Wine of the Week – a delicious Riesling

A Happy New Year to you all.

My first piece of 2020 is a Wine of the Week. It is also a bin end bargain, so grab it quick!

Clare Valley vineyards in South Australia.

As many of you will know, I – and most people in the wine trade – love Riesling. I think it is the combination of delicate, hinted flavours, purity, minerality and acidity that draws me back to Riesling time after time. It also partners the sort of Asiatic and Mediterranean flavours that I like to eat. If that sounds counterintuitive, try a dry Riesling with Spaghetti Vongoli, it is a great combination.

The other day I tasted a really delicious Riesling that I think may of you would enjoy. I showed it in a tasting class and was very impressed. When I saw the price I was amazed and then I saw that it was reduced even further!

Map of South Eastern Australia, Clare Vally is north of Adelaide in South Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2017 Baily & Baily Folio Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia

I know very little about Baily & Baily, except their Folio range is a brand that aims to produce a complete portfolio of Australian wines by concentrating on the most important grape variety from each region. To that end they produce a Barossa Valley Shiraz, Margaret River Chardonnay and this Clare Valley Riesling.

Clare is a fascinating place that creates some wonderful wines but is quite hard to get to grips with. Because its most famous speciality is Riesling it is often thought to be a cool place, but then it can also ripen Merlot and even Cabernet Sauvignon, so the truth is more nuanced – like most things.

What I do know is that big diurnal variation – temperature drops at night of almost 40˚C in the growing season are not uncommon – slows down the growing season and preserve acidity in the grapes. Afternoon maritime breezes have a similar effect and are especially good for the Rieslings. 

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

This is a very friendly, happy and accessible wine. It is dry and the acidity is high and refreshing, but it is not astringent. The fruit is ripe giving touches of mango richness that is balanced and kept bright by the powerful lime-like flavours. An easygoing, but delicious Riesling that is just beginning to show that classic oily texture – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at £6.99 per bottle from Waitrose Cellar – just £5.99 if you get your order in today

Wine of the Week – a Scintillating Riesling

Some of Pfaffl’s vineyards at Stetten – photo courtesy of the winery.

I love Riesling and while I know that many of you do not, I am just going to on and on about it until you change your mind – well it worked for Bill Cash and Nigel Farage!

Riesling comes in many different guises, the delicate off-dry Mosel style is possibly my favoured option, but then the mineral and slightly bolder Alsace versions also excite me, as do the lime-drenched Australian ones and the vivacious offerings from New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Washington State and New York. However I also have a new favourite – Austria.

I am always excited by Austrian wines. That feeling of pristine, Alpine purity in the wines speaks to me – indeed I love Swiss, Slovenian, Northern Italian and even Gallician wines for the same reason. Austrian Riesling tends to be more full in style than German examples, dry, yet somehow steelier and more vibrant than those from Alsace – certainly at lower price points anyway.

Well I recently tasted a lovely Austrian Riesling and so with the better weather I thought it would make a great Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Austria – Pfaffl are marked by a red dot a little north of Vienna.

Roman Josef Pfaffl in the Vienna vineyards – see the city in the background – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Riesling Neubern
Qualitätswein Trocken/dry
Pfaffl
Niederösterreich/Lower Austria
Austria

I really like Pfaffl. I visited their winery once and they make good wines that to me feel very Austrian. They are precise, they are pure and exciting too. Pfaffl are based in Stetten some 15 km or so north of Vienna. Their vineyards are spread around the village on 10 sites and they also have vineyards in Vienna.

Vienna is the only capital with proper commercial vineyards in it and it even has its own style, the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. These are field wines that must contain at least 3 grape varieties grown together, harvested, pressed and fermented together. The permitted grapes Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and the wines are traditionally served in the Heurigen, seasonal taverns in Vienna that sell that years wine.

Pfaffl also make a more modern style blend from Vienna, their Pfaffl 1 which has 60% Riesling blended after fermentation with 20% each of Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc. I love Pfaffl 1 but have yet to taste their field blend.

Heidi and Roman Josef Pfaffl are a brother and sister with Roman being the winemaker and Heidi the administrator. Roman crafts a largish range of wines, with many single vineyard Grüners and different Rieslings, as well as beautifully drinkable reds made from Pinot Noir and Zweigelt and a stunning sparkling Grüner Veltliner. Altogether they farm around 110 hectares and craft some superb wines from single vineyard sites as well as some bigger production blended across the estate.

