A Touch of Europe or Local Terroir?

The Hermann J Wiemer vineyard & winery

This was one of my favourite winery visits of my recent trip to New York. The Hermann J Wiemer winery made wines that really thrilled and spoke to me, as their literature states ‘wines in the finest European tradition from the heart of the Finger Lakes’.

I am not convinced that their wines are made entirely in the European tradition, but they do have a delicacy and a finesse that is very attractive. In my opinion though these are Finger Lake wines rather than European and I think that is how it should be.

The Story

Hermann Wiemer himself was from Bernkastel, in Germany’s Mosel region, where he grew up in a family that had been growing grapes, especially Riesling, for over 300 years. His father was in charge of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Bernkastel where he was responsible for restoring vineyards after World War II and it was this connection that led him to the research station at Cornell University and so to New York’s Finger Lakes. Here he soon realised that he had stumbled across a region capable of producing great cool climate wines. Sometimes looking across the narrow Finger Lakes from one vineyard to another I was put in mind of the Mosel, albeit with much less steep slopes, so perhaps it reminded him of home?

The Finger Lakes - click for a larger view

Anyway he was drawn to Seneca lake, which at 632 feet is the deepest of the lakes as well as being the largest. In 1973 he purchased 140 acres on the lake’s west shore near Dundee, if you look at the map you will see that this lines up with the fork in Keuka Lake. Well apparently from there northwards the temperatures are some 2-3˚F degrees warmer than further south. This is crucial in a region that was long thought to be too cold for vitis vinfera to survive, let alone prosper.

I am sure it is no coincidence that Dr Frank’s vineyards are at the same latitude on the west shore of Keuka Lake. In the 1950s Dr Frank was the man who first proved that it was possible to grow vitis vinfera in the region. Before him the area only grew the hardy native and hybrids grapes. So, the area has a slight temperature advantage and the tempering influence of the lakes – Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lake are all so deep that they hardly change temperature, except for the top few inches – whatever the season. They have hardly ever frozen over, so as long as the vines are planted within site of the lake, the local conditions are that little bit warmer than away from the water and the vines can survive the harsh winters. Even then they have to practice ‘hilling up’ for the winter, which is piling earth around the base of the vines to protect the delicate graft. Of course if they then leave that earth piled up around the graft into the following spring the vinifera top part of the vine will start rooting itself and leave the plant open to infestation by phylloxera – which actually originates from the area, so the earth has to be removed.

Unusually for the region in the 1970s Hermann decided only to grow vinifera grapes and to deny himself the comfort of having those more hardy hybrids. He planted many different grape varieties including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Lemburger. Riesling with 70% of the plantings, was and remains the focus of the winery, although they are also now planting Grüner Veltliner, which I am looking forward to trying when I return. Like most estates in this most marginal of climates – indeed like Andrew Pirie and others in Tasmania – Wiemer produces a wide range of some 21 wines, as insurance against the region’s harsh climate.

Fred Merwarth (left) and Oskar Bynke (right)

Today Hermann is retired, but the winery that bears his name is in the capable hands of winemaker Fred Merwarth and agronomist Oskar Bynke. One nice touch the new management has introduced is to honour Hermann and his parents by naming the company’s three vineyard sites HJW, Magdalena and Josef.

Everything here is kept as natural as they can with sustainable viticulture and an intriguing way of fermenting. They ferment the base wine for the sparkling wines with cultured yeast and from then on they transfer bubbling yeast across from one wine to the other as a starter for the natural yeast.

I have not awarded the wines a mark as they are not available in the UK, but all the wines are very accomplished, stylish and of good quality and deserving of marks of 89 points and more out of a hundred.

The Sparkling Wines

Fred gave us two sparkling wines to try:

Cuvée Brut 2006

– the 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir came from more northerly vineyards and produced a wine that was delicate and creamy with nice fruit and complex lees autolysis.

At 3g/L residual sugar this was bone dry, the richness and the dryness was helped by the fact that Fred used a 7 year old still barrel fermented Chardonnay Reserve for the dosage.

Blanc de Noirs 2003 – the 85% Pinot Noir  with 15% Chardonnay was softer and more creamy than the Brut and the 7 g/L residual sugar helped that soft mouth feel in the wine as well as accentuating the touch of butterscotch character from the lees ageing and the dosage with 1999 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay Reserve.

There are only 2-3000 cases made of the sparkling wines, so all the riddling and disgorging is done by hand.

In the past they have made a sparkling Riesling as well, but currently do not have any vineyards they consider suitable for that. Hermann apparently instilled a belief that sparkling wine should not be an afterthought once the grapes are in the winery, but the planned destiny of those grapes from their very beginning.

The Rieslings

2008 Hermann J Wiemer Dry Riesling

With some 4000 case production, out of 14000, this is the key wine of the estate, it is what they are about and all the other Rieslings are really components of this Cuvée.

