A day tasting wine in the Finger Lakes
I made the probably silly but still fun decision to help out some friends by picking up their freshly-adopted Bernedoodle puppy in Wisconsin and driving her to her new home in Boston, meaning I had reason to find myself amidst the rolling green of upstate New York and sample some wine in the Finger Lakes wine region, an exciting area producing world-class wines I've sampled at fine dining spots all over the country.
I even spent three-ish hours one night in a tent in Maine just a few days after my mini tour of the area writing up a blog about the visit. The thing about tents in Maine is they have no WiFi, so the writing I did was in a Word document, which, thinking I'd pasted the work into the Wix editor, I foolishly discarded a few days later. The grief of such a relatable error is exactly why it's taken me so long to finally start blogging about my east coast trip. But, finding myself with a little time and too much energy in Brooklyn at 1:30AM last night, here's the Cliff Notes version of the first noteworthy culinary stop of the Great Summer 2022 East Coast Roadtrip.
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It's been mentioned a number of times on this blog to expect wonderful things in places you'd never think. So, would one anticipate one of the most exciting emerging wine regions in the world to be nestled in the chilly, hilly northlands of upstate New York?
The Finger Lakes are a network of eleven lakes that formed during the beginning of the Pleistocene Glaciation when the ice sheet covering much of the northern hemisphere began to drift southward, carving out deep ravines in previously-existing river valleys. The resulting glacial debris dammed the valleys, leaving water filling the many-hundreds-feet-deep lakes.
These unique geologic features are critical to the success of viticulture in the region. The water in these deep lakes holds heat from the summer months, keeping the surrounding vineyards warmer than the rest of the region's climate and preventing early frost. Moreover, the steep slopes leading down to the lakes are perfect for grape growing because they help drain the soil and have a further moderating effect on the cold. The region has thus been compared to the Mosel wine region in Germany, with steep-sloped river valleys. And in fact, both regions are havens for artful permutations of Riesling.
Vitis vinifera grapes are "old world" European grapes, much more sensitive to all kinds of things, like temperatures, pests, etc. Meanwhile, American grape species, like Vitis labrusca, are heartier and can sustain through cold weather as well as resist pests. In the mid-1800s, a louse called phylloxera nearly devastated the European wine industry. Producers responded by planting American grapes as rootstock and then grafting Vinifera shoots on the rootstock––the rootstock could resist the pests and allowed the varietal expressions to grow as before.
These days, almost all grapes worldwide are grafted. The Finger Lakes' winemakers were using American grapes, in this region usually suited to sweet wines, for decades before a Ukrainian plant scientist came to the region and was convinced he could get Vinifera to grow by grafting it onto the cold-hardy native rootstock. He was successful, and other winemakers followed course, in the process creating North America's next world-class wine region.
There are many Finger Lakes producers reliably churning out fantastic wines, particularly Riesling, that can hold their own against formidable company in more established wine regions. My goal was to find three of these spots to sample en route from my previous night's hotel to pup's new home in Boston, and of course they needed to be dog-friendly so she could accompany me!
Hermann J. Wiemer, the son of a multi-generation family of winemakers in the Mosel in Germany, was one of the first planters of Riesling in the region. He isolated and planted a handful of sites on the western shore of Seneca Lake, the epicenter of wine production in the region with its own separate American Viticultural Area designation. These days, the folks at Wiemer source Austro-German white varietals from these same three sites as well as Cabernet Franc, a grape that seems to grow well in this climate.
It was a windy day, but pup and I settled in on their patio. She was the most popular guest that day and entertained many visitors, but no wine for her––I needed a designated driver!
On the Sonoma Coast, you taste multiple different single-vineyard or cuvée expressions of, for example, pinot noir or chardonnay. In the Finger Lakes, it's Riesling. Despite Wiemer's rather annoying a la carte system of tastings, advertised as available in either full or half glasses (though I later learned, after downing 17.5 ounces of wine, that they also do one-ounce pours), I wanted to taste as much as possible and ended up ordering way too much. To start, three half glasses of Riesling graced my table, one from the estate vineyard, one from the Magdalena vineyard a few miles north, and finally their flagship cuvée. The estate and Magdalena were my favorites––the estate was intensely aromatic on the nose, like a springtime garden, bursting with geranium and candied citrus that reminded me of orange jello in the best way. Meanwhile, the Magdalena seemed riper, with rich citrus like Meyer lemons and a distinct aroma reminiscent of marshmallow Circus Peanuts.
Gewurztraminer is one of the most interesting grapes out there. The best examples tend to be from the Franco-German border region of Alsace, and because of the similar climate the varietal grows well in the Finger Lakes. Wiemer's Gewurz was much lighter in style than some of the ripe west coast or Alsatian examples, but still glowed with exotic fruits and aromatics like pineapple and lemongrass. Their Cab Francs weren't particular hits for me, though the silky Magdalena was much more successful than the rather thin cuvée, with a fuller, oakier body and the spice of black pepper. Quite tasty.
