N.Y. Riesling lacks cloying sweetness

New York wines lack the cachet of those from California, which is too bad since some, like Riesling, are stellar and more exciting than their West Coast counterparts.

The Finger Lakes region, with almost 100 wineries, accounts for 90 percent of the state’s wine. This region was always known for growing native American grapes, Vitis labrusca, such as Catawba and Concord, which are great for making jelly but not for making fine wine. Winemakers use Vitis vinifera, the species of grape common in France or California, for making premium wine, such as merlot, Riesling, or chardonnay. The Finger Lakes wine industry languished initially because producers thought that Vitis vinifera was too fragile to survive the cold.

It took a German-born, Russian-trained botanist, Konstantin Frank, to show that vinifera vines could thrive in upstate New York. Frank, who had made wine from vinifera grapes in the Ukraine, where the winters are more severe than in the Finger Lakes region, knew that the proximity of the lakes would moderate the climate and protect the vines from freezing. Frank immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, worked under Charles Fournier of Gold Seal Wine, and then founded his winery on the shores of Lake Keuka in 1962. He produces exceptional Rieslings. His 2004 Dry Riesling won a gold medal at the prestigious San Diego International Critics Challenge wine competition this year; the 2003 took a gold at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition last year.

Riesling, considered by many connoisseurs to be the world’s best white wine, is underappreciated in the United States. Many consumers consider it a sweet wine, an image reinforced by most California versions, which are often cloying because they lack the mouth-cleansing acidity — think green apples — that is the hallmark of great Riesling. And that’s just where Frank’s Rieslings excel. His 2004 has the vibrancy and mineral undertones to balance the peachy flavors.

Riesling in general, and Frank’s in particular, is a versatile food-friendly wine that cuts the summer’s heat and humidity. Try one the next time you opt for spicy Asian cuisine, take-out sushi, or a shoreline clambake.

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Dry Riesling, 2004 (About $16). Distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076. 

August 18, 2005.