Finger Lakes’ Flagship Wines

Finger Lakes wineries tend to do well in wine competitions across the country. Yet in New York, the quality of Finger Lakes wines sometimes is ignored by local consumers. Is it the “You can’t be a prophet in your own hometown” thing? Or just a lack of confidence about picking the best?  I’m often surprised by how frequently local wines receive higher awards in competitions in California than they do in the East. Judges seem to love our wines out there, and rightfully so. Many of them are flagship wines, wines that have been quietly building the reputation of New York producers.

For this article, we invited wineries to send for tasting just the one wine they considered their “flagship.” We didn’t really define flagship in our invitation because we expected that the wineries would help us define the term.

“When a wine achieves consistent awards in competitions and has huge consumer appeal, that’s a flagship wine,” wrote Liz Stamp, one of the Stamp family members who operate Lakewood Winery outside of Watkins Glen. She was thinking of the Lakewood Dry Riesling, which through several vintages has earned every kind of award conceivable, including the Sweepstakes Award at an earlier International Eastern Wine Competition held at the Corning Museum of Glass.

Flagship Equals Quality Commitment
The flagship concept embraces more than just winning medals. Flagship has a lot to do with terroir. This means planting the vineyard where it is uniquely suited, and exercising a commitment to quality from the vineyard right through to bottling.

Take the Heron Hill 2002 25th Anniversary Reserve Riesling. Remarked the winery’s VP sales, Bob Wojnar:  “This is very structured Riesling. Blended 80 percent from Heron Hill Vineyards and 20 percent from owner John Ingle’s vineyard, it displays Riesling citrus character but is very mineral.” He attributes this to low yields from Heron Hill vines, over 30 years old, which gives breath and also depth to the wine, whereas the Ingle’s gravelly loam vineyard provides more opulent, melon flavors from Riesling.

This commitment to low yields and blending to produce outstanding wine helps define what flagship means. Saying that it showed a “classic Mosel nose,” panelist Joe Pierce, a long time collector of wines for his restaurant, Pierce’s 1894, said for all of us: “Buy this wine now and lay it down. You won’t be unhappy!” Indeed, the winery recommends that you not drink it before 2004. If you shop carefully, you may find this wine for less than the $25 price at the winery, Wojnar says.

When a Starting Point Defines Flagship
We know that when a winemaker has a good understanding of terroir, it can lead to repetition of awards, one vintage after another. But sometimes, just a vineyard’s history or starting point makes a wine a flagship regardless of any other consideration. Lake Cayuga’s Lucas Vineyards is an example. Established by a tugboat captain, Lucas Vineyards today treats its Tugboat Red and Tugboat White as seminal; the tugboat is flagship! And the wines float out the door with visitors of all kinds. In the same vein, Schooner Red and Schooner White, trademarked brands of the Hazlitt 1852 winery, which sails an excursion schooner on Seneca Lake called Malabar X, are among the top wines of the winery, on premise and off.

Nowhere else is the starting point more visible in marketing than at the Konstantin Frank Winery on Keuka Lake. For over 40 years, Konstantin Frank Winery has grown and produced wine from the Ukrainian variety Rkatsiteli (R-kats-i-teli), a favorite of the founder, a Russian emigré. No other winery in all of North America produces the wine as a varietal, so it has become a cult wine here.  Each year the wine comes up a winner in competitions – so far this year three gold medals and counting. It did well in our tasting, too!

Tradition
There’s tradition when it comes to defining flagship. If you look back in the history of the Finger Lakes, you see sparkling wines. In the mid-19th century, Hammondsport was the home of winegrowing in the East. Great Western and Pleasant Valley, to say nothing of smaller wineries, made defining wines that were sold around the world as sparkling wines (if not as champagne – a practice the French hated). It is small wonder that Glenora Winery on Seneca’s west shore, carries on the sparkling wine tradition and today is recognized as among the world’s finest producers of bubbly. Glenora has an exciting range of other wines, with sparklers at the core. Their Brut gathered one of the highest scores in our tasting and set our minds rushing to find some tasty accompaniments. Not as rich as Rockefeller, the price at the winery is only $16.99, making it a really great bargain. We teamed it up with Pierce’s recipe for Oysters Rockefeller as a food suggestion.

