dr. Loosen, in the Mosel.

My top dozen favorites, in this order, were Atwater’s dry, Fox Run’s dry (a tank sample), Lucas’s dry, Fulkerson’s dry (clone 239, tank sample), Lakewood’s dry (tank sample), Wagner’s dry (tank sample), King Ferry’s dry, Ravines’ dry, Red Newt’s dry (Sawmill Creek Vineyard), Billsboro’s dry, Standing Stone’s medium dry and Knapp’s medium dry.

Tomorrow night this order or preference might change; in July it might change again; and in October yet again. These young wines have lots of growing up to do. I hesitate to over-extrapolate a comprehensive meaning. The most conservative thing I’m comfortable with saying is “good show” and “on the right track.” More than that, or less, requires a retasting next year, when perhaps signs of ageability might surface.

Read the piece at Howard's website: