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Finger Lakes Rieslings:
Finding the Right Touch of Sugar
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Recommended Wines

By Jim Clarke
June 2008

Wine writers and sommeliers, on the whole, seem to love Riesling, and much more than your typical wine drinker. And when an “expert” starts to praise Riesling, the first thing they usually point out is the food-friendly character that a touch of sweetness brings. I don’t dispute that, though I generally think the best way to win Riesling converts to introduce them to a good dry Riesling; let them learn to appreciate the grape itself before they have to overcome the hurdle of residual sugar (i.e., sugar that remains in the wine after fermentation).

More to the point, winemakers can be reluctant to only make a dry Riesling, because it’s harder to market. So they make a sweet (not dessert sweet, but “off-dry” or “semi-dry”) Riesling, even if the acidity in the grapes doesn’t call for it. This can be even trickier in places like the Finger Lakes, where the traditional tourist palate has demanded sweet wines, be they Riesling, Cayuga, or even red. During the past couple of decades the reputation of the Finger Lakes has been in ascendancy, especially the area’s Rieslings, but wineries often make a wide range of wines to satisfy both their older, more traditional market and newer fans looking for more “premium” wine styles. Their “semi-dry” Rieslings often seemed much more a part of the former category, while the dry Rieslings were intense, elegant, and age-worthy.

But a number of Finger Lakes wines from the 2006 and 2007 vintages have found that balance of sugar and acidity that so often evades all but the classic German producers. If this were just one vintage, I’d call it a fluke, but these elegant, off-dry but clean and refreshing exemplars occurred in both years, despite the contrasting growing seasons: 2006 was quite wet and cool, whereas 2007 was a warm, very dry year. So it seems like this is more a collective winemaking advance than the character of a single year.

The alcohol in these wines is still around 12-13%, so it’s also not a matter of harvesting earlier; this shows, too in the flavors of the wines – not only are acidity, sugar, and alcohol in balance, but flavors and aromas are well-developed as well. It seems like the main difference in approach has been simply lowering the amount of residual sugar, allowing for a cleaner finish, no cloying touches, and greater refreshment. Not every producer in the Finger Lakes has hit the mark, but I’m hoping this represents a sea-change in the region’s goals for sugar in their Rieslings – poise instead of ingratiating saccharine.

Recommended Wines

Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars Semi Dry Riesling 2007
In a way, this one hardly belongs here, because Dr. Frank has been producing a classic off-dry style for some time. While lots of citrus, grapefruit, and peach aromas appear on the nose, the palate is more minerally. The soft sweetness disappears on the finish so it wraps up clean and fresh.

Fox Run Riesling 2006
Extremely smooth, with great lemon, pear, and apricot notes and a long finish.

Anthony Road Semi Dry Riesling 2006 and 2007
Fruit forward, with peach, pear, and Meyer lemon notes as well as some light floral touches. The 2007 is a bit broader and softer, but still clean on the finish.

Glenora Riesling 2007
Quite complex and aromatic on the nose, with baking spice, apple, pear, and even a touch of tangerine. On the palate it’s less expressive, but still elegant and fresh.

Lakewood Vineyards Riesling 2006
Shows a good mix of both fruit and minerality, with peach and tangerine notes dominating. Clean and long on the finish.

Thirsty Owl Co. Riesling 2007
A more minerally style, with some notes of lemon and peach. Very long, smooth, and elegant.

Sheldrake Point Riesling 2006
Especially good, owing to a touch of botrytis, even though it’s only lightly sweet. Noble rot’s characteristic orange zest note comes through along with tangerine, peach, and apricot touches. Quite clean and long.

Red Newt Cellars Riesling 2006
Light and complex, with floral and citrus notes upfront followed by notes of tangerine, pear, and spice. Smooth, with good length.

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