Vintage New York

The current fashion in wine, certainly in New World wines, is for ripe, fruity flavors and the massive alcohol that invariably accompanies them. Consumers looking for alternatives need to look outside the mainstream. Wines from New York State, which certainly qualify as “outside the mainstream,” offer an extra touch of ripeness that is the New World’s signature, while retaining vibrancy that a cool climate imparts.

If New York wines have a problem, is not their quality but rather their lack of cachet. Although New York is the 3rd largest wine producing state in the USA, few outside of its boundaries recognize its wines. Even its citizens seem surprised when told that winemakers make excellent Merlot on Long Island.

Part of the problem stems from New York’s leading varietals, Riesling and Merlot. Wine connoisseurs and writers regularly praise Riesling, but when’s the last time you heard someone say, “I’ll have a glass of Riesling.” It’s just not a popular varietal at the moment. Merlot still retains its visibility, but has taken a bashing since Miles scornfully rejected it in the film, “Sideways.”

Riesling Reigns

Call it East Coast prejudice, but my vote for this country’s best site for Riesling goes to the Finger Lakes Region in upstate New York.

My vote goes to New York despite Eroica (the Riesling collaboration between Ernest Loosen and Chateau Ste Michelle, which has been a consistently delicious example since its first vintage, 1999) and despite the terrific Late Harvest Rieslings from Chateau St. Jean and Joseph Phelps from years past.

Nevertheless, the Finger Lakes Rieslings made by Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and by Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes region are consistently sensational. Wiemer, who hails from the epicenter of great Riesling along the banks of Germany’s Mosel River, started his winery only in 1979. In a very short time, he has made world-class wines from the shores of Seneca Lake, judging from a tasting last year of his 1981 and 1982 Riesling and his 1984, 1986, and 1987 Selected Late Harvest Rieslings. These wines have aged beautifully, delivering astounding complexity. Their lush flavors are balanced by an invigorating acidity that makes them a pleasure to drink.

Paul Lukacs, one of the leading authorities on American wine, selected Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars as one of the 40 wines he profiled in his newest book, The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages (W. W. Norton). Frank’s 2004 Dry Riesling ($16) won a Gold Medal at the prestigious Critics Challenge Wine Competition 2005 and their 2003 rendition took a Gold Medal at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition in 2005. It’s appropriate that Dr. Franks’ wines are receiving their well-deserved recognition because he, more than anyone, was responsible for the modern New York wine industry and the state’s great Rieslings.

Native American (vitis labrusca) grapes, such as Catawba and Concord were grown in the Finger Lakes region since the 19th century. Those varieties are great for making jelly, but not for making fine wine. Vitis vinifera, the species of grape common in Europe (and transplanted around the world to places such as California), is the one best suited for making premium wine such as Merlot, Riesling or Chardonnay. Upstate New York grape growers shunned Vitis vinifera, thinking it was too fragile to survive their winters. But Dr. Frank, a German born, Russian trained botanist, showed that vinifera vines could thrive in the region.

Frank, who immigrated to the US in the 1950s, had made wine from vinifera vines in the Ukraine, where the winters are more severe than in the Finger Lakes region. Experience taught him that the nearby lakes would moderate the climate and temperature and protect the vines during winter. In 1962, he founded his winery on the shores of Lake Keuka where he still makes superb Rieslings. The “lake effect” not only keeps the vines from freezing during the winter, but also cools them in the spring, retarding budbreak and protecting them against frost. The overall cool climate of upstate New York provides a perfect environment for Riesling and allows the grape to retain its hallmark vibrant, balancing acidity.

Considered by many connoisseurs to be the world’s best white wine variety, Riesling is under appreciated in the US. Many consumers perceive it as a sweet — and hence, unfashionable–wine. In truth most California versions are cloying and heavy because the warm climate there robs them of acidity. Well made Riesling from an appropriate climate is in my view the most versatile and food friendly white wine, ready to accompany a diversity of fare from spicy Asian cuisine to a summery clambake. Wines labeled Late Harvest Riesling, though too sweet for most food, are fabulous with cheese or by themselves after a meal.

Long Island: More than a Suburb of New York City

As in the Finger Lakes region, vinifera grapes grow well on the East End of Long Island (where virtually all of the wineries are located) because of the moderating influences of the Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite having a mere 24 wineries and 1,600 acres planted to vines (compared to 10,000 acres in the Finger Lakes and 50,000 acres in the Napa Valley), Long Island has been receiving recognition at national wine competitions as a place for making great wine. Galluccio Family Wineries on the North Fork was awarded “Winery of the Year, Eastern United States” at the Critics Challenge Wine Competition 2005 for their string of Gold Medal wines.

