Finger Lakes Riesling on the Rise

Whether managing a complex project or choosing a bottle of wine, constraints and trade-offs are a part of life. For example, are you more likely to buy one exceptional bottle produced by a local grower-winemaker or three bottles of quaffable, mass-produced wine? Finding quality wine, whether artisanal or mass-produced, is fairly easy (at least for most wine drinkers). Finding exceptional, reasonably-priced, artisanally-produced wine that expresses a sense of place is much more difficult. It's also one of the reasons I'm a fan of Finger Lakes Riesling.

Although you can still find wineries in the Finger Lakes that are content selling sweet, fermented grape juice, there's an increasing emphasis on quality, and it's paying off. From being featured in recent articles in the New York Times and Wall Wall Street Journal, to being served at President Barack Obama's inaugural luncheon, Finger Lakes Riesling has caught the attention of those in the know. Finger Lakes Riesling is increasingly showing up on the wine lists of some of New York's most prestigious restaurants, and the major wine rating publications have increased their coverage of Finger Lakes Riesling. From the 2006 vintage to the 2012 vintage, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast reviewed more than 1000 Finger Lakes Rieslings, whereas just over 200 Finger Lakes Rieslings were reviewed during the previous seven vintages (1999 to 2005). As icing on the cake, in January of 2014, Paul Hobbs, known for making world-class California wines, purchased land at the southeastern end of Seneca Lake for a new vineyard and winery specializing in Riesling.

In addition to producing exceptional wines, the Finger Lakes region has a great, against-the-odds story. Prior to the 1950s, the consensus was that only native varieties, e.g. Concord and Catawaba, could be grown in the Finger Lakes' cool climate. That changed when Dr. Konstantin Frank, an Ukrainian immigrant who couldn't speak English took a job as a janitor at Cornell University Geneva Experiment Station and subsequently planted several Vitis vinifera varieties in the Finger Lakes (Dr. Frank didn't speak English, but he did possess a PhD in Plant Science and had experience planting vinifera in Ukraine). Following Dr. Frank's success, Hermann J. Weimer, an immigrant from Germany, planted a vineyard in 1970 and became the leading advocate for the production of Riesling in the Finger Lakes.

Now, more than 125 wineries make world-class wines from grapes grown on the steep, shale slopes overlooking the lakes. The deep, narrow lakes act as heat sinks for the nearby vineyards. In the spring, cold lake air delays bud break until the risk of frost has decreased, and in the fall, warm lake air extends the growing season by delaying the first frost. The lakes' warmth also helps protect the vines during the winter. In addition to the large Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA), Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake are each designated as distinct AVAs.

The 2013 Vintage

Despite some challenges, the 2013 vintage was fairly typical for the Finger Lakes, and each of the wines that I recently sampled (2013 Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling, 2013 Bellangelo Dry Riesling, and the 2013 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling) reinforced my belief that the Finger Lakes produces exceptional Riesling. Each wine was classified as either dry or medium dry on the International Riesling Foundation’s Riesling Taste Profile (two of the wines contained less than .8% residual sugar). The judicious use of residual sugar smoothed the edges but let Riesling's natural acidity shine through. A vein of stone and minerality complimented the dominant green apple, lime, lemon, and pear flavors. While these young wines weren't particularly complex, and probably wouldn't be my first choice for an on-the-porch sipper, they pair brilliantly with food, particularly spicy food, and will only get better with a little time in the bottle.

If you're not a Riesling fan, the Finger Lakes 2013 vintage probably won't convert you. But if you appreciate Riesling's charm, or haven't tried Riesling, the 2013 vintage is certainly worth a look. With its diversity, high quality, low price, and food-friendly style (low alcohol, high acidity, and touch of residual sugar), Finger Lakes Riesling has become the star white varietal of the east coast and deserves consideration as your go-to wine to compliment almost anything you put on the table.

*The wines mentioned above were provided by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance as samples for review.

Published: Oct. 2, 2014

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