Our panel of tasters this issue consisted of David Whiting, winemaker and partner of Red Newt Cellars & Restaurant, in Hector. Also from Hector, Jessica Signori who, with her husband, owns the Stone Cat Restaurant on Route 414; Joe Pierce, proprietor of Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant in Elmira Heights; David Sparrow who owns Sparrow’s Fine Wines at Fulton and Green Streets in Ithaca; and the author. For this tasting, we were joined by Martha Gioumousis, former winemaker at Hosmer, who has just joined the Red Newts. All taste wines regularly as a part of their professional duties.

Tasting Notes ––––––––––
Glenora Brut Champagne 1998
This classic Chardonnay-Pinot Noir blend highlights nutty aromas, followed by spiced apple and pear notes. Wonderful wine at a great price – a real Finger Lakes flagship. Serve with Oysters Rockefeller, lightly grilled sea bass with a citrus-basil marinade, or, of course, paté fois gras.

Hosmer Riesling 2002
A previous vintage was winner of the Governor’s Cup in 2002, made by Martha Gioumousis, who sat in on our tasting. An elegant full-structured wine representing a blend of two lots, one dry and the other a stopped-fermentation (leaves residual sweetness), it rendered a layered, spicy, petillant wine. Jessica thought it would be great with grilled shrimp having a lime baste. Another suggestion was soft-shelled crab.

Logan Ridge Rose of Sangiovese 2002
This is a lively, pretty, salmon-colored wine having strong hints of cherry and strawberry. Several of us remembered the previous vintage of this wine and thought it better than the current one, which has been
finished with a simple sweetness that dumbs down the impression, we thought. The current version, however, may be much more popular in the tasting room. Would it be asking too much to have two versions? The dry one would be much better with food. Either one, though, will be great on your next picnic.

Knapp Vineyards Prism
Nice, spicy aromas of dark fruits, followed by blackberry, cherry and even hints of rhubarb and chocolate.  Finishing somewhat light on the palate, the wine is direct and uncomplicated, and would be wonderful with uncomplicated foods like prime rib, barbecue and a three-cheese tart.

Anthony Road Riesling 2002
Flinty, mineral and crisp on the nose, this wine is peaches-and-cream on the palate with hints of mango and apricot. Stunning wine. Great structure and comfortable on the palate, the wine has a nice long finish. We thought this wine would be great with Thai food.  Joe Pierce suggested sea scallops finished with a cumin, cinnamon buerre blanc sauce, which got us all going.

Lakewood Vineyards Riesling 2002
Riesling is consistently among the top wines at Lakewood. This vintage offers apricot, nectarine, peach, and mango flavors with a structure that is less than tight, even a little flabby, and the flavors we thought were a little muddled at the end. We all agreed that salmon was in the future for this wine. Joe recommended pan-seared with a dill cream sauce. Dave said, “Finish it with a chutney of peaches and fennel.”  It was nowhere near lunch time yet!

Heron Hill 25th Anniversary Riesling 2002
We were unanimous on this wine. It was one of the best Rieslings from New York – or anywhere – we could remember. Flinty and mineral on the nose, it is clean and crisp on the palate with notes of honeydew. Finishes firm as a result of its higher alcohol (13 percent) and structure. The winery recommends that it not be consumed before 2004, to which we concurred. We felt it was too early to make any definite food suggestions, but a wine with this structure and alcohol will pair nicely with foods that have an oily nature.

Red Newt Viridescens 2001  
The name comes from the species name of the spotted red newt. This is a Finger Lakes blend of Cabernet Franc (57 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (33 percent) and Merlot, providing a rich, layered, luscious wine with great depth. It is smooth, silky and reminds one of plums, dried dates and dark stone fruits. The oak in which it was aged dances on the back of the palate quite gracefully, offering a wonderful drinking experience. It may have the lifespan of the Eastern Red Newt, which is up to 20 years. If you’re going to drink it tonight, though, cook up a nice steak with roasted potatoes finished with crumbled blue cheese!

Lakeshore Vineyards Baco Noir 2001
This was a controversial wine and it really did not fit in the context in which it was placed with mostly vinifera wines. Baco Noir is a hybrid, introduced to New York 40 years ago when wineries were searching for a new taste. David Sparrow, owner of Sparrow’s Wine and Liquor in Ithaca, found light cherry and Gamay-like fruit on the nose, as did I. Others tasted spicy, peppery and even tobacco flavors that finished light on the palate. Blind, the wine might have convinced some tasters that it was from the Rhone region of France. For a barrel-aged wine selling under $10, it was a bargain. Two of our tasters who liked the wine were out-voted by four who didn’t. Try it with a grilled portabello mushroom basted with lots of garlic and oil.

