Old World Meets New

Tucked away on the eastern shore of Keuka Lake, Ravines Wine Cellars prefers to remain a bit hidden. This relatively new boutique winery is not officially part of the Keuka Lake Wine Trail and does not attract tasters who are on a guided wine tour. The tasting room facade exhibits a simple yet elegant style that is reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture but is subdued enough to look right at home in the Finger Lakes. Within, winemaker and owner Morten Hallgren and his wife, Lisa, pour samples of their European-style wines. Hallgren’s modest demeanor does not reveal his tremendous winemaking background; only his slight accent betrays that he may hail from somewhere other than New York State.

From France to the Finger Lakes
Indeed, Hallgren may have one of the most uniquely qualified wine backgrounds of all Finger Lakes entrepreneurs. Born in Denmark, Hallgren’s family moved to southern France after purchasing an ancient winemaking estate in the Provence region. Named Domaine de Castel Roubine, this estate had been producing wine since at least 1307. Throughout his childhood, Hallgren learned and honed his winemaking skills, helping his family produce a variety of wines for which the Provence region is known. Despite this experience, Hallgren decided to pursue a career in science and came to the United States to study astrophysics. Hallgren met Lisa, a native of Texas, during his college years, and the two married in 1990.

He returned to Europe, and Hallgren soon realized that winemaking was his true calling. In 1992 he enrolled in the famous Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Agronomie in Montpellier, France, to become an oenologist. As part of his graduate internship, Hallgren worked at Chateau Cos d’Estournel in the Medóc region of Bordeaux. While in Bordeaux, Hallgren met a group of Texas vineyard owners who were touring the region.

Eager to return to the United States and enter the wine industry there, Hallgren took a job in 1995 as the head winemaker at Cordier Estates near Fort Stockton, Texas. Within a year, Hallgren and his wife moved to North Carolina, where Hallgren became the head winemaker at Biltmore Estates.

As Hallgren became more familiar with the United States wine industry, he ruled out taking a job in the warm and prestigious growing regions of California. “I believe that cooler climates produce balanced, food-friendly wines,” Hallgren reveals. “California wines can be great as stand-alones, but some are too intense and one-dimensional.”

Ironically, Hallgren had not heard of the Finger Lakes until the early 1990s when he stumbled upon a bottle of Dr. Frank’s Riesling at a small wine shop. Impressed with what he tasted, Hallgren kept a close eye on the Finger Lakes wine industry and was recruited in 1999 by Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars to be their head winemaker.

Another winery is born
After gaining experience with the Finger Lakes growing climate at Dr. Frank’s, Hallgren and his wife founded their own winery on the other side of Keuka Lake in 2002. Ravines is a boutique winery that produces only 5,000 cases a year. Hallgren employs time-intensive winemaking techniques that virtually exclude large-scale production. Sourced from eight different Finger Lakes vineyards carefully chosen by Hallgren, the grapes he uses are picked by hand.

Methods such as whole-cluster press, punch downs and cold soaks allow for the gentle extraction of juice with a longer exposure to the skin and other elements that enhance the flavor of each wine. To create his Chardonnay, for example, Hallgren uses a technique called passito, in which he selects the finest grapes to dry on trays for four to seven weeks. Passito concentrates the flavors of the grape, yet Hallgren controls the residual sugar by employing this method for only 20 percent of the grapes used in the total wine. The result is a dry Chardonnay with a significantly enhanced floral flavor.

Low yields are a source of pride for Hallgren, who can be found during and after the harvest literally plunging into in his grape batches, utilizing only his hands or a simple bucket to manipulate the perfect amount of exposure between juice and skins. Hallgren’s dedication to the whole-cluster press, gently using the weight of the grapes to extract juice, requires constant diligence and yet only produces about half as much wine as larger operations, which employ a crusher/destemmer machine. “I want to make the most of each and every grape,” Hallgren explains. “The quality of the wine is much more important to me than the quantity.” Hallgren is adamant about never adding sugars of any sort to his wines as part of his commitment to making dry wines in the European style.

Reds and sparkling wines ahead
Despite the challenges of the cool Finger Lakes growing climate, Hallgren is optimistic about the potential of the area. “Many of the celebrated wine regions in Europe are actually cool climates by definition. Burgundy, Champagne, even Bordeaux are cooler climates than many of the New World growing regions.” While he admits that whites are more easily suited to the Finger Lakes, Hallgren is convinced that reds do just fine. “I have to work really hard for the reds. Reds here can have a refreshingly balanced fruit taste with fine tannins, but the mid-palate can be lacking. Each red I produce has to be handled very, very carefully in order to excel.” Hallgren’s enthusiasm for his Meritage, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc is evident in the tasting room, and it is with these reds that Hallgren believes he has truly demonstrated his winemaking skills.

As the owner of a young winery in a young wine region, Hallgren looks to the future as someone who has experienced the industry in a more ancient setting. “In Europe, dozens of generations of winemakers have been able to focus on what works in all kinds of conditions,” he says. “Most vines in the Finger Lakes are still first-generation, and we only guess at the qualities of the terroir based on short-term observations. There’s still a lot to discover and improve.”

For the 2006 vintage, Hallgren pushes his winery into the future with Ravine’s first bottling of a sparkling wine employing the methode champenoise. Comparing the Finger Lakes climate favorably to that of the famous Champagne region, Hallgren remains excited about the prospect of sparkling wine in the Finger Lakes. “This is one of the best regions in North America for sparkling wines!” he states emphatically. “I think there is a great future here.”


by Jason Feulner
Jason Feulner is the Finger Lakes correspondent for a New York wine blog called Lenndevours.com, which is based in Long Island wine country.