Enjoy Finger Lakes Dessert and Sparkling Wines for the Holidays

A panel of experts gives us their choices.

As the holidays near, sparkling wines are front and center for parties and gifts, and cold weather invites a reacquaintance with those higher-alcohol dessert wines that tend to go unnoticed during the warm summer months. Whether jammy-fruity or food friendly, both types are holiday wines and great fun depending on your mood, food or occasion. Sparkling wines are great for brunch, lunch, dinner and quiet contemplation in front of the fire. It’s reflective to sit and watch those bubbles rise while you are warmed by the glow from the grate and within, and it’s cool to serve bubbly at a social gathering.

Ice wines (which really are a Northeast phenomenon), late harvests, and dessert wines with higher alcohol also set the stage for something special to happen. When you drink them they warm the tummy and lead you to feel contemplative. One ought to be contemplative at least once a day! Dessert wines like port or sherry can be used before or after the meal, or just for sipping around a blazing fire. The dessert wines that have table-wine alcohol, which is to say under 14 percent, typically find their place at the table as dessert or as an accompaniment to it.

In this column, which looks at the wines of the Finger Lakes, the holiday wines hold our attention this issue. First we take on the sparkling wines (note that we’re trying to resist saying Champagne so we don’t draw comparison to those from France – the only ones which claim legal entitlement to the term). After these, we’ll get our just desserts.

Finger Lakes Sparkling Wine Tasting
New York sparkling wines come in two basic variations, those made from the traditional Labrusca grapes, main-ly Catawba, Elvira, Niagara and Delaware, and those from traditional European grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both blue grapes pressed early before they devel-op much color), and Riesling. There are also some made from blends of French hybrids, but they are receding because of the cost to make a sparkling wine. The tastes of the Labrusca wines are grapey, while
wines made from European grapes are more neutral. As a panel we did not address the political correctness of the varietal blend but, looking back, we note that we did not score as high the wines in the former category unless we found a real bell-ringer. In sparkling wines, as in still wines, there is the issue of degree of difficulty to keep in mind. It’s harder to make a four-star wine from grapes from a sin-gle vintage, and harder to make a wine taste sophisticated. The price of any sparkling wine reflects, first, the degree of difficulty and, next, what the market dictates. It’s rocket sci-ence, but then, again, it’s not. Twenty-four wines were tasted; 12 wines were rated high enough to report. (See results on this page.)

Late Harvest & Ice Wines
Next, we turned our attention to the late harvest, ice wine and other dessert wines. We tasted a handful of them, all sweet, made from grapes that spanned the range from Concord and Delaware to Vignoles and Riesling, with a Traminette, which is a New York hybrid from Geneva, thrown in. This is the group from which you might serve any one as a dessert by itself, or attempt to pair it with a sweet dessert to provide the grand finale fireworks in a special meal. The challenge, restauranteur Joe Pierce pointed out, is to make the sweetness of the wine and dessert come together in a complementary way. Our panel was up to the task with suggestions. Here is what we found. (See results below.)

Tasting of Ports and Sherries
Many New York ports and sherries are not, frankly, children of the modern world. They were born in a time when dessert wines outsold table wines in America two to one. Now, after experiencing a deep decline in the market, they are creeping back. The chief stock for them in New York as a group is the Labrusca grape, so if you’ve cut your dessert wine teeth else-where, there is a likelihood you will rebel. But stop! Remove the prejudice that they need to taste like those from Portugal and Spain, or that California dessert wines are better because they are closer in a family resemblance. If you do, you will ultimately agree that the expertise that remains in Hammondsport and Naples produces very agreeable wines, often rich with complex flavors that come from the fruitiness of labrusca grapes aged for many years in the presence of ancient wooden tanks, oak barrels and extra alcohol. Really, they are classics and there is some danger they might be lost, which would be a shame. Having said that, we were surprised to note some very tasty newcomers to the field, notably Fox Run, Logan Ridge, Knapp, Glenora, Prejean and Hunt Country, making port or sherry-type wines from other than the Labrusca varieties. Where this very small trend at the moment leads will depend on you, the consumer! We tasted nine sherry-type wines and seven ports, one of them a white port. Overall, we thought the wines were more than acceptable. Joe Pierce said he would gladly pour any of them in his restaurant. But the fact remained that our scores were mostly in the 2.5 star range because we often could not agree. Rather than provide you with the details of our indecision, here is the one wine in each group we agreed was top drawer.


by Bill Moffett
Bill Moffett is co-publisher of Vineyard & Winery Management, a trade publication serving the wine and grape industry of North America, based in Watkins Glen, New York and Santa Rosa, California. Sponsoring wine competitions, seminars and tradeshows, their activity is visible at their website www.vwm-online.com.