Leading Varietals of New York

Now that the page has turned and we start a new year that we all hope will be better than the last, there is one last reason to look back. Best-selling author and wine educator Kevin Zraly joined a recent webinar panel presented by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation to moderate a diverse group of winemakers and winery owners from all across New York State to discuss the Leading Varietals of New York State. The result was a fantastic round-table discussion of the various regions and grapes that make the New York wine industry so rich in diversity and great wines.

Joining Sam Filler from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and Kevin were Mel Goldman and Ben Sherman from Keuka Lake Vineyards discussing their 2017 Falling Man Dry Riesling,  Duncan Ross from Arrowhead Spring Vineyards to talk about their  2017 Syrah,  Matt Spaccarelli from Fjord Vineyards talking about their 2019 Cabernet Franc, Kelby Russell of Red Newt Cellars and their 2017 Pinot Gris, Russell Hearn from Suhru Wines focusing on their 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, and Gabriella Macari from Macari Vineyards with a look at their 2015 Bergen Road.

The first wine discussed was the Keuka Lake Riesling, with Mel kicking it off with some background. Keuka Lake Vineyards, he said, is a small vineyard on Keuka Lake, which he described as narrow, but deep, with 170-foot depths in front of the winery. The steep slopes there have a lot of shale and leftover glacial deposits. They started planting Riesling in 1998 following tastings at Dr. Frank and Hermann J Wiemer, and find great consistency in the wines from year to year with a beautiful, long finish and concentrated fruit flavors. Ben noted that the Falling Man, name because of accidental slips by workers in the vineyard on the steep slopes, is a single-vineyard wine with great aromatics including peaches, citrus, and petrol notes. “It is a good representation of the style of Rieslings that you can expect from vineyards from around Keuka Lake,” he said.

Following questions from the audience, the panel took up two other topics, New York Cabernet Franc and ageability of the wines. On Cab franc, Mel said theirs is fruit forward and produced on all neutral oak. He said the goal is to let the fruit speak. As the Finger lakes is a cool climate, ho noted that Cab Franc is usually the last grape harvested. It is an “easy drinking wine to have with food,” he said. Kelby added that New York State Cab Franc broadly catch people off guard. He noted the combination of natural freshness and achieving ripeness at the same time makes it balanced. “The combo is difficult to come by,” he said. Russell added that Cab Franc is the number one planted variety, and the number one red variety. He noted that it is the one variety where all Long Island wines intersect, calling it “the most expressive and last vintage each year,” adding that one needs to react to it carefully in the vineyard and “if reactive in the vineyard the right way, it is a beautiful red wine.” All on the panel agreed that the Rieslings age very well. Gabriella noted that the aging potential in the Falling Man is “tremendous,” calling it a “strong Riesling” that is “really interesting.” Russell noted that Long island Rieslings, because of the difference in soil between there and the Finger Lakes, have less petrol in the nose, and called it an “under appreciated wine.” Mel and Kelby spoke of aged Finger Lakes Rieslings from the 1990s that have held up beautifully.

Kelby then took up Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris “is a curveball for me,” he began, saying that 80 percent of Red Newt’s production is Riesling, so he usually discusses that. At Red Newt they have been working with a vineyard site for Pinot Gris since 2006. Starting in 2017 they made the decision to roll back the single-vineyard style of the wine and embrace the current style. It is “more enjoyable to drink,” Kelby said, adding that the style is beautiful, and is good for pairing with food. He said that “the goal in any white wine I make is texture.” He added that the first thing he notices in the wine is a slight copper color, which he noted is intentional. He felt there is a lot of aromatic texture in the skins, and wanted to experiment. Kevin commented that the nose gives white flowers and honeysuckle, and added that “unoaked wine with food is one of the best things you can do.” He said he would pair this wine with white fish, clams, or oysters, whereas Kelby thought that the body of the wine would lend itself to roast chicken. The panelists agreed with Kelby on the texture of the wine, with Gabriella noting the viscosity, saying “the texture is stunning,” and calling good texture “a sign of a really high-quality Pinot Gris.” Duncan added that the wine “has a beautiful mid-palette” that “would be great with food.”

Kevin noted that the wine had a screw cap, and started a brief discussion on those. The bottom line of screw caps, he said is that 90 percent of all wines in the world were made to be drunk in the first year, and 9 percent more within the first 5 years. So, he posited, 99 percent of all wines should be screw caps as they aren’t built to age. Kelby, however, said that they “never hesitate to tell people it can be aged,” and that they have recently had some from 2007 and 2008 that had aged “spectacularly well.” “One of the reasons we like screw caps,” he said, is that “we feel it helps [the wine] age well.”

Russell next spoke about his 2019 Sauvignon Blanc by first noting some differences among Long Island, New Zealand, and Loire Sauvignon Blancs. New Zealand, he noted, has “super high acid and over-the-top aromatics,” whereas Loire wines lean toward the flinty, minerally end and aromatics. Long Island leans more toward the Loire style. At Suhru (named after Susan and Russell Hearn) “we picked varietals we enjoy drinking and that grow well on Long Island.” The Sauvignon Blanc, he added, “is a great food friendly wine” that is especially good with Long Island’s vast amount of seafood. The varietal itself, Russell explained, was planted on Long Island in the early days, but on a California root stock that tended to look for water. It has made a resurgence in the last 15 years using different root stocks that do not find water. “Sauvignon Blanc can become very vegetative if it has too much water,” he noted, concluding that it is probably the most newly planted variety over the last 10 or 15 years for a white wine.

