When I first travelled to New York’s Finger Lakes (FLX) back in 2004, I was stunned by the beauty of the lakes, the ravines and waterfalls and the gently undulating farmland between them, but there were just a handful of wineries with impressive wines. Many of the vineyards were poorly tended and some looked chaotic. Later, when I took a couple of German colleagues there in 2010, I realized fundamental change was under way. Suddenly, some of the wines tasted like they came from a completely different region.
This was certainly the result of better viticulture, but also of winemakers like Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek abandoning the rigid set of regional winemaking styles that had previously dominated the area. For example, the dry rieslings were almost always bone-dry and austere, with little aroma. In contrast, the Bloomer Creek wines are richly textured, with generous dried-fruit aromas—mostly apple and pear, but also stone fruits in riper vintages like 2014.
After I started spending a lot of time in NYC in late 2012, I threw myself into researching the region and quickly discovered that there was a new generation of winemakers who were really shaking things up. They are the focus of my current interest, both for their own wines, and for the way they are causing well-established producers, like John Wagner of Wagner Vineyards and Mark Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing, to raise the bar in response.
Today, riesling is the most widely planted vinifera variety in New York State, with about 1,100 acres—about 900 of them in the FLX. This is, by far, the largest planting of the grape east of the Rockies, and it’s all gone into the ground since 1958, when Dr. Konstantin Frank planted the first riesling on the East Coast.
Over the last five years, the winemakers of the FLX have made more progress with riesling and other Germanic-style whites that they have with any other type of wine. The 2014 Dry Riesling “239” from Boundary Breaks is a striking example: With its ripe apricot and mango aromas, medium-full body and rich texture (and 12.8 percent alcohol), it has no hint of the sharp, slightly rasping acidity that often afflicted dry FLX rieslings in the past. The quality is in part due to the vineyard: planted in 2008 by Bruce Murray, who chose an excellent site on the eastern side of Seneca Lake and farms it with precision. There’s underground tile irrigation for every row— an important investment, given the region’s often damp summers and rather deep, water-retentive soils (even if there’s slate below).
The Boundary Breaks wines are made a few miles to the south at Red Newt Cellars by Kelby James Russell, the young winemaker who took over in 2013. His approach, using some skin contact and long lees contact, is still considered daring in these parts, but pays o in helping to express the terroir character of the vineyards. Just compare Boundary Breaks Riesling with the Red Newt Riesling, pulled mainly from the Lahoma Vineyard on the cooler, western side of Seneca Lake. Red Newt is lighter in body, with a strident grapefruit and smoke character, and some phenolics to add structure to the powerful finish. (Look for Red Newt’s 2014 The Knoll Dry Riesling, from a single plot at Lahoma, which takes this character up to a higher level, and should be released soon.)
For different expression, look to Red Tail Ridge’s 2013 Block 606 Riesling. Twenty minutes north of the Lahoma Vineyard, the soil here is derived from Onondaga limestone—a geological formation that runs like a band from east to west through the region. The result is an almost steely wine with an unusual amount of power and a pronounced chalky finish—think Chablis.
In spite of the considerable stylistic differences within the region today, all the new FLX winemakers measure their white wines against those from Hermann J. Wiemer on the west side of Seneca Lake. Wiemer’s 2015 Dry Riesling is not only the new benchmark for the region, it is also a perfect introduction to the lush, concentrated flavors typical of the best wines from 2015, combining white-peach ripeness with lemony freshness.
Keuka Spring’s 2015 Dynamite Vineyard Gewurztraminer suggests there is much untapped potential with gewurz in the region. “Chardonnay with aroma,” is how winemaker August Deimel describes his eccentric take on the grape. Bone-dry and barrel fermented, it’s discrete in gewurz’s typical aromas of Turkish delight and candied citrus, and there’s no perceptible oak. And while the wine is rich and powerful, it finishes unusually clean and lively. Not only does it taste great, it also opens up new possibilities for gewurz beyond the gastronomic ghetto of Munster cheese and Chinese food.
At the other end of the taste spectrum, Anthony Road’s 2015 Vignoles offers lush pineapple scents, succulent fruit and crisp acidity. Vignoles, a French-American hybrid, is susceptible to botrytis, which is what attracted Peter Becraft of Anthony Road. His version tastes like a German Spätlese on steroids, showing that FLX vignoles is, when taken seriously, capable of outdoing riesling at its own sweet-wine game.
This article first appeared in W&S Fall 2016.