My Wine of the Week is one of their bigger production numbers and it is utterly delightful. The nose is fresh and lively with lemon and lime notes, the richer input of apple and pear and some scintillating floral characters too, jasmine and orange blossom. The palate is light, lithe and refreshing with lots of flavour and a clean ethereal presence on your senses. The citrus and apple is there together with a deeper tang of apricot. All in all the wine is poised and elegant with a light touch to it. I liked it a lot, especially with a Thai meal – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £8.99 per bottle.

Drink this on a warm Spring day, a Summer picnic, on its own as an aperitif, with a cold collation or with spicy and oriental cuisine.

Wine of the Week – Aussie Riesling personified

Larry Cherubino’s Panoo Vineyard in Porongurup.

As regular readers will know, I love Riesling. There is something so fascinating, mysterious and beguiling about this grape. It is hard to pin down. The flavours and aromas seem to come and go and to give you unformed sketches rather than fully formed pictures – much like Pinot Noir does for red wine.

I find Riesling to be very versatile – I will happily drink it on its own and it is equally good wth most light dishes as well as being perfect with Mediterranean dishes – it seems to really compliment olive oil and garlic. Riesling is also perfect with spicy cuisine – especially Thai, south east Asian and Keralan (southern Indian). What’s more the wine is usually quite low in alcohol – rarely more than 12% – so it never takes the same toll of my few remaining brain cells that a red wine does. Add to that the high acidity makes it not only clean and – hopefully – vibrant, but refreshing too.

Wine map of Western Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Well, the other day I tasted a stunning Riesling from the Great Southern region of Western Australia that was delicious and hugely enjoyable. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Larry Cherubino’s Riversdale North Vineyard in Frankland River.

2015 Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling
Robert Oatley Vineyards
Great Southern
Western Australia

Robert Oatley was an amazing man who had many business interests and passions. He famously owned the racing yacht Wild Oats XI and created Hunter Valley’s Rosemount Estate in 1968, making him a true Australian wine pioneer. After he sold Rosemount, Robert and his family set up Robert Oatley Vineyards in 2009 by purchasing the old Craigmoor Estate, which was founded in 1858 and was the first winery in Mudgee. They are based there, but also farm and make wine from grapes grown in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia, the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley in Victoria and Pemberton, the Great Southern and Margaret River regions of Western Australia. They aim to show the diversity of Australian winemaking and all the wines that I have tried show that their quality is very high. Sadly Robert died last year, but the winery that bears his name lives on and from what I can see makes some very good wines.

We see quite a lot of wines from the Margaret River region in this sparsely populated state, but not much from the other wine making areas. The Great Southern and its sub zones is a pretty impressive wine region – the largest Geographical Indicator in the world at 150 km north to south and 100 km east to west – and seems to be producing some very high quality wines, especially Riesling, but also Cabernet, the Mediterranean grapes – Fiano, Tempranillo, Grenache, Mencia, Counoise and even a little Pinot Noir. Broadly speaking the climate is Mediterranean, although more continental as you move inland and this wine is made from fruit grown in the Porongurup, Frankland River and Mount Barker zones.

Larry Cherubino’s Riversdale South Vineyard in Frankland River.

The great Larry Cherubino is the chief winemaker for Robert Oatley wines. Larry produces his own wines too and his vineyards are all in Western Australia, especially the Great Southern and Margaret River.

The wine making for this wine is simple, as befits Riesling, leaving the fruit to speak for itself. Only free run juice is used, cold fermented with neutral yeast.

The wine has an alluring pale lime and silvery hue, while the nose is bright, but pure, stony and taut with a waft of lifted lime, dry honey and the merest hint of Riesling’s trademark kerosene – don’t let that put you off though, it’s lovely.

The palate sings with this cleansing feel of high, lime-drenched acidity making it feel pure, like a mountain spring. There is however an underlying richness and texture to the wine that balances that freshness beautifully. A real triumph with a long clean finish bursting with zesty lime flavours – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from the Cambridge Wine Merchants (currently 2014 vintage), The Halifax Wine Company (currently 2014 vintage), Hailsham Cellars (currently 2014 vintage), Wine Direct (currently 2014 vintage), Bon Coeur Fine Wines (currently 2013 vintage).

 

Wine of the Week – a classy dry Riesling

Clare Valley vineyards in South Australia.

As anyone who reads these pages knows that I love Riesling. At its best Riesling produces some of the most delicious, light, beguiling, delicious and versatile white wines available.