Some winemakers believe that Long Island wineries should focus on Merlot. First planted in 1974 by Hargrave Vineyard (the founder of the Long Island wine industry) and Mudd’s Vineyard, Merlot now accounts for about a third of all plantings. In late 2005, five wineries (Pellegrini Vineyards, Raphael, Sherwood House Vineyards, Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Wolffer Estate Vineyard) formed the Long Island Merlot Alliance in a “cooperative effort…to demonstrate to the wine world our commitment to…quality Merlot on Long Island.” (Curiously, Bedell Cellars, one of Long Island’s stellar Merlot producers and the only other New York winery profiled in Lukacs’ book, opted not to join the alliance.)

Roman Roth, winemaker at Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack in the Hamptons, compares the soil and climate on the East End to that of Bordeaux and believes that’s why Merlot, Bordeaux’s primary grape, does so well. (Wolffer also makes stellar Chardonnay, a grape not grown in Bordeaux). Merlot has the advantage of ripening early thus minimizing the chance the crop will be harmed by autumn rain, or by the unusual viticultural risk on Long Island of hurricanes. Many Long Island producers, such as Bedell Cellars, Raphael and Wolffer Estate, excel with this variety, using it to produce lush, deep wines. A tasting of Bedell’s Merlots in 2004 showed how beautifully the wines develop in the bottle. Their Merlots from 1987, 1993 and 1997 were magnificent examples of complex, classy wines. Bedell’s 2001 Reserve Merlot ($30) shows similar promise.

Wolffer consistently makes a range of superior Merlots. Since all the grapes, even from a single vineyard, are not of equal quality, a winemaker can select certain batches for a special bottling. Wolffer’s three Merlots (Reserve, $22, Estate Selection, $35, and Premier Cru, $125), all suave and silky, give consumers a chance to compare different quality levels and to decide which fits their budget.

Raphael, one of the newest Long Island wineries, has devoted 70% of its roughly 50 acres to Merlot because they thought it had a proven track record on the North Fork. Their 2000 First Label Merlot ($35) is sumptuous; the 2001 La Fontana Merlot, their second label (think junior varsity) is a great $20 bottle of wine.

Other winemakers don’t want to put all their grapes in one basket. They feel that there is inadequate experience to know what grapes grow best and that focusing exclusively on Merlot could be problematic in the future. Martha Clara Vineyards, located on the North Fork, hosts an annual Anything But Chardonnay & Merlot Festival where last year several Long Island wineries poured marvelous examples of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and other varietal wines. The warmer climate on Long Island, compared to the Finger Lakes, allows Sauvignon Blanc to ripen well, avoiding the overly grassy or herbaceous flavors that sometimes bedevil that wine. The 2004 Sauvignon Blanc from Macari Vineyards ($16) and from Paumanok Vineyards ($20) and Osprey Dominion Vineyard’s 2002 Fumé Blanc ($15) are all excellent.

Cabernet Franc, like Merlot, ripens early and is also well suited to the area. Macari Vineyards’ 2002 Cabernet Franc, an outstanding wine, shows how well a talented winemaker can do with this grape ($24). Similarly, Martha Clara’s 2004 Gewqrztraminer ($16), with lovely, but not over-the-top, spice suggests a promising future for this varietal.

Long Island Chardonnays are more restrained than their opulent California counterparts because the grapes become less ripe in this cooler climate. Most Long Island wineries make at least one Chardonnay, selecting grapes according to quality. Lenz Winery makes three particularly noteworthy ones labeled White, Silver or Gold Label Chardonnay ($12, $15 and $23, respectively). Two of Galluccio Family Wineries’ Gold Medals from the Critics Challenge Wine Competition 2005 were for their refined Gristina Chardonnay ($13) and their wonderfully expressive and balanced Cru George Allaire Chardonnay ($22).

Although vineyards were planted on Manhattan during Colonial times, the state’s industry is young, with more than 80% of the wineries founded since the New York Farm Winery Act was enacted in 1976. Prices for New York wines are reasonable too, considering their quality. Unlike California, there is only one New York wine selling for over $100 a bottle; most cost between $15 and $30. Given the industry’s youth and the region’s obscurity, some consumers are surprised that the prices are not lower. They fail to realize that making premium wine is expensive because, like waterfront property, there is a limited supply of prime locales for vineyards. And sadly, for the consumer, if New York wineries continue to make wines like these, their reputation will catch up with the quality and prices will rise.

Special thanks to Samuel Seidman, Wiemer’s former distributor in Massachusetts, for the opportunity to taste the older Wiemer Rieslings.

February 14, 2006.