Talking Finger Lakes riesling with an expert
When you’re keen to learn about a particular wine grape, it helps to consult an expert who just finished writing a tome on the subject. A conversation with wine writer and historian John Winthrop Haeger sheds light on how riesling is thriving in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
In his just-released book, “Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry” (University of California Press), Haeger surveys the current state of the terroir-expressive grape across the Northern Hemisphere, focusing on how winemakers in Europe and North America vinify the varietal so that the resulting pour is dry, rather than stereotypically sweet. The noble white grape, loved by sommeliers and chefs for its aromatics, food-friendly acidity, and mineral-driven finesse, has found a home in the Finger Lakes. The industry around it continues to grow.
The author, based in Palo Alto, Calif., first visited the region in 2002 while researching a book about pinot noir. “The biggest difference between the Finger Lakes then and now is the enormous growth in planted acreage,” he says. “There’s been a real increase in serious, professionally trained winemakers,” he continues, saying that the region has reached a “critical minimum mass” whereby talent and a sense of community converge, making the region a contender in the world of fine wine. That bodes well for riesling, the area’s most prominent vinifera grape. (Vitis vinifera is the species from which most wine is made worldwide.)
The Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA), located just south of Lake Ontario, was established in 1982. The 11 lakes (Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka among the largest) are the product of ancient glaciers. They resemble slender fingers that stretch generally from north to south. These narrow-yet-deep bodies of water play a crucial role in moderating the effects of a harsh climate. They hold summer heat through the cold months, then ease vines into the spring, delaying a rush to ripeness that can put buds at risk for frost damage. Nevertheless, steady precipitation has always made this a challenging environment, even for hardy pioneers like Ukrainian immigrant Konstantin Frank, who was the first to successfully cultivate vinifera grapes in the late 1950s. Today, the region boasts 100-plus wineries that do their part to make New York the third-largest wine-producing state after California and Washington.
Haeger is impressed with the quality of dry riesling produced here. In this young wine region, producers have come far in a short period of time, often aided by the viticultural research of nearby Cornell University. The region is also drawing the attention of winemakers from farther afield. California winemaker Paul Hobbs recently joined forces with German producer Johannes Selbach to launch a joint venture on the southeastern shore of Seneca Lake.
The author remains optimistic about what is next for riesling in the Finger Lakes. In addition to the area’s proximity to the New York City market, and the nascent growth of bottles at higher price points (signaling to consumers that riesling is more than just a value pour), the author sees potential for growth.
“The great thing is that real estate prices are reasonable,” he says. You don’t have to be a millionaire to establish yourself as a winegrower. “As long as land prices stay relatively inexpensive, young people can plant vineyards of their own,” he says.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2014 Aromas of stone fruit and a whiff of petrol take the lead in this winsome-weight pour, with pleasant acidity and a tad of residual sugar that suggests ripe fruit rather than sweetness. A winner with a savory chard and leek crostata. Around $16. At Wegmans, Burlington, 781-418-0780; Reservoir Wines & Spirits, Brighton, 617-566-5588.
Ravines Wine Cellars Dry Riesling 2013 With muted petrol and wet stones on the nose, aromas and flavors are at first reserved, then bloom over time with Meyer lemon, green apple, and sophisticated minerality. Serve with a spring pea risotto. Around $18. At Bauer Wine & Spirits, Back Bay, 617-262-0363; Colonial Spirits, Acton, 978-263-7775.
Lamoreaux Landing Dry Riesling 2013 Clean and minerally, it offers an apple-pear palate balanced with something green, plus a hint of white pepper. Steamed mussels with fennel and cherry tomatoes pair nicely with this pour. Around $16. At Colonial Spirits; Liquor World Cambridge, Porter Square, 617-547-3110.
Forge Cellars Dry Riesling 2013 Scents of petrol, Meyer lemon, and fleshy pear present up front, leading to a flavorful, gently weighted palate of yellow tree fruit, and notes of green. Delicious with Vietnamese vermicelli noodles with a sweet-tart fish sauce. Around $20. At Winestone, Chestnut Hill, 617-264-0393; Ball Square Fine Wines, Somerville, 617-623-9500.
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