I love all sorts of styles of Riesling from the light off-dry Mosel style to bone dry and mineral versions from many parts of Germany as well as Alsace and Austria. Australia too has a reputation for producing good Rieslings and I have enjoyed many different examples over the years – try this if you get a chance, and this as well.

However, I recently tried one that was absolutely superb and it is such great value too that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of South Eastern Australia, Clare Valley is north of Adelaide in South Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 Blind Spot Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia

The Clare Valley is an old wine region, having been settled in the 1830s, you can tell because nearby Adelaide is named after the wife of King William IV – he ruled 1830-1837. Like many of the places called a valley in Australia, it isn’t really a valley so much as a series of gullies and gentle hills. During the growing season the days are warm, but there are cooling breezes and the nighttime temperature is cool. This helps keep the wines fresh and lively and that is why the two speciality grapes of the region – although many others thrive here too – are Merlot and Riesling, both grape varieties that don’t like too much heat.

The Blind Spot range is a sort of upmarket own label range made for the Wine Society by Mac Forbes who is one of the most exciting young winemakers in Australia today, the whole range is worth a look if you want to broaden your horizons.

This is everything that I want a Riesling to be. It is is bone dry, tangy, mineral, taut and refreshing. It has a pristine, pure quality to it and the palate is drenched with exotic lime, crisp and deliciously drinkable. It is light bodied, but full of flavour, so more akin to the finer and more ethereal Australian Rieslings like Hensche’s stunning Julius Riesling. It has high acid as you would expect, but the ripe lime balances it beautifully.

I loved this wine. It is very good quality and it so much better than the price tag would make you believe – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from the Wine Society for £8.95 a bottle.

Enjoy this as an aperitif, it really makes you hungry, or with any light, delicate dishes, soft cheese, seafood, spaghetti alle vongole, Thai, Malaysian and Keralan cuisine, anything you dip in sweet chilli sauce, or just as a drink on its own. It will certainly be my house wine for the spring and summer.

Wine of the Week 27 – amazing value dry Riesling

I love Riesling. It is one of the best white grapes in the world and it produces such a wonderful variety of wines that it pains me that more consumers do not love it as I do. It still seems to evoke laughable images of the 1970s and Liebfraumilch for many people, but what those people have to remember is that all the things they find funny about the 1970s now, were not funny then. Their younger selves – or their parents – actually liked wearing safari jackets and flares, eating chicken kiev and drinking Blue Nun – get over it I say.

It also might interest you to know though that Blue Nun never had any Riesling in it and most Liebfraumilch and cheap German wine was – and is – made from Müller-Thurgau grapes and not Riesling at all.

Riesling can be stylish, classy, refined and elegant and what’s more a great many are dry. If you want dry wines made from Riesling, then drink Riesling from Alsace, Austria, Washington State or Chile. All these places are produce some superb dry Riesling, but my Wine of the Week this week is cracking dry Riesling from the Clare Valley in South Australia. If the delights of Riesling have so far eluded you, but you enjoy Grüner Veltliner or Albariño, do give this wine a try, you might well enjoy it.

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

Map of South Eastern Australia  – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The Exquisite Collection Clare Valley Riesling2013 Aldi The Exquisite Collection Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia
Riesling was once the work horse white grape of Australia and it is still widely grown. However, two areas of South Australia have really made a speciality of it and now produce superb premium Riesling in their own unique style, although many other grape varieties are planted there too. These wine regions are the Eden Valley and the Clare Valley.
Clare is probably the most famous and produces the iconic style of Australian Riesling, dry, medium-bodied and with lots of fruit balancing the grape’s natural acidity. They normally appear richer than their European counterparts and often have an oily character to them.
If you read the small print on the label you will see that this wine is made by Taylors Wines, who are a large, but very good quality family run producer that exports under the Wakefield label to avoid confusion with the Port house. 

Strangely the Clare Valley is not that cool, it actually has a Mediterranean climate, but the nights are cool and together with the height of the vineyards – around 350-400 metres above sea level – this ensures the wines retain their freshness, acidity and balance. It is an area of gently rolling hills in fact and not strictly speaking a valley at all, but it is very beautiful.