Keuka Spring Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2001
Owner Len Wiltberger reminded us that a previous version of this wine was the winner of the coveted Governor’s Cup awarded by the New York Wine Classic, and I was a member of the panel that gave the initial gold medal to qualify it for the sweepstakes.  I remember it as being just a knockout! The winery has been very consistent with this variety, as this wine reveals. Lots of black cherry, and raspberry in both aroma and taste, followed by a peppery spice and ample alcohol, the wine delivers from first impression to last. Dave Whiting, who often gets to sample the delicious cooking of his wife, Deb, chef at the Red Newt Restaurant, recommended grilled duck breast and a raspberry-port reduction sauce, a regular offering at the Newt. The irrepressible Joe Pierce suggested a pecan-and-walnut encrusted lamb roast with dijon demi-glacé.

Fox Run Cabernet Franc 2001        
Winemaker Peter Bell told us that the sunny, warm 2001 growing season produced rich, berry-scented Cab Franc, with aromas that leap from the glass, but we were a little less impressed with this bottle of the wine. It was subdued at first, possessing a smoky, cranberry, distilled fruit character that did not hang together well. Yet as it stood before us, it grew in the glass. Knowing Peter’s penchant for producing squeaky clean wines, we concluded that this wine had been tightly controlled during production and needed to be opened an hour or so before service, to allow the aromas to aerate and develop fully.

Sheldrake Point Vineyard Merlot 2000 
This wine is a blend of Merlot with 13 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The vintage was not a wonderful one for reds due to a relatively cool season. This has ripened with age to produce a chocolatey, briery and spicy palate with somewhat prominent phenolics. The finish is tannic and puckery. Two of the judges on the panel remarked that it had a “hollow middle,” which means in plain speak that it didn’t taste the way you expected it to when you put it in your mouth. Sheldrake is known for many wines, and we wondered why they sent this one as their flagship. Maybe it means that we should watch for their coming vintages.

Bloomer Creek Pinot Noir 2001
Jessica Signori explained that this wine is an unreleased barrel sample, due to hit the market in September or so, grown on winemaker Kim Engle’s estate vineyard in Romulus. Tons of chocolate, cherry and blackberry aromas flood the senses up front, followed by ample spicy, dark, fruit flavors and a firm finish that signifies that the wine is not yet ready for the consumer. Watch for it when it comes – it’s going to be a keeper that may not be ready to drink until 2004 or later.

Hunt Country Vidal Icewine (vintage)
Hunt Country has produced ice wine on their estate in Branchport since 1987, and some wines you don’t need to taste to know they are outstanding. This is the Hunt Country flagship wine bar none! Full of honey, apricot and butterscotch-intense flavors, the wine soothes and caresses your palate. The challenge is how to use it, as most desserts would never match its succulent sweetness. Restaurateur Joe Pierce said that he teaches his wait staff to sell this wine as dessert. Knowing how good the desserts are at Pierce’s, that’s saying a lot.

Six Mile Creek Vignoles (Ravat) 
Owner Roger Battistella remarked that these vines were among the oldest on his property, which lies east of Ithaca on Route 79, and therefore qualified for flagship stature. We didn’t disagree. Normally Vignoles is made elsewhere as a late harvest wine. This one is almost dry, and satisfies the senses as might a tropical garden. Peaches, orange peel, nectarine, mango and pine all flow together to produce a delicate, fruit-forward wine with class and balance. We were excited about finding a food choice. Our committee came up with a pork roast filled with apricot, prunes and similar fruits, glazed with the same and – Dave Whiting suggested – finished in the smoker or grill.

Konstantin Frank Rkatsiteli 2002
A 40-year history with this variety eminently qualifies it for flagship status. Holding cult status at the winery, due to its founder’s influence, Rkatsiteli is reserved a very special place among their other offerings. We all really liked the wine. I thought you could taste the history behind this wine, for there was a flinty minerality that made me think of the old masonry buildings of Hammondsport. Peaches, melons, pineapple and pear flavors combine in a Germanic style that reminds of a Rhine wine. Joe Pierce said he would describe the flavors to someone as a cross between Riesling and Pinot Gris, which we all thought was a good call. We were a bit stymied about food choices for this wine and perhaps should have called Fred or Willi Frank for ideas. In retrospect, cold summer soups like vichyssoise and borscht sound right on target.


by Bill Moffett
Bill Moffett is copublisher of Vineyard & Winery Management. The magazine sponsors wine competitions, seminars and trade shows. For more information visit www.vwm-online.com.