This is a terrific wine, delicate, understated and elegant – almost German, but much softer than I was expecting. The fruit dominates the acidity more than a German example I think. At 9 g/L residual sugar it is not bone dry, but very well balanced between fruit and acidity.

2008 Hermann J Wiemer HJW Vineyard Riesling

This is a cool site to the south of Dundee and as such the minerality shines through much more, but this is still a soft wine with gentle mouth feel and acidity kept at bay by honey and stone fruit notes.

This is a tad drier at 7 grams of residual sugar per litre. Because the conditions can be so cold soon after harvest, this wine took 8 months for the natural yeast to ferment, which goes some way to explaining the very soft style of the wine – which I was quickly realising was the hallmark of Wiemer’s Rieslings.

2008 Hermann J Wiemer Dry Riesling Reserve

This is a blend with components from the Magdalena, HJW and Josef vineyards. At 8 g/L of residual it is dryish, but the fruity sweetness is allowed to dominate the acidity rather than the other way around.

Süssreserve

I was beginning to really wonder about this softness in the wines. I love Riesling, I consider it to be the most thrilling white grape of all, but I like the acidity to cut through any sweetness and to dominate the finish. I really liked all these wines as they are very good indeed, but kept questioning why they were so soft in the mouth when Fred had told us that they never adjust their wines – never add or remove acid, or tannin in the reds. He told us that they ‘try to be purists.’

In the end it was no great mystery, just a practice so engrained and natural to him that he did not regard it as adjusting the wine. By asking the right question I was finally able to extract from him that he uses süssreserve. This is a sweetening agent, traditionally unfermented grape juice in Germany, which is blended back into the wine to balance the acidity – not to sweeten the wine.

Fred uses a slightly different tack by making a süssreserve each vintage from the Rielsing on the Magdalena vineyard, fermented to just 4% alcohol leaving most of the sugar as sweetness. This site is in the north and gives him the richest, ripest Riesling he has – indeed parcels of this vineyard also give him late harvest Rielsing for his dessert wine. Because it produces such rich fruit his normal süssreserve is not powerful enough to use in the Magdalena Vineyard Riesling itself, so 5% or so of his Late Harvest Riesling does the same job in that wine.

After telling us this Fred kindly let us taste a tank sample of the:

2009 Hermann J Wiemer HJW Vineyard Riesling

This was before the süssreserve had been added and the difference was clear – the acidity was crisp and nervy and thrilling, to me this was a wonderful wine really allowing the natural minerality and verve of the grape to shine through. I hope that he bottles some without any süssreserve at all and sees what his customer’s think. Send me a case if you do, won’t you Fred?

A few days later I was able to try some of Wiemer’s other wines:

2008 Hermann J Wiemer HJW Frost Cuvée

A beautifully balanced, extremely drinkable blend of Riesling and Gewürztraminer with a little of their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sparkling base wine added in for complexity.

The blend is created between the first frost of autumn, after harvest and the first frost of spring – hence the name.

2008 Hermann J Wiemer HJW Gewürztraminer

Almost all the Gewürztraminers that I tasted in the Finger Lakes region were appreciably drier than their European counterparts – the only thing that was – which as I am not a huge fan of the grape often meant the finish was a little bitter for me. This example was sweeter than most, 17g/L residual sugar makes it medium, and beautifully balanced with good acidity too – it was my favourite Gewürztraminer from the entire trip.

Local Taste or Terroir?

There is no doubt that the American taste is different from the European, culturally Americans consume a large amount of milk, they actually buy it by the gallon, which is soft and most foodstuffs seem to have a softer taste than European equivalents. The sweetness in food, even the savoury dishes is always a surprise when I visit the States as well, there is wide use of fruit – for instance I had a blueberry pasta dish, which was delicious, but quite sweet to my taste. So, the wines will reflect this to some degree, traditionally local wines, made from native grapes and hybrids, are sweeter and softer than we would expect. An American winemaker’s palate will naturally reflect this cultural difference and so be set differently from ours and so will their customer’s and that is surely all part of terroir and what makes wine interesting?

Hermann J Wiemer is a very classy winery making wines with elegance and  sophistication. There is real passion behind everything they do, whether in the vineyard or the winery. They show that this emerging region does not make just novelty wines or curiosities, but wines whose qualities can be appreciated anywhere and on their own merits.

If you enjoy good Rieslings or Gewürztraminer, then the wines of Hermann J Wiemer should certainly be on your list to try.

7 thoughts on “A Touch of Europe or Local Terroir?

  1. Really thorough and interesting post, Quentin and thanks for the whole series of Finger Lakes posts.

    Interesting to see that Hermann J Wiemer stood out for you on your trip, as this winery also stood out for me when I visited the region 12 years ago! I’m not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing, I certainly hope the overall quality of the region has moved up a good notch since I visited. At the time it was very much the Rieslings (and yes, often too much sweetness for my palate too) that showed best.

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