By Jim Clarke
A shorthand has developed for New York state wines: Long Island grows great Merlot, the Finger Lakes make top-notch Riesling. These are acceptable generalizations, but are far from the whole story. Both areas grow a variety of grapes; the state’s wine industry is still tourist-driven, so most wineries find it necessary to accommodate a number of different tastes. For that matter, there are other regions to consider: the Hudson Valley, or the newly–recognized Niagara Escarpment.
Perhaps it’s because we assume a Riesling–friendly area can’t grow red winegrapes—Germany, for example, does grow some reds, but few of them ever reach the U.S.—that quality red wines from the Finger Lakes can come as a surprise. Or maybe it’s the area’s history—lots of cheap, relatively poor wine came out of upstate New York, and there’s many a winery that still finds it necessary to make some sweet, grape–juicy reds to satisfy an old–time customer base.
The turning point toward quality started in the early 80s, after the passing of the Farm Wineries Act allowed smaller grape growers to make wine; before that, they could only sell their grapes to big companies. Today, some of the small growers who held on from the early days as well as some of the newer producers have discovered the tricks to creating quality reds in a challenging environment.
“Tricks” isn’t really a fair term; it’s not about manipulating the wine, it’s simply giving the vines the right conditions to ripen the grapes. Cold winters and a short growing season are the two culprits. Cold winters, in fact, are problems for most winegrapes, white and red—the vines’ trunks basically split in the sub–zero temperatures. One answer is to grow different grapes—specifically, hybrids: crosses between European, vinifera species, and more cold–hardy, American species. These have had a bad wrap in the past, but lots of progress is being made; Cornell University is the local leader in this regard.
If you want to stay with classic winegrape varieties, though, you need to do a few things. First, choose your site carefully: no lakes, no grapes. The warming influence of a body of water gives the vines a chance to get through the winter, and it also prolongs the growing season. As the area’s hills rise around the lake, a difference in just a couple of hundred feet can make the difference between growing vinifera grapes and needing a hybrid. Perhaps counter–intuitively, burying the vines in a layer of dirt also insulates them during the winter.
These and other techniques apply equally to red and white grapes; it’s tannins that seem to make life tougher for reds. The most common flaw or difficulty I’ve encountered with the area’s reds is tight, pucker–inducing tannins (yes, puckering is usually more of an acidity thing, but not in these case). Canopy management—making sure the grapes themselves, and not just the vine leaves, receive adequate sunlight—can help a lot, as can prolonging growing season. In the winery, deftly executed maceration and fermentation controls can help get flavor and color out of the grapes while keeping the tannins in check. That’s true anywhere reds are made, but much more important here.
Here are a few producers that are on the right track:
Owner John Martini sold grapes to the bigger, “industrial” wineries until the late 70s, when demand began to dry up. Taking advantage of the new possibilities under the Farm Wineries Act, he became part of the first generation of growers–turned–winemakers, and has been working hard at it ever since. His winemaker, Johannes Reinhardt, seems to have a knack for tannin control—or maybe it’s because he’s working with Lemberger, a red grape not uncommon in his native Germany. Either way, their 2005 Cabernet Franc–Lemberger blend stood out during a visit to the region last Spring—here was something smooth and supple rather than tight and astringent. There’s none of the greenness common in Cab Franc, and the Lemberger, as 60% of the blend, dominates the flavor profile with plum and round, ripe cherry notes. Medium–bodied, it’s not as spicy as many European takes on the variety, and shows good length.
Sheldrake Point lives up to that name, projecting as it does into the waters of Seneca Lake. That may be a help for ripening; having water on three sides gives the warming air every opportunity to reach the vineyards, and the gravelly soils provide good drainage. A relative newcomer to the region, Sheldrake Point planted their first vineyards in 1997; that late start, however, gave them the chance to learn from others’ mistakes and take advantage of recent viticultural advances in matters like vine spacing and trellising. Their 2005 Pinot Noir shows the benefits; smooth and light to medium–bodied, with enjoyable red fruit aromas—redcurrant, strawberry—and light touches of earth and spice. For something more Bordelaise, there’s also their Cabernet Franc Reserve 2005, which is a bit more tannic, but certainly ripe—none of that tight, green character—with cassis, blackberry, and raspberry notes and a touch of smoke.
In 1999, a two–head salamander, half–winery, half–bistro, was born on the south east side of Cayuga Lake: Red Newt. David and Debra Whiting have split the responsibilities between them; while he fusses in the winery, she runs the kitchen. Both seem to like to keep themselves busy; her seasonal menu changes every three weeks or so, and David is working with a surprisingly large number of varieties for such a new venture, bought from different growers throughout the region. Their current range includes the area’s usual suspects like Riesling and Cabernet Franc, plus some grapes less common in the area—think Sauvignon Blanc and even Syrah, made with grapes bought from Jim Hazlitt’s Sawmill Creek Vineyard. David says he’s enjoying working with so many different wines at the moment, but concedes that the range may need to be trimmed in the future.
David’s experience at other Finger Lakes wineries like Chateau Lafayette–Reneau and Standing Stone is paying off; the 2005 Reserve Syrah, for example, has a smoky blackberry and slightly peppery character that pays tribute to the variety’s Rhone Valley origins. The Cabernet Franc Reserve 2005 shows more complexity, with smoke and clove aromas embellishing notes of dark plum and raspberry. It’s medium–bodied, with good structure and length. Their flagship red, Viridescens, is a Bordeaux–style blend with classic structure and density; while it would prefer to unwind in the cellar for a couple of the years, at the moment it’s already showing some lush blackberry, black plum, and smoke aromas, and will open up further with decanting and/or food.
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