Finger Lakes Rieslings, Take a Bow!

Finger Lakes Rieslings have been getting better each year, and with that has come an increased amount of acclaim from knowledgeable wine critics.

Some of this is almost pre-ordained, the result of over six decades of experience growing Riesling in New York, although in the early years, mostly experimental. More recently, success has come as the result of an effort by the highly
efficient New York Wine & Grape Foundation to en­courage and promote Riesling in the Finger Lakes, in conjunction with a stepped-up effort sponsored by New York state and financed partly by the wineries to fund wine and grape re­search. Whereas in 1965 only two wineries, the pioneering Dr. Konstan­tin Frank and the now defunct Gold Seal winery, grew and made Riesling, in 2002, at least 40 Finger Lakes wineries made a wine from the grape. Riesling is a variety that abounds in Germany, Alsace, parts of South Africa and Washington State. Nearby in Ontario, at least 20 wineries produce very good Riesling, and share with other parts of the Northeast the affinity that Riesling has for short growing seasons and limited seasonal heat accumulation.

In a recent article in Decanter, a British magazine for the wine trade, New York Times columnist Howard Goldberg called the 2001 Riesling of the Hosmer Winery near Cauyga Lake, winner of the most recent Governor’s Cup, his choice for “best wine regardless of price.” At the same time he hailed the Finger Lakes as having ascended to become America’s premier Riesling zone. It’s hard to get better press than that. Demonstrably, Finger Lakes wineries Glenora, Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Standing Stone, which was sold out of the current vintage and did not submit wine for this tasting, and most recently Red Newt, which was featured on the cover of Wine Spectator’s November 2002 issue, seem to be making a regular thing out of garnering top awards with their Rieslings.

After all the Riesling talk during 2002, we decided to find out for ourselves whether all those gold medals we were reading about were really deserved according to our palates. For this tasting we rounded up 19 wineries, and they submitted 35 Rieslings. We limited our choices to the sweetness categories of dry, off-dry and semi-dry since we touched on Late Harvest and Icewine Rieslings last issue.

Is it dry or sweet?
Before we go on, let’s talk about that sweetness thing. Riesling is an interesting grape because it tends to have a good acid backbone, which gives the wine a feeling of structure in your mouth. Finger Lakes Rieslings have an exciting crispness that can remind you of a good, fresh New York apple. You get that crisp acid feel on the tongue and often with it a wonderful balancing impression of sweetness. Think of a Northern Spy or an Empire when you think of a Finger Lakes dry Riesling, or of a juicy Mac if the wine is a little off-dry. It’s the natural fruit acid that provides that feeling of structure. Too much structure or too little sweetness balancing it and you might call it angular, too structured or acid, or tart. Too much sweetness and the wine could feel “mushy” or flabby. Now you understand some of the winemaker’s dilemma. Uniquely, a Riesling is winemaking-ripe at about 16 percent sugar and, depending on the season, it may run up to 24 percent before falling into the late harvest category. In any given year, winemakers will monitor flavors from that early point, harvesting when they feel the wine is ready for prime time – from that vineyard! Getting the feel for it now?

We found that in the dry and off-dry group, the tastes were typically taut and pointed, combining apple crispness with tropical flavors like pineapple, and flavors of peach, lemon or grapefruit. With the sweeter wines, those in the semi-dry group or sweeter, the flavors tended to combine and become less distinct on the palate. Imagine taking into your mouth a whole spoonful of fruit cocktail! Wine merchant David Sparrow said these flavors will tend to become more extracted in time, developing beautiful arrows of appealing flavor. He recommended that consumers not be afraid to lay down Finger Lakes Riesling for several years or more. He called the 2001 vintage in upstate New York “one of the most exciting I can remember.” The wines have good, firm acids, which will help the wine during the aging process.

Green is drier than brown?
But now you’re at the store and want to pick the style you like best. Most North American Riesling producers have adopted the German bottle traditions. This means putting the lighter, racier and maybe drier wines in a green long-necked bottle, in the style of the Mosel, and the more lucious wines, those with rich, juicy and maybe sweeter tastes, in a brown long-necked bottle, as is the custom in the Rhinegau. This is a helpful practice. Still, a little more guidance from the wineries on the front label about the sweetness/dryness thing would help the consumer who had not previously tasted the wine.

Now, on to the tasting of the 2001 vintage. It’s still possible to run across a wine drinker who is a Chardonnay snob, won’t drink any other white wine, and all I can say is how sorry I am. Chardonnay is not the only good dry wine out there! About half in our tasting could be considered cocktail-hour dry. And they were good! Out of 35 wines, 21 received a group consensus score of 3 stars or better. Within that group there were 12 wines ranking 3 to 3.5 stars, four wines receiving 4 stars and five wines which we averaged as a group with 4.5 stars. It really tells you something about the quality of Finger Lakes Riesling.


by Bill Moffett
Bill Moffett is co-publisher of Vineyard & Winery Management. Sponsoring wine competitions, seminars and tradeshows, their activity is visible at their website www.vwm-online.com.