Finger Lakes Region Report, I'm Hearing Great Things
‘Hey, I’m hearing great things about the Finger Lakes,’ spoken by the collective ‘they.’ Sure, I’d tasted a bottle of Konstantin Frank or two, but embarrassingly had never visited. Summer heat finally drove me to the car, down past the paper trail of Scranton, PA’s ‘The Office,’ north bound to Ithaca, the tail of Cayuga Lake, where all the smart Cornell kids dwell.
From a zoologist-in-the-sky eye view, the fingers themselves are more like salamanders, accompanied by various thumbs and toes. Facing north, Cayuga Lake forms the right hand’s ring, Keuka Lake the index & Seneca Lake offends as the middle finger. You best bring your driving gloves unless you plan on toting a canoe along (or pink paddleboat, for the manly men) as the lakes are long, undulating bodies that are not traversable by car. I chose to wedge myself on the southwest corner of Seneca for the beginning of the trip, as the bulk of the wineries I’d planned on visiting lie on the southeast & western segments of Seneca. For some reason I ended my trip in a town called Canandaigua, just north of Canandaigua lake- a lake I called ‘Chicamacomico’ throughout the trip because I couldn’t remember nor pronounce Canandaigua. This proved to be an idiotic move, as Canandaigua is about as convenient to the wineries as it is to Buffalo.
Geographically speaking, the Finger Lakes aren’t really near anything. That said, they’re also not terribly far from what seems about anywhere either. It takes around about 4 hours to get from the Finger Lakes to Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City & what seems like just about anywhere else in the Northeast. This ‘somewhat remoteness’ contributes to the allure of the lakes, which are broad and beautifully maintained. Seneca is choked by vines on hillsides that drape the water east to west, cradling the lake for reflective heat. The vines naturally freeze in the winter, producing thick, vibrant dessert wines that garner just about the only premium prices you’ll see from the region. The land, with soils ranging from loam to gravel to slate, must be dirt cheap (no pun intended) relative to the vineyards of the North & South Forks of Long Island, giving the region a huge pricing advantage. I poked and prodded but never really got an answer to the question when I asked ‘so, how much cheaper is the land up here?’ A 30 dollar lunch for two at a spectacular microbrew called the Wildflower Cafe in Watkins Glen, as in Nascar & Indy Car Watkins Glen, told me all I needed to know about land prices. Are you sure you charged us for 4 beers, an appetizer and two sandwiches?
While just about every strain of popular vinifera imaginable is grown in the Finger Lakes, my real motivation for visiting was to gauge their take on Alsatian varietals (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer- I think every single winery I went to makes a Gewurztraminer). That said, a quick word on the reds & stray whites:
- Chardonnay was eh. Most of the examples I tried were mercifully unoaked, yet banal. To my way of thinking this grape is best served in sparkling wines when grown in Finger Lake soils. While I have high hopes for the region’s potential in the fizzy department, it still seems a bit behind in comparison to top sparklers from Wolffer, Lenz and the like from Long Island.
- Sauvignon Blanc- though not nearly as widely planted as Chardonnay, Sauvignon seems to do exceptionally well upstate, with top examples showing Pouilly Fume-like notes of smoke, flint & citrus fruits, backed by bracing acidities. Some may be a bit severe, yet the bulk of my tasting revealed most versions carry plenty of flesh atop their bony structures.
- Pinot Noir- don’t go there, just don’t. Each Pinot I tried (save for Ravines, which is a producer talented enough to make a Charbono from the Finger Lakes palatable) was boring, bitter or bad. Maybe the talent and persistence of the region will prove enough to tackle this grape, but is it really worth the effort when you can devote your energies to WORLD CLASS Riesling?
- Blaufrankisch, the surprise of the trip. Granted, I’d only tasted a handful, but there’s undeniable potential here. I may have slight label bias, thinking latitudinally (Germany, Alsace & Austrian grapes seem to do so well here, why wouldn’t this one?), but the examples I’d had were undeniably good and, more importantly, unique. The one problem- they call it Lemberger here. Reason being- Blaufrankisch is a weird name, no one can market such an oddity, yet Lemberger is way too phonetically similar to stinky cheese for it to sell either. I hate Catch 22’s.