The nose is enticing and glorious with the freshness of lime and lime zest, some grapefruit and tangerine too and there is something mineral and stony about it as well. It smells fresh, vibrant and pristine, but has a little oily, waxy richness too.
The palate has lots of zing and fat, ripe fruit too. It has lovely, mouthwatering acidity making it clean, and crisp, as well as a juicy quality to the fruit; apples, pears and white peach, together with lemon and lime zest on the finish and some steely minerality.
Really good stuff that is just perfect as an aperitif or with light meals, fish dishes, shellfish and it is really good with most Asian cuisine – anything you dip into sweet chilli sauce in fact  – 88/100 points, this scores high for value and tastes much more expensive than it is.

I don’t like the label of this wine or The Exquisite Collection name Aldi have given the range, it’s a pretty terrible name, but who cares if the wine is this good?

 Available in the UK at £6.99 per bottle from Aldi.

I will certainly make sure that I have some of this on hand over Christmas, it is utterly delicious and a bargain at that.

Wine of the Week 9 – a winning Riesling

Columbia Valley / Ancient Lakes, Washington State.

Columbia Valley / Ancient Lakes, Washington State.

Many of you regular readers will know that I love the Riesling grape. For me Riesling produces some of the very best white wines in the world and, in my opinion even a modest example can deliver a huge amount of pleasure. I am well aware though that many people do not love Riesling as I do and that many wine drinkers who have excellent taste in all other respects often lose all reason when it comes to Riesling.

Some of the people I serve Riesling too tell me it is too sweet, even when I pour them a dry wine. Others just seem to think it is a passé 1970s thing to be locked away in a vault along with the equally dubious and hilarious safari suits, bell bottoms and wing mirrors – when was the last time you saw an old-fashioned wing mirror on a car?

Riesling is frequently damned as being the grape that gave us Liebfraumilch, a wine people loved to drink in the 1970s, but now like to pretend was only ever drunk by others. In actual fact Liebfraumilch and all those other cheap German wines – Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, Piesporter Michelsberg etc. – that have almost, but not quite, disappeared from the supermarket shelves were never made from Riesling, but the lesser quality Müller-Thurgau. By the way it is possible to make good wines from that under appreciated grape too.

The other day I wanted a white wine with some intrinsic purity, minerality and elegance to go with my rather wonderful home made spaghetti alle vongolespecial ingredient here & here  and amazingly simple recipe at the bottom of this article hereMy thoughts turned initially to those lovely white wines from the slopes of Etna in Sicily. Sadly the branch of Marks and Spencer I was in did not stock their Etna Bianco and so I had to rethink my plan.

At first glance they did not seem to stock many wines that did what I wanted. Last week’s Wine of the Week would have been a great match with my spaghetti and clams too, but they didn’t have that either, so I had to get creative. Focussing on the wine style rather than origin and grape variety I eventually chose a Riesling from Washington State in America’s Pacific North West. In my mind a wine like that would be a more natural partner with Pacific Rim and spicy Asian cuisine, but my spaghetti had a similar purity to it as well as a little kick of red chilli in true Sicilian style – and hey isn’t spaghetti a type of noodle?

Sadly I have never been to that part of the world, but I do know that the climate is much cooler than California, so delicate grapes perform very well there.

Honourable Riesling2013 The Honourable Riesling
Charles Smith Wines
Washington State, USA

Charles Smith has become a sort of rock star wine maker since his first vintage in 2001. Originally from central California, where wine would have been all around him, he travelled the world managing bands and music tours before catching the bug and settling in Seattle to retail wine. That same year on a trip to Walla Walla, an important wine growing area in Washington, the itch became more serious and he soon settled in the area and started to make wine. His first vintage was the 2001 and he released just 330 cases. Well that small acorn has grown and Charles now commands a loyal following as a committed, passionate and self-taught wine maker and original marketeer of his wines, much like Randall Graham in California. He makes a wide range of wines, but can be regarded as something of a Riesling specialist, one of his most famous wines is Kung Fu Girl Riesling.

Evergreen Vineyard from the air - photo from Milbrandt Vineyards.

Evergreen Vineyard from the air – photo from Milbrandt Vineyards.

This wine is actually a single vineyard wine from the Evergreen Vineyard which is owned by the Milbrandt Brothers, Butch and Jerry, not David and Ed by the way. Also a source of fruit for Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Evergreen is situated in the far north of Washington’s Columbia Valley A.V.A. and since 2012 the area has had it’s own Ancient Lakes A.V.A.. Although Seattle is famously wet, this far inland the area is very dry. What’s more the place is high, cool and windy, which together with plenty of sun delivers ripe flavours at lower sugar levels, which hopefully makes balanced wines. The thin rocky soils ensures the vines have to work hard and produce concentrated grapes with good minerality, which suits Riesling very well.

