Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Finger Lakes Riesling Summit

I attended this year's Riesling Summit at the Astor Center in New York City several weeks ago and it was a great learning experience. This event is aimed at promoting Finger Lakes Riesling to the New York City market by inviting wine writers (somehow I got invited) to attend educational seminars and tastings. Finger Lakes wine has been slow to penetrate this lucrative and influential market and advocate groups such as Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and New York Wine and Grape Foundation are working hard to expand the marketing of New York wine.
The Riesling Summit event began with an informative presentation by Josh Green, editor and publisher of Wine and Spirits magazine followed by a lake by lake tasting of Finger Lakes Riesling. Josh outlined many of the factors that affect the growth and taste of Riesling in the Finger Lakes including soils, air currents, lake effects, yeast used, and root stocks utilized.
The lake by lake tasting proved very interesting to me not because of any conclusive qualities that could be attributed to each lake, but by the lack of similarities between wineries of the same lake. I believe that it was difficult to find similarites, in some part, due to the diversity of "styles" presented, including differing residual sugar and alcohol levels. On an anecdotal level, based on my own tastings over the years, I have found that the Rieslings from each lake and even from each side of each lake have a somewhat distinctive minerality. Cayuga Lake Rieslings generally present a bolder "spicier" minerality, Seneca Lake Rieslings give a smoother lemon type mineral quality, and Keuka Lake Rieslings pour out more lime. But of course, generalities are just that. It does interest me and many others to see this issue of finding common characteristics from lake to lake explored, but perhaps it is an exploration that will yield little of real value. Each wine expresses itself differently and I for one do not want conformity for the sake of marketing.
Riesling's greatest charm and greatest curse seems to be the same thing. That being its dramatic ability to reflect the "terroir" (soil, climate, etc.) of where it is grown. I find this difference in Rieslings from region to region (even from winery to winery only a few miles apart) and from year to year one of the great pleasures of Riesling. But the casual wine drinker may find the constant variation of this varietal to be somewhat frustrating (especially in cold climate regions such as the Finger Lakes where climatic conditions can vary greatly from one vintage to the next). Add to that the many styles (dry to ice) that winemakers can craft Riesling and it is no wonder that consumers are confused, at the very least, by this enigmatic grape.
So maybe a comparison of Finger Lakes Rieslings is not practical or fruitful. I do applaud the NYWGF & FLWC's efforts to promote Riesling as the Finger Lake's Signature Grape which, of course, it is. However, perhaps a general promotion of Riesling may actually be counterproductive if we are insisting that ALL Finger Lakes Rieslings from ALL Finger Lakes wineries are equal in quality. Once again, the sheer number and diversity of Finger Lakes wineries presents a conundrum because, logically, not ALL Finger Lakes Rieslings are of equal quality. And the problem presents itself when visitors come to the Finger Lakes and visit the wineries for Riesling or other types of wine for that matter that may not match their palate. Maybe promoting the Quality Riesling Producers would be more productive for increasing the Finger Lakes quality image with consumers and media.
When you think about it, the plight of Riesling's diversity being its promise and its curse is the same plight that faces The Finger Lakes wine region in general. A diverse layout of over 100 wineries creates an amazing wine adventure for visitors, but it also creates an amazing dilemma as to which wineries to visit and it really is a crap shoot on whether you will randomly hit the wineries that match your particular palate. And if visitors do not get that perfect match, do they go back home with negative feelings about Finger Lakes wine, which may be hard to overcome.
But I have digressed. Back to the Riesling Summit. The FingerLakes Riesling production for '07 was approximately 100,000 cases and it was noted that some large producers in other wine regions make that much on their own. The famed "Banana Belt" effect of the east side of Seneca Lake was discussed. This effect of air currents coming from the northwest, being warmed on their way across the lake, and blanketing a particular area of the east side of Seneca Lake with temperatures up to 5 degrees warmer in winter and up to 2 degrees cooler in summer than the rest of the region creates a very evident and positive effect on the grapes grown there.
Then we tasted twelve 2006 Rieslings from Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake, and Keuka Lake (but only Dr. Frank from Keuka). A lot of information was given for each wine including Residual Sugar, Titratable Acid, pH, Alcohol, VineAge(s), Root Stock, Elevation, Soil type and depth, subsoil type, vines per acre, yield per vine, harvest date, brix, yeast used, and fermentation temperature. It was very interesting to see the comparison of all of the data.
We tasted Treleaven 2006 Dry Riesling (Cayuga, .8% RS, nice aromatics, abundant effervescent lime and smooth mineral), Buttonwood Grove 2006 Dry Riesling (Cayuga, .5% RS, lighter lime and mineral),
Sheldrake Point 2006 Reserve (Cayuga, .6% RS, lots of bold citrus), Standing Stone 2006 Riesling (Seneca, 2.1% RS, very ripe peach and lime), Chateau Lafayette Reneau 2006 Johannisberg Riesling (Seneca, 2.5% RS, tropical tones and some petrol), Red Newt 2006 Reserve Riesling (Seneca, .5% RS, unique lime and peach with a little delicate pear), White Springs 2006 Red Label Riesling (Seneca, 4.5% RS, nice aromatics, peach, pear, light honey and lime, very complex), Hermann Wiemer 2006 Dry Riesling (Seneca, 1.1% RS, very aromatic, beautiful color, peach, pear, and lime with some nice mild petrol), Fox Run 2006 Reserve Riesling (Seneca, 2.6% RS, concentrated apricot and lime), Dr. Frank 2006 Dry Riesling (Keuka, .8% RS, extremely aromatic, mouthwatering lime and peach).

Although these are all top-notch Rieslings, there were two that stood out to me, the Standing Stone (2.1% RS) and the Dr. Frank (.8% RS). In my unscientific analysis of all the data listed, these two wines had 1 factor that seemed to seperate them from the rest. These two had the oldest vines with Standing Stone's vines being 35 years and Dr. Frank using vines as old as 49 years. The others averaged about 10 years old. Fred Frank, owner of Dr. Frank Wine Cellars noted that, at about 30 years of age, his Riesling vines started to produce less yield but also started to produce better more concentrated flavors. So I can't wait for the vines of the other wineries to reach their 30th birthdays!

It was very interesting to compare these wines with all of the data available for each wine. It sure shows the amount of science that is involved in winemaking. Me, I think I'll still just depend on my nose and my tastebuds. I didn't reach any earthshattering conclusions at the Riesling Summit, but I sure had a great time!

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