Kevin noted that his benchmark is Sancerre, adding that it has been and remains his “go-to” wine. He said he looks at the acidity in this wine and lemon-lime zest at beginning and end, and noted it “has Loire Valley acidity.” The problem in California, he said, is they can’t get that acidity. Gabriella commented that she had opened the wine the night before and let it sit, noting that “it is really aromatic, really complex and long, and is really opening up.” She suggested the wine should be allowed to sit 24 hours before drinking it.

Kevin introduced Fjord and their Cab franc by noting that he started his wine journey at Benmarl, the parent of Fjord, in 1970 and worked with Eric Miller until 1976. Matt said Fjord started as a side project to Benmarl, which his family purchased in in 2006 from the Millers. After vineyard plantings over the ensuing years, Matt said they started the new label in 2014. Regarding the Cab Franc, Matt said they get to play around a bit more at Fjord than they do with the wines at Benmarl. This wine was sourced from two different vineyards with two totally different characteristics. He said it is “the versatility in the variety that I love,” calling Cab franc a versatile grape with a lot of flexibility.

That versatility led to a discussion among the panelists on Cab Franc. Kevin said this wine’s lighter style brought him back to the early days at Benmarl. He found it to be very fruity, but in a good way, with raspberry notes and a little spiciness and a finish that goes on and on, which he said reminded him of a Cru Beaujolais, which he called “one of the great wines of the world.” He added that it is light, refreshing, and enjoyable, and said he would like to see more of this in New York State. Russell pointed out that Cab Franc is the only thin-skinned variety of the five main Bordeaux reds. He said it needs a gentler extraction, and that handling a shorter period of time works well. He said Cab Franc works well in New York State as long as it is managed correctly with a more gentle approach. Duncan added that like Chardonnay, Cab Franc grows well across the state. It will taste differently in different regions, but it is the “similarity in fruit and acidity and balance that comes through across the state.”

Kevin stayed with Duncan next to discuss Syrah. “If you would have told me 15 years ago that we would have a Syrah from New York State I would have thought you were nuts,” he said, adding that this wine surprised him. Duncan described Arrowhead’s journey from its beginning in 2004 by describing the region. Arrowhead Spring is located at the western end of New York State in Niagara County. He explained that the proximity to Lake Ontario keeps it a little warmer that the Finger Lakes. The Niagara Escarpment on which they sit is an outcropping of limestone that runs east to west, and it is very much a limestone soil. Their location puts a greater influence on Midwest climate than it does to ocean storms. He said that 95 percent of what they grow is red wine in a sustainable vineyard setting. They have tried Tempranillo and Malbec, but are ripping them out. Instead, they are growing Pinot Noir, which is very popular there, Viognier, Syrah, and Cab Franc, for which they are continuing to plant more every year.

On the 2017 Syrah, Duncan said white pepper comes through, with dark, ripe fruits and a little bit of vanilla off the American oak barrels used. He noted that they generally do not use new oak on Syrah as too much oak messes it up. “Texture for this wine is very important,” he added, describing it as very silky with a great mouth feel. He said it would pair very well with barbecued chicken and thin-crust pizza. Kevin agreed, calling the wine “tasty” and with a good fruit and acid balance, and not overbearing tannins. Duncan responded to a question on ageability noting that they still have some 2008 Syrah, which was their first harvest, and it has aged very well. He concluded that a big difference between New York State Syrah and those from other places is the pepper taste and balance of acidity, pointing out that warmer climate versions are more jammy and lack the pepper component.

Kevin introduced the last wine of the day, Macari’s Bergen Road blend, with a question about the effect of climate change. Gabriella said she had just discussed this with a winery in Ontario, and the thought was that climate change does not mean you can ripen more grapes, but that it will lead to more unforeseen events. She noted that 2018, which was a very wet, rainy year, was a year for which Macari did not make any reds. She said the quality was just not there, and said “we could have more years like that.” The Bergen Road blend, she said, is something they have only made 10 times in the past 25 years as they will only release it “when we feel it has the power, complexity, and intensity to age.” This wine combines 40 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cab Sauvignon, 15 percent Petit Verdot, 12 percent Malbec, and 3 percent Cab Franc.

Kevin, who remarked that he was “so happy to see in my lifetime a great Bordeaux blend,” said that “out of all the wines today, this is one you have to age.” Gabriella agreed, saying that aging is important. She said the Bergen Road is a drinkable wine now, but that the “power of development as they [the wines] become tertiary is really fascinating.” Russell said he agreed with the comments of ageability: “Long Island reds go through an evolution,” he said, explaining that they go into a dull phase after 4 years for a year or two, and that “the good ones really come up after several years and get better and better.” Kelby said in the Finger Lakes “the aging trajectory is really remarkable” He added that they recently had a 2007 single vineyard Cab Franc that has held up really well.

To wrap the discussion, Kevin asked the panel to pick one red grape of the future for New York State. The unanimous pick was Cab Franc, although Russell said from a state point of view he would take Merlot first and Cab Franc second, and flip those from a winery/region point of view. Kelby took Cab Franc saying “it is such a terroir-expressive grape” that is fascinating to see across the state. Matt agreed, saying that people look at all regions of New York State and that it is so different and works in all regions.



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