The man himself, Charles Smith looking suitably rock & roll.

The man himself, Charles Smith looking suitably rock & roll.

I assumed that I would like this wine, but it is very, very good in a seductively easy drinking style. The nose is aromatic, lifted, richly floral and full of tropical tinged citrus, lime drenched in fact. This limey character goes on to the palate too and while the acidity is refreshingly high and keeps the wine clean and pure, it is not tart at all. In fact the acidity has a soft sweetness to it – the wine though is dry – like lime curd or a rich key lime pie. The flavours pull off a great balancing act between being vibrant and powerful, while the whole thing is actually rather elegant, pure and laced with cleansing acidity and complex mineral characters. The Honourable Riesling delivers a huge amount of pleasure and if you are anything like me you will find it just slips down – 91/100 points. I gave it an extra point for the sheer pleasure it gave!

A lovely wine to drink on its own, with spicy food, Asian food, Pacific Rim cuisine and yes it was perfect with my spaghetti alle vongole, I would like to have it with tapas too.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencer at £12 per bottle.

If you are one of those people who have failed to find the joy that Riesling can offer, then this might well be the wine – give it a go, I think you will enjoy it.

 

 

My Summer Wine Part 2 – Welsh Riesling?

The weather has changed and Summer feels a long time ago now, but I thought you might well be interested in these wines that I was able to try when the weather was a little better.

I love trying new things, so I was thrilled to be able to taste some Welsh wines during the Summer. I suppose I knew there was some Welsh wine, Sweden can make it for heaven’s sake, and so Wales certainly can. However, tasting Welsh wines was a first for me and although they were not actually made from Riesling, but I can never resist a pun. I wish they did grow Riesling in Wales, how could a grower pass up the chance to label a wine as Welsh Riesling?

Monnow Valley Vineyards by kind permission

Continue reading

Winning you round to Riesling

In keeping with many of us in the wine business, I love the Riesling grape. In many ways, for me, it is the grape. The one I love before all others. If a Riesling is on offer, it always calls to me and it pains me that so many people seem indifferent to its charms.

It follows from this that I like to present Riesling to consumers and hope that my love of the grape variety will rub off on to them. To that end I am always trying to win people round to Riesling. It has to be admitted that my success has been patchy, many people who enjoy other wines seem unable to find the pleasure in a fine Riesling that I do, but I have had some converts recently and it was two particular Rieslings that did it, so I thought that I would share them with you. They are both very different in style, but both are hugely enjoyable as well as being affordable.

If the delights of Riesling have passed you by, will you do me a favour – give it one last try. Today may be the day that you see the Riesling light and these may be the examples that win you round.

Continue reading

Riesling – a world tour

Riesling growing on the banks of the Moselle in Luxembourg

Riesling is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. Most of us in the wine business love Riesling, indeed many of us would class it as one of our favourite grapes, right up there with Pinot Noir.

Ask most consumers to list their favourite grapes, however and it is pretty unusual for Riesling to feature at all.

Personally I love Riesling, I find it a grape that I can get passionate about. What is more I seem to like all styles of Riesling, whether steely dry, off-dry, medium-dry or richly sweet – all can be wonderful in their place and make refreshing Summer wines. Continue reading

Empire Sate of Wine – New York’s Finger Lakes Region

Sunrise over Keuka Lake – photo courtesy of Dr Frank.

Understandably most UK wine drinkers think that American wine is pretty much all from California. Certainly California is the most important of the wine producing states, but there are some superb wines made elsewhere in the US too.

Some consumers are aware of wines from Oregon and possibly Washington State, but usually my students are astonished when I tell them about wines from Virginia, Texas, Utah or New York state.

Wine is actually made from freshly gathered grapes in all 50 states – yes even Hawaii and Alaska.

The United States is currently the fourth largest wine producing country in the world, after Italy, France and Spain, and California accounts for around 85% of it. Washington State, in the Pacific North West, is next at just over 5%, while New York comes in third by making about 3.5% of American wine.

And it is the wines of New York that are the subject of my article this month. In particular a region called the Finger Lakes.

Lake Erie has around 20,000 acres of vineyard is by far the biggest producing wine region in New York, but about 95% of that is Concord grapes destined for use in Welch’s Purple Grape Juice.

