Sheldrake Point – the Finger Lakes explained

I really enjoyed visiting the Sheldrake Point Vineyard, it seemed to encapsulate the Finger Lakes wine region – or the modern take on it anyway. Sheldrake Point is a new winery, founded in 1997 by winemaker Bob Madill and managing partner Chuck Tauck and – like the region’s pioneers Dr Frank and Hermann Wiemer – they chose a sheltered site on the western shore of one of the Finger Lakes – Cayuga Lake in this instance.

The Finger Lakes - click for a larger view

Cayuga vies with Senaca for being the largest of the Finger Lakes, both are around 40 miles long. Although Cayuga is not as deep as Seneca, it is still a large body of water that helps to temper the climate and keep the conditions that little bit warmer than the surrounding countryside, so allowing the delicate vitis vinfera grapes to survive the harsh winter conditions.

Sheldrake have only ever wanted to grow vinifera grapes and they stick to that – that is one reason they chose this site. Unusually for the region, even America as a whole, the estate comprises a single block of vines that slopes down to the lake.

Time and time again in the Finger Lakes region I was told that if vinifera are to survive, let alone thrive, then they must be grown within sight of the water. Sheldrake Point is an actual point or peninsula sticking out into the lake which puts the shore of the estate – and so its vines – right at the lake’s deepest spot. That means that this mass of water, which cools and heats more slowly than the land, protects the vines over winter and gives a longer growing season in the summer as well. In addition the east facing site gives them a little bit more sunshine each day in the spring than their colleagues on the eastern shore of the lakes – this helps to prevent frost and diseases, which are both serious problems in the region.

The slope is not dramatic, the top is 578 feet above sea level while the bottom by the shoreline is at 458 or 61 feet above the level of Cayuga Lake, but it is vital, allowing excellent air drainage. The cold air flows down to the lake where it displaces hotter air that then flows up – this gives them roughly 2˚F higher temperatures than inland, which is crucial for the vines to survive. The warmest conditions are at the shoreline, so that is where the more demanding vines are grown, those that need more sun and ripeness, in particular Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon. There is an excellent map of their vineyard that puts it all in perspective – here.

This is not a large estate, currently they have 44 acres of vines – 18 hectares – although they own another 30 that can be brought into production. From this they make some 8000 cases of wines and in keeping with the general trend of the region over 70% of this is sold on site, through their shop and restaurant – they have a beautiful winery shop and gift shop full of tempting things as well as the Simply Red Lakeside Bistro where I enjoyed one of the best meals of my trip.

The wines:

2008 Sheldrake Point Gewürztraminer
Acid: 6.3 g/L – Residual Sugar: 5 g/L – Alcohol %: 13.6%

The colour was paler and lighter than most Alsace examples and it is quite a bit drier too.

The nose was quite rich and tropical with fat lychee notes balanced by fresher lime.

The palate was soft and quite rich with barley sugar characters and soft fruit, but a cut of acidity makes it a little cleaner. The finish is quite fat and rich, if a little hot with that typical Gewürztraminer bitter twist, however some lovely delicate spice comes through on the finish. This is a good balanced example of this difficult grape.

2007 Sheldrake Point Dry Riesling
Acid: 8.2 g/L – Residual Sugar: 7.5 g/L – Alcohol %: 13.8%

The nose was quite lifted, aromatic and limey with some evolved notes of honey and wax as well as some underlying minerality.

The palate was concentrated and weighty with a touch of the exotic and soft limey citrus kept fresh by a core of clean acidity making it seem quite dry.

Fruit dominates the finish, making it feel soft rather than crisp, but it is a most attractive wine with a long, clean finish.

2007 Sheldrake Point Barrel Reserve Chardonnay
Acid: 7.1 g/L – Residual Sugar: 1 g/L – Alcohol %: 12.9%

Barrel fermented and aged in barrel for 8-9 months.

Quite pale for a wooded Chardonnay and the nose was fresh with clean appley fruit supported by a little waft of toast and spice.

The palate was soft and gently creamy with just a touch of nuts and oily richness backed up by crisp, balancing acidity.

This was a good and balanced wine and shows how Chardonnay can produce good results even in the most marginal of climates and that the careful use of oak can work in cool regions too.

2008 Sheldrake Point Gamay Noir
Acid: 5.3 g/L – Residual Sugar: 1.5 g/L – Alcohol %: 12.4%

I am beginning to gain a bit more respect for Gamay as a grape and I think this example works well. There is no carbonic maceration here, the grapes are crushed and the wine is aged in barrel for 6 months, but it is all used oak and most of it was neutral, so almost no wood character came through, just coffee hints on the nose.

It was light-bodied, supple and juicy with little flourishes of spice and very soft tannins and some lovely red fruit on the smooth finish.

A simple and enjoyable wine that was an interesting take on this challenging grape, it went superbly with the charcuterie and the garlic infused roast chicken at lunch.

Cayuga Effect

I loved visiting this winery, it was early in the trip and really helped me to understand the region as a whole; why the lakes are so vital, what the water does to the growing conditions and how hard it is for the vines to survive. I think in part this was because the vines were grown on a single site, so the effect of the lake – what they call the Cayuga Effect – was clear to see.

Sheldrake Point brought all that alive and it is always a good moment, for me, when I start to really understand a region, how it works, what makes it tick and the challenges that it faces.

3 thoughts on “Sheldrake Point – the Finger Lakes explained

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