Cool Climate Vintage Variation: Finger Lakes Riesling

9C rieslingsThe annual New York Wine & Grape Foundation grand tasting of New York wines last month, held for the first time at The Altman Building on 18th Street in Manhattan, once again drew some of the state’s top wine producers and wines, as well as the crowds eager to try those wines. As usual, the event brought in wine producers from all over New York State, and, because they were here, that in turn led to a unique look at something the Finger Lakes region has featured since its early days: Riesling.

The afternoon panel was billed as “The Wondrous Complexities of Cool Climate Variation: Finger Lakes Dry Rieslings from 2009-2014.” Moderated by Thomas Pastuszak, wine director from NoMad in NYC, who noted that “dry is a pretty loose term.” He explained that The Finger Lakes has a pretty unique terroir with several microclimates that are great for growing Riesling, with enough variation to get some that are drier than others, whether dry, off dry, or semi-sweet. Pastuszak noted that some wines will have a higher residual sugar, but a “ripping high” acid content, so taste drier.

Following the opening remarks, it was time for the panel. Mel Goldman, owner and vineyard manager at Keuka Lake Vineyards, presented a 2009 Evergreen Lek Riesling. He said it was a cool rainy year that made it a tough year, while describing their winemaking as more traditional with minimal intervention. The result for this wine, with vines planted in 1999 in an area with lots of slate in the soil (a theme repeated by other speakers), led to a more mineral, sweeter finish.

Vinny Aliperti, winemaker from Atwater Estate Vineyards on Seneca Lake, discussed his 2010 Dry Riesling. He noted that Seneca does not freeze in the winter, giving it a warmer microclimate. He noted that where Atwater sits there is a very steep, west-facing slope that is shale covered. In describing the wine, he said that “warmer years typically have  this petrol component,” and talked about the importance of shading in the vineyard. “Too much exposure to the sun can be detrimental,” adding that they are told to cut the canopy, but some is needed.

Gary Smith sales rep from Standing Stone Vineyards on Seneca Lake offered their 2011 Dry Riesling.  He noted that their vines were planted in 1972 and were some of the oldest in the Finger Lakes, but that 2011 was a challenging vintage. Conditions had made it difficult for them to make their usual style Riesling that year, but they were still able to produce one.

Dave Breeden, winemaker at Sheldrake Point Winery on the western side of Cayuga Lake followed with his 2012 Dry Riesling. Sheldrake’s wines, he said, are 100 percent vinifera and 100 percent estate grown. Although showcasing a white, he noted that 2012 was a hot dry year that “was tremendous for reds.”

Heart & Hands Winery co-owner Susan Higgins featured their 2013 Dry Riesling. She said 2013 started cool, but was a warm and dry season that turned out to be a good year for Riesling. She thought the wine, with grapes grown on three sites in the region, was heavier and a touch sweeter.

Last up to the plate was winemaker Nathan Kendall and the 2014 Dry Riesling from Villa Bellangelo, back on the west side of Seneca Lake. He described 2014 as an average year with a long season that was neither hot nor cold. As the youngest wine in the group, it was a bit greener and more tart, but had been put in neutral French oak for six months, which is the balancing act, as he said, of dry Riesling in a nonperfect year.

In the end, six wines from six wine producers at different locations in different years, each unique in terroir and microclimate, showcased six variations on a theme. The result highlighted why the Finger Lakes, in great years and challenging years, has the right stuff for Riesling.

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