So the Finger Lakes, with around 10,000 acres (4,500 hectares) and some 120 wineries – Lake Erie can boast a mere 19 producers, is actually the most important wine region in New York state.

The Finger Lakes is a beautiful part of the world and I was totally captivated by it when I visited. I think what makes it especially magical is that we all have a mental picture of New York in our heads and this area is picturesque and very rural, so completely different. 

Wine has been made here since the early nineteenth century, but in the past it was almost solely vitis labrusca, the indigenous type of North American vine, rather than vitis vinfera, the European strain of vine used for wine.

Wine map of New York State – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Dr Konstantin Frank

It was not until 1958 that Dr Konstantin Frank showed that vitis vinfera grapes could successfully be grown here as long as a hardy American root stock was used. Frank was a Ukranian immigrant with a PhD in viticulture and had a great deal of experience growing grapes in his cold homeland.

Dr Konstantin Frank – photo courtesy of Dr Frank.

Ever since Europeans arrived in North America they had been trying to grow European vitis vinfera vines. This is because the abundant indigenous grapes produce wines with a distinctive ‘foxy’ smell that can be musky and off-putting. From my limited experience of wines made from these grapes – especially Concord – the only way round this is to make the wines sweet enough to mask the foxy qualities. However, phylloxera lives on the Eastern seaboard of North America and these aphids feast on the leaves and roots of grape vines and ultimately destroy the plant, so settlers in America found it impossible to grow European vines. American vines are hardier and immune to the ravages of phyloxerra.

Vitis Vinifera left, American grape variety right – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Even after the solution of grafting the vitis vinfera vine onto an American vine root was discovered, no one had found a way to make it work in upstate New York. Most growers were convinced that it was the extreme cold of the winters killing the vines, but Dr Franc was convinced that it was because they were not using suitable rootstocks for the particular vines. Initially he worked at the Cornell University’s Experiment Station in Geneva, at the top of Seneca Lake, before finding an ally in Charles Fournier. Charles ran Gold Seal Vineyards making sparkling wine from French-American hybrid grapes – which are crossings of vitis vinfera and American grape varieties. However, he was anxious to find a way of growing vitis vinfera as he knew that would improve the quality of his wines. Dr Frank worked here throughout the 1950s and the breakthrough came when he imported Native American Rootstock from Quebec, which proved both phylloxera resistant and capable of surviving the harsh Finger Lake winters. Dr Frank set up the first modern winery in the region, Dr Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Cellars, in 1962.

Dr Frank’s vineyards – photo courtesy of Dr Frank.

The Finger Lakes AVA

Cayuga Lake Aerial View – photo courtesy of New York Wines.

Today the Finger Lakes is a fully fledged AVA or American Viticultural Area, which is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States. The AVA rules guarantee where the grapes are grown, they do not stipulate or restrict grape variety, yield or wine making techniques and so are more akin to PGI (Vin de Pays) regulations than European PDOs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlé).

As you might imagine from their name, the Finger Lakes are long and narrow. Cayuga is the biggest at 40 miles long and just 3.5 miles wide. Seneca is 38 miles long and 3 miles wide, Canandaigua 16 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.

Traditionally grape growing and wine making in the Finger Lakes is centred around the four main lakes of Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga. The last two lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, are especially deep which creates different climatic conditions, allowing for a longer growing season, so these lakes have their own AVAs.

Keuka Lake Aerial View – photo courtesy of New York Wines.

There are actually eleven lakes in total, some very small, and all of them, except Hemlock, have Native American names. 

Canandaigua means ‘The Chosen Spot’, Keuka ‘Canoe Landing’, Seneca ‘Place of the Stone’ and Cayuga ‘Boat Landing’.

In effect it is the presence of the lakes that makes viticulture possible here. The region actually sits just above 42˚ latitude, the same as Rias Baixas in Galicia, but upstate New York enjoys a climate of extremes with hot summers and very cold snowy winters – so much so that nearby Lake Placid has twice hosted the Winter Olympics.

However the lakes temper the extreme continental climate and keep it mild compared to the surrounding conditions. The Lakes are deep, Seneca just shy of 200 metres, Cayuga over 130 metres, Canandaigua 80 metres and Keuka just under 60 metres. These deep bodies of water keep the air that little bit warmer during the winter, so preventing frost, and cooler during the summer, so lengthening the ripening season. The lakes also give better sun exposure, as the vineyards are mainly south facing and slope down towards the lakes.