Finally, I sampled a sweeter Riesling from their third vineyard, Josef, which at 7% residual sugar was slightly thick but acidic, with aromas and flavors of mango chutney and baked red apples. Definitely a worthy first stop, though I was certainly not planning to drink this much wine in one sitting––wish I'd known about the one-ounce pours!
If there is a rockstar winery in the Finger Lakes, it's Forge Cellars. The product of a partnership between multi-generation French winemaker Louis Barruol and northeasterner Rick Rainey, Forge's Rieslings can be found on the wine lists of some of the best restaurants in New York City, and even make their way out west from time to time––I had a Forge Riesling paired with a course at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco last year.
Forge's facility is perched on the eastern slope of Seneca Lake, which gets more sunshine and also benefits from the reflection of the sun off of the water. Twenty-twenty was a near-perfect vintage in the region, a year Rick calls "The Year of the Sun." The wines display remarkable ripeness and body, with somewhat lower acidity, higher alcohol, and intense aromatic characteristics. The fifteen-or-so vineyards from which Forge sources are within a very short distance of each other on the east side of the lake, the goal being to emphasize with exactitude the potential of this place.
Forge does tastings in their summer house, where Poopsie was welcome and napped quietly while our guide walked us through a handful of single-vineyard Rieslings from their 2020 vintage as well as their prized cuvée, "Classique," which takes and balances fruit from all of the vineyards in their portfolio. We got a particularly interesting look into the differences that soil type and proximity to the water make in vineyards of the same elevation, with one Riesling exhibiting ripe citrus and pear and another a softer, more mineral and aromatic style––the second Riesling, from Railroad vineyard, was my favorite, with the gravely soils imparting a flinty, mineral component and letting the floral qualities of the grape shine through.
Forge also produces pinot noir from their vineyards, which on paper, given the cool climate, should be right up the Maestro's alley. From Tango Oaks and Leidenfrost vineyards, the pinots were described as delicate-feminine-floral and earthy-musky-spicy, respectively. I really wanted to like Finger Lakes pinot, but I just didn't find either of these wines very appealing––they seemed unbalanced and like they were lacking the concrete identity of the varietal. I mean, what the hell do I know; maybe my palate was all Riesling-ed, but Finger Lakes pinot just didn't speak to me. I'll stick to Forge's world-class and crazy cheap Rieslings (for now).
I loved Forge's facility and found the site overlooking the lake beautiful and picturesque. I could have stayed on their covered patio, called the "Crush Pad," for hours, but needed to keep truckin' out to Boston with pup!
But one more visit first. Standing Stone was on the way to the turnpike from Forge, so I made a reservation, noting they used a website which looked nearly identical to Wiemer's, but I thought maybe it was just the same reservation platform used by two companies. Come to find out it's the same company and same winemaker as Wiemer, with all the Standing Stone wines made on the Wiemer property. This was a little disappointing since I wanted to sample three completely different operations, but I was assured the winemaking style was quite different; the divergence of the microclimates and soils on the other side of the lake also made the wines unique. Moreover, Standing Stone is famous for their saperavi, a Georgian grape that gets little play in the States but grows remarkably well in the Finger Lakes.
Lil' peanut and I sat on a bench in the beautiful tasting room overlooking the lake, where she promptly gave the rosé a discerning sniff. A wine snob in the making!
Like Wiemer, Standing Stone had several single-origin Rieslings on their menu, though most of them were Wiemer wines I'd already tasted. Because I'd had a lot of Riesling, I settled on just one from Standing Stone from the Timeline vineyard on the eastern slope, which overtook Forge's Railroad as my favorite example of Riesling on the trip. Ripe orchard fruit dominated the palate while the nose was aromatic with orange peel, blood orange, and a hint of classic Riesling "petrol." Fantastic, and for $18 per bottle, a better Riesling would be hard to find.
Saperavi was my biggest target here, however––their saperavi "rosé" is in fact not a rosé at all but a "white" wine––pressed off the skins right away––made brilliant pink by the red pigment in saperavi's pulp. Wasn't wild about the domineering acidity in this wine but I was happy to taste something unusual and different. The saperavi red was also cool, but a bit underwhelming; though beguiling blueberry and musky sage presented nicely on the nose, the wine itself wasn't particularly expressive when tasted.
A mixed bag so far at Standing Stone, but I also wanted to give another Finger Lakes pinot a shot. Again a misfire, sadly––my notes said "like biting into a watery strawberry and then licking a rock." Not sure these area pinots have an identity yet, though I'm sure the brilliant winemakers in the region could work wonders as they get to know how the grape works in the unusual climate!
After our tasting, Hildi and I went out to their field overlooking the lake, in which lived two inviting Adirondack chairs. Though I could have sat here for hours looking out over the water, we needed to continue to Boston, so we just did a little photo shoot. Poopsie looked a bit over-served!
This trip is almost over but has been a veritable cornucopia of culinary wonders. Stay tuned for more!