Monday, February 27, 2012

Michael Schnelle of Red Tail Ridge About the Obscure Red Varietal Series

Michael Schnelle is the other half of the dynamic duo that is Red Tail Ridge Vineyards along with his famous winemaker wife Nancy Irelan. Last week, while my own wife was attending classes at the Geneva Experiment Station, I drove around the Finger Lakes visiting tastingrooms on a Tuesday morning. It was great. Few wineries were opened on a Tuesday morning in winter, but on the other hand, the folks in the tastingrooms that were open had plenty of time to talk.

Before becoming the vineyard manager at Red Tail Ridge, Michael was working for a national company that rents heavy equipment to consumers. Mike used to manage the financial service center that supported most of the individual locations west of the Mississippi. He's a numbers-guy, with a lot of hands-on and practical experience in heavy equipment and construction. Winegrowing is a second career for Mike.

According to Nancy, "He picked up the basics quickly and has proven to be a great partner in trying new approaches and thinking “outside the box”. Mike is also one of the most meticulous and exacting viticulturists that I've ever worked with."

Michael talked about the last growing season and then we talked about different varietals. And of course, I began to talk about why I was really there. I wanted to try the Obscure Red Varietal Series. I am a wine geek. I admit it. Nothing much else you can say. And with the tasting of the Dornfelder I did about three to four weeks ago, I was intrigued to try the rest. Cold weather grapes from other parts of the world could be important to the region. And who needs another Cab Franc or Merlot? It's important for wineries to offer somethings no one else differentiate your winery from the others, and your region from the others. Grapes like Malbec, Viognier, and Norton have helped set other regions apart.

It's important to repeat here their vineyard philosophy. "We have 20 acres of cool climate varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. While you may be most familiar with these cool climate varieties, we are also examining some more obscure red varieties that work well in cooler regions of Europe--namely, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Trentino Italy. For example, we currently have a small plot of Teroldego, and a few rows of Dornfelder. Teroldego is a red Italian grape variety grown in Alto-Adige. The wines produced from this variety have been compared to Zinfandel due to their de0ep color, brambly blackberriness, solid acidity and moderate tannin structure. Dornfelder is a red variety grown in Germany that produces medium body wines with velvety texture, slightly floral notes and flavors of plums, blackberries and/or cherry. We also make Blaufränkisch from a local vineyard. The variety is well known in cooler regions of Europe; the wines are peppery and cherry with slight herbal notes of oregano and rosemary and a good balance of acidity in the finish. Over the next couple of years we will be planting small experimental plots of other obscure varieties to examine their potential to produce high quality dry red wines in the Finger Lakes."

One thing first off is that I always judge a vineyard by the condition of their vines. Health and training are key to understanding what's going on. Some vineyard managers and winemakers prefer to let their vines be a little wilder a little unkempt. But I must admit, when you see a lot of attention being paid to the vines, the wine is usually going to be pretty spectacular. And when you drive up in summer, you might not think you're at a vineyard. The vines are perfectly trained, so much so, you might think you're at the Ledew Topiary Gardens, and not a plot of land where grapes are grown and harvested. This is not only a sign of a gifted vineyardist, but of a serious winemaking operation where the winemaker and the vineyard manager are on the same page. And I can tell you from experience, the wines at Red Tail Ridge have always been pretty damn impressive. Great wine is made in the vineyard. It's an absolute truism in winemaking. That is why Micahel is the featured guest star here.

Now, I will repeat that I was appalled by Dornfelder when it was first pitched by the Cornell folks five or six years ago. I sat in a room full of growers, and I scoffed. Bad wine and an awful name...but Red Tail Ridge's Dornfelder really turned my head around. Wow!

The Dornfelder is a blend of their estate 2009 and 2010 vintages. Brambly aromatics infused with black cherry, strawberry preserves and dried fruit. Cassis also rears its wonderful head. Medium to light body on the palate with more dark fruit, dried fig and brown spices. Velvety texture with a tart finish.Excellent. I was intrigued.

So now I was onto the other obscure varietals.

2009 Blaufrankish - First off, I told Michael I was thrilled that the wine was no longer called Lemberger, but the more traditional Blaufrankish. Better to handsell the German name than trying to differentiate the wine from the stink cheese so many people confused it with. I pontificated. Michael seemed to agree. Maybe he was just being nice.

Just like Dornfelder, I have not been a Lemberger/Blaufrankish fan. Laurita's in New Jersey has been the biggest, plumpest one of them all that I have tasted n the east coast. But the rest I have found a little thin, and high in acid. Once again, Red Tail Ridge made me look just like the ass I am.

This was an intense wine. Big cherry up front and black pepper came through as promised. Also a big whiff of vanilla, and a hint of tobacco or forest floor. Big black cherry and tart red fruit came across on the palate, along with mouth-watering acidity and nice tannins. This had nice fruit, and instantly became my absolutely favorite Blaufrankish/Lemberger.

2009 Teroldego - This was my discovery of the day!!! Teroldego is a red Italian grape variety grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy. Wine from this grape has been produced since ancient times in "Campo Rotaliano", an alluvial plain between the rivers Adige and Noce. Teroldego takes its name from its traditional method of cultivation, trained on a system of “tirelle” or wire harnesses, an explanation that's more likely, if less pretty, than its legendary association with German dialect for gold of the Tirol. It has recently been discovered to be a full sibling of the Dureza variety from France, which is one of the parents of Syrah. The grapes ripen around the last week of September or the first week of October. In fact these had been harvested in the first week of October.

Strawberry and blackberry jam aromas exploded out of the glass! And a hint of spiciness too! The flavors pouring out of the glass were no less robust, with huge ripe plum and prune and raspberry all vying for attention. Again, a hint of fall leaves. Nice, tannins, enough to be notice, but not enough to over power, and solid acridity, again again, not too big. A great soft mouthfeel but with fruit and acid that lingered on the palate. Fantastic! Awesome!

So, let me say this, if you like red wine, you now have a brand new destination in the Finger Lakes. And you have to have an open mind. Not that the wines need to be judged on a curve, because they absolutely do not. But obviously, the names are a little...obscure...which is the whole point after all.

They are mostly made in small quantities, and they are fantastic!