The Cauyga Effect

I visited Sheldrake Point Vineyard early on in my trip to the region and it taught me a great deal about the Finger Lakes. 

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Sheldrake Point is a relatively new winery, founded in 1997 by Chuck Tauck. Like the region’s pioneers, Dr Frank and Hermann Wiemer, he chose a sheltered site on the western shore of one of the Finger Lakes – Cayuga Lake in this instance.

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 Point comprises a single block of vines that slopes down to the lake and they have only ever wanted to grow vinifera grapes and they stick to that – that is one reason they chose this site.

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Time and time again in the Finger Lakes region I was told that if vitis vinfera 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 176 metres above sea level with the bottom at 140 metres above sea level, which is 6 metres 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 a degree or so higher temperatures than inland. It’s not much but in a marginal climate like this it can make a big difference to ripeness, complexity and the grape varieties that you can grow. 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 and Cabernet Sauvignon. They call all this the Cauyga Effect, but there is a similar lake effect for every vineyard in the region.

Jetty on Cayuga Lake at Sheldrake Point Vineyards – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Making wine in a region like this is not easy. It is a marginal climate with vintage variation and sometimes very unkind weather, so estates often grow a wide range of grape varieties just to ensure that they actually get a crop despite the weather. Before the vitis vinfera revolution vitis labrusca and hybrids were grown successfully. If you ever travel around the Finger Lakes, do try the local red wines made from Concord grapes and some of the intriguing blends such as Lakewood Vineyard’s Long Stem Red which is made from 40% De Chaunac, 25% Vincent 13% Frontenac, 12% Leon Millot and 10% Baco Noir!

It is undeniable that vitis vinfera varieties seem to the best and most complex results in the Finger Lakes, especially Riesling for the whites.  Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris can all do well here too though, as can Rkatsiteli, which is originally from Georgia (Joseph Stalin Georgia, not Jimmy Carter Georgia). Chardonnay can produce good results on particular sites as well.

As for black grapes, Pinot Noir is the great success story here, but you also find lovely examples of Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Blaufrankisch – often called Lemberger around here – as well as some Cabernet, Merlot and blends of them in especially favoured sites. Georgia’s Saperavi also seems to be doing some good things. 

Recommended wineries:

Dr Konstantin Frank, Keuka Lake

Fred Frank Demonstrating the Traditional Method – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The original Finger Lakes estate that focussed solely on vitis vinifera and very much the big producer here. That being said they are still family owned and being run by third generation Fred Frank and his daughter Meaghan. Because they have been growing vinifera grapes here longer than anyone else, with some parcels dating back to 1958, they have some of the oldest vines in the Eastern United States.

They also lead the way in hand riddled and very fine traditional method sparkling wines, which are not exported. Their Old Vine Pinot Noir is not exported to the UK either, which is a shame as it is excellent and one of the best value American Pinots there is.

Try: Dr Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling, a very fresh style with lime acidity, green apple crispness and a softness from five months lees ageing – a great introduction to the region and what they do.

Also try: Dr Konstantin Frank Cabernet Franc, a light red for sure but with lovely violet notes, juicy plums and crunchy red fruit as well as a little savoury earthiness and spice from gentle ageing in French oak.

Dr Konstantin Frank’s wines are distributed in the UK by Matthew Clark.

Hermann J Wiemer, Seneca Lake

Hermann J Wiemer Vineyards and Winery in Winter – photo courtesy of Hermann J Wiemer.

Hermann Wiemer was from Germany’s Mosel region. 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 work at 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.

Wiemer was drawn to Seneca lake and in 1973 he purchased 140 acres on the lake’s west shore. Unusually for the region in the 1970s Hermann decided only to grow vinifera grapes. He planted many different grape varieties but Riesling was and remains the focus of the winery.

Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The estate is now owned and run by winemaker Fred Merwarth and agronomist Oskar Bynke, both of whom trained and worked with Hermann before he retired. They farm sustainably and are moving towards biodynamic status. The wines all have a lovely texture because of spontaneous fermentations and long lees ageing.

I find it strange that these wines are not available in the UK as when I went to the region and every time I attend a Finger Lakes tasting, Wiemer really shines out – come on someone bring these wines in, please.

Try: Hermann J Wiemer HJW Vineyard Riesling, a selection from the oldest blocks that Wiemer planted in the mid 1970s. It is a very complex and delicious style that shows a purity and minerality on the finish.

Also try: Hermann J Wiemer Riesling, as great as the HJW Riesling is, this wine is their calling card and is much cheaper, but still very fine.

