This is the second half of my Finger Lakes wine country report. Part one can be found here.
There’s a place in my mind. It’s embellished by verdant, wide-openness, tickly breezes and cold, lapping water. Meandering roads circle the area, winding by Amish farms and Sunday flea markets stuffed with rural ephemera. Fine wine, often crisp as green apples, is made here.
The place is occasionally real under my feet. I visit because it’s a lazy summer day kind of destination and its wine a daily staple. Though I live in a region where we enjoy similar broad fields and a winemaking trade in a state of updraft, strength of community is the ace card for our northern neighbors. While dispersed Pennsylvania producers impress with year-over-year improvements, it’s largely accomplished within a vacuum – like a desert island lyricist in search of a band. To the north, a more mature industry bears the fruit of collectivism. It’s the relative proximity of its wineries that weaves together the trade, making for a more concerted – and widely consistent – output.
Talking with insiders, though, you’re reminded of scale. Compared to West Coast wine industries, for example, our most advanced players on the eastern seaboard realistically know their place in the matrix of achievement – as well as the potential ahead.
I make no bones. The Finger Lakes is a place I like to get behind. I prosthelytize and write consistently in support of its wines in multiples parts on this site and through a past blogging iteration.
A Facebook friend recently called the FLX a playground, to which I gave out a “hell yes.” But it’s not exactly that. It’s a promise. As our first winemaker remarked, “It’s so rare to find a wine region that not only has potential, but you arrive there just at the time when it’s starting to blossom and take off.”
Ravines Wine Cellars
Though quite familiar with his wines, I also gleaned much of Morten Hallgren’s background from the pages of Summer in a Glass. A Dane who was raised on his family’s ancient wine estate in southern France, Hallgren made his bones consulting and at wineries in Bordeaux and Texas before finding a station as head winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake. For the ensuing years, he soaked up knowledge of the region and struck key relationships with growers who now supply grapes to Ravines. These include the semi-legendary Sam Argetsinger, Chris Verrill of 16 Falls Vineyard, both on the east side of Seneca Lake, and others on the surrounding lakes.
Ravines’s primary vineyard, where the winery sits and which Hallgren purchased in 2012, is 48 acres of vines near Geneva on Seneca. Another five-plus acres on Keuka, the site of the titular “ravines,” is being replanted. Hallgren seems to cherish his vineyards and revels in the abundance of varied soil types. “We’ve sort of become an anomaly in that for Riesling,” he said. “More than half of my grapes come from limestone soils between (Geneva and Argetsinger’s site). Where we’re in a region known almost exclusively for shale stone.” He went on to explain that, because of aggressive, ancient glacier activity, the region was the recipient of substantial soil variation, making for an intensely diverse growing environment on par with Burgundy and Germany. However, it’s just getting off the ground, he reminded me. “We don’t have the full understanding that comes with centuries of growing similar grapes and having the chance to go through these 30-, 40-year cycles.”
Hallgren also contemplated the inconsistent weather patterns between vintages and the climate variance from site to site: “The cooler vintages typically favor varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay, maybe Pinot Noir,” he said. “The warmer vintages would be more of the Bordeaux varieties, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc. They are later ripening varieties, especially the Cabernet.”
The trick, he stressed, is taking advantage of the ripening curves of Finger Lakes grapes; in other words, the progression of sugar, aromatics and phenolic (compounds that affect the taste, color and mouth feel of wine) levels. As an example, he offered California Pinot Noir and its tendency to develop sugar at a more aggressive pace than it does aromatic and phenolic intensity. The tough choice is whether to pick when sugars are normal, resulting in other under-ripe characteristics, or to wait. In the FLX, he explained, all three curves tend to move in sync, which makes for additional, beneficial hang time on the vine.
As we wrapped our tasting, Hallgren mused about a positive review he received in Wine Spectator, a magazine known for favoring big, bold and well-established flavors patterned for the American palate. “We don’t make a style of wine that naturally tends to (do favorably in) reviews, except for people who like that more acid-driven, cold climate style,” he said as he broke into a grin. “But sometimes it happens by accident, I guess.”
Ravines Wine Cellars (two locations)
400 Barracks Road
Sheldrake Point Winery
I could listen to Bob Madill for hours. Well-phrased and opinionated – maybe best described as charmingly crotchety – Madill speaks in extended sentences that plain make sense. Though he’s no longer part of day-to-day operations at Sheldrake Point, where he was a founder and general manager, the former high-tech professional remains a minority partner. When we met at the winery’s tasting room Seneca, he was in the process of transitioning to Red Newt Cellars in Hector as wine director.
Some of the most exciting Finger Lakes wines I’ve sampled have borne the Sheldrake Point label. They’re consistently expressive, balanced and mouth-wateringly acidic. To this, Madill applied the bottom line: “People ask me, ‘Why do you think (Sheldrake Point is) doing relatively well?’ I think because the wines are properly priced and they’re quite good. It’s as simple as that.”
Once again, as it does with most producers, the conversation turned to climate. The key in the Finger Lakes, asserted Madill, is moderating diurnal effects of warm days and cool nights, and difficult vintages like 2011 suffered due to a lack of temperature fluctuation. Also, many fail to consider the region’s many elevation changes along the lakes’ slopes, rendering micro-climates and varying precipitation levels. With such unpredictable patterns, vintners are all too familiar with extremes in their wines, ranging from linear, citric, austere and acidic to fat, rich and fruity – though more than a couple remarked on the leveling impact of climate change in the past decade. Of late, warmer vintages have improved chances for more consistent – and appealing – results.
The topic shifted to red wine in earnest as Madill allowed me to sample the Sheldrake Point Pinot Noir BLK3 2010. It’s one of the FLX’s finest reds, and he shared that Red Newt made a deal to purchase the pristine Block 3 grapes from 2013, plantings that Madill invested countless hours coddling. Two barrels are now in possession of “the Newt.”
Despite extraordinary efforts like BLK3, Madill remains dubious about the area’s prospects outside of white wines. “I’m not sure we know what we’re doing. I don’t think the viticulture is where it needs to be.”
“The potential is there but we’re not really at the gate…yet.” Madill continued. “The other thing I’m not sure about is whether or not the world wants another message about red wine from the Finger Lakes. There are so many good producers producing decent red wine but it’s like a drop in the ocean…If this region gets its strength and its presence in the market, it will probably be mostly aromatic white wines.”
Sheldrake Point Winery (two locations)
5930 State Route 414
We’ve met the producers, let’s sample their wines. Before making the trip north, read my tasting notes here.