- Cabernet Franc- while not quite on par w/ the North Fork as of yet, I saw nothing but promise from the producers dedicated to Franc. There’s been some interesting research at Cornell demonstrating that pyrazines (the unwelcome component implicated in the bell pepper phenomenon of Cab Franc) can be greatly minimized by leaf pulling early in berry development. Managing the canopies a few days before methoxypyrazine accumulation ramps up (roughly 30 days post bloom) seems to do the trick. Several Californian Franc producers have dealt w/ pyrazines by burying them under layers of ripe fruit, but the Finger Lakes aim is to nip them in the bud before they get cookin’ in the first place.
- Other reds- I wish were a smaller focus, not to say there weren’t a couple solid examples of Meritage blends, but again- the Alsatian varieties are SO good upstate that I fanatically believe the bulk of the land, enological talent and time should be dedicated in their direction as much as possible. I do understand and empathize w/ the notion that the region is relatively young, experimenting and has their own agendas (far more important than mine!) to manage, but I’d be remiss to not mention that the potential greatness to be found in a Finger Lakes Riesling or Gewurztraminer is likely to be marginalized by a diffuse portfolio. Fair or unfair, it may be an unwelcome perception that stunts the region’s growth.
As for the top wines of the region, the styles vary from dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet. Fans of Mosel Riesling will likely find the semi-sweet wines of the Finger Lakes to be almost trocken (dry) by relation, as the alcohols trend well over 12 percent and the acidities are almost uniformly brilliant, RS or no RS. When there’s a bit more sugar to go around, these wines wore it exceptionally well. To generalize, Alsace, Clare/Eden Valley & Austria are better comparators, w/ Finger Lakes Riesling at its best showing an uncompromising severity akin to a Grosset Polish Hill or Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile (I’m not exaggerating on either front, fans of said wines will love a top Finger Lakes Riesling). The characteristics for drier Riesling varies from smoky slate & petrol aromas to subtle floral, citrus blossom notes & possess an near-impaling sense of cut. Off dry versions give you the classic peach, apricot and lime notes, yet are not short on nervy malic acidity to keep things fresh, focused and lithe. I was particularly impressed with how intensely mineral-driven the wines were as a whole, leaving me to believe that there’s no area in the US that churns the Old World mineral gear as it does here- at least not that I can think of.
Gewurztraminer & Pinot Gris can be exceptional in these conditions as well, with the former achieving more consistency in terms of quality than the latter. The best Gewurztraminers have explosive bouquets of rose water, apricot and lychee, with dense, rich midpalates & spicy finishes. The only gripe w/ Gewurztraminer was that some of the wines lacked depth & were a tad trim for my tastes; but all in all, there really wasn’t a bad Gewurz to be found (that is unless you loathe the grape all together, making this paragraph a non-event). The Pinot Gris tended to be either over-oaked or neutral, though a couple shining examples demonstrated that honeyed, gorgeously bright profile which brought Domaine Weinbach to mind. As an aside, I did not taste a Gruner Vetliner, but I can only imagine it would flourish in such an environment- latitudinally speaking.
I was a bit shy w/ the dessert wines, as that’s an area I tend to be too easily seduced by. Call it my fruity pebble palate- growing up on artificially sweetened snacks has rendered me a bit anxious in terms of offering anything of value in that department. That said, a few of which were too remarkable to not include in my tasting notes & I will attempt to do the wines a modicum of justice.
Tasting notes & producer impressions are to follow. I’ll give the most coverage to what I considered to be the top 3 producers. I will spill the beans on one thing- I joined one mailing list (I belong to all of 3 or 4, including the obligatories) and I’m already back to order more- the wines are so inexpensive and so damn impressive that I was actually giddy in the tasting room.