They recently also bought Standing Stone Vineyards, which was originally planted by Charles Fournier in the 1970s. Standing Stone makes a gorgeously suave and juicy Saperavi.

Hermann J Wiemer’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Forge Cellars, Seneca Lake 

Forge Cellars, Seneca Lake – photo courtesy of Forge Cellars.

A new artisan cellar created by three friends  – Frenchman Louis Barruol (whose family have owned Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas for generations), Rick Rainey and Justin Boyette – who all love terroir wines, share a passion for the Finger Lakes and believe it to be a world class wine region.   

They farm their vineyards sustainably and practice biodiversity, with plants, fruit trees and farm animals around the vines. They also help other grape growers, whose grapes they use, to manage their vineyards to achieve the very best results that they can – such professional help is very useful and beneficial to the region as a whole, given that many local grape growers are not as experienced.

As is normal in the Finger Lakes, the aim here is purity, to express the terroir of the place rather than a winemaking footprint.

Vineyards on Seneca Lake – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Forge Cellar Classique Riesling, an extraordinary wine, bright and pure with pithy lime and dense, stony minerality. The silky texture is backed up by a kiss of oak.

Also try: Forge Cellar Classique Pinot Noir, one of my favourite Finger Lakes Pinots, it is scented and has palate has vivid red fruit and delicate, smoky, savoury, herbal flavours and a suave, refined texture.

Forge Cellars’s wines are distributed in the UK by Bibendum.

Nathan K, Seneca Lake 

Nathan Kendall – photo courtesy of Nathan K.

I was fortunate enough to bump into Nathan Kendall at an event, just before lockdown. He was charming and fascinating. He comes from upstate New York and always wanted to make wine in Seneca Lake, but he chose to travel the world and make wine in other regions first, including Sonoma, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia and, perhaps most tellingly, the Mosel. All these places specialise in cool climate varieties, because the plan was always to go back to Seneca. He eventually returned home and now focuses just on Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as some sparkling wine.

Like the other wineries here he is excited by low interventionist winemaking, minerality and texture as well as the purity that a cool climate can produce in these grapes. Long spontaneous fermentations, used French oak and long lees ageing helps to give complexity and mouthfeel, even to his Rieslings.

Seneca Lake panorama – photo courtesy of Red Newt.

Try: Nathan K Dry Riesling, a pure, vivd, lime-drenched and mandarin-scented wine that leaps out of the glass at you.

Also try: Nathan K Pinot Noir, a pale Pinot with plenty of flavour. Fruit forward with enticing raspberry and cherry notes and savoury complexity from oak ageing.

Nathan K wines are distributed in the UK by Top Selection.

Red Newt Cellars, Seneca Lake

By Finger Lake standards Red Newt was a pioneer as it was set up in 1998 as the brainchild and passion of David and Debra Whiting. The region is in their blood with David having been the winemaker at Chateau Lafayette Reneau (who make superb Riesling), Swedish Hill Vineyards (who make the best Concord I have ever tasted, and Standing Stone Vineyards, now owned by Wiemer. 

Glacier Ridge Vineyard, Seneca Lake – photo courtesy of Red Newt.

David’s wife, Debra, was a fine chef and opened the Red Newt Bistro at the winery in 1999. I was fortunate enough to meet her and to eat a memorable meal with her not that long before her untimely death. Her influence in this region that has very few restaurants cannot be denied. More wineries now have restaurants and that is in no small way because of her.

David has now taken over the restaurant and passed on the winemaking to Kelby Russell who is utterly charming, knows the region inside out and is another winemaker who has worked around the world in cool climate regions.

Red Newt panorama – photo courtesy of Red Newt.

Try: Red Newt Cellars The Knoll Lahoma Vineyards Riesling, complex and generous Riesling, with a smoky, leesy quality and an explosion of lime and grapefruit. 

Also try: Red Newt Cellars Glacier Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, Fermented with wild yeast and given 10 months ageing in older barriques, then bottled without fining or filtering. A glorious Pinot with bright cherry, savoury earth and refined tannins.

Red Newts’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake 

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Sheldrake Point is not a large estate, currently they have around 60 acres of vines – 25 hectares – although they own another 30 that can be brought into production. From this they make some 8,500 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.

Try: Sheldrake Point Gamay, a delicious take on the Beaujolais grape. French oak gives texture and spice, while the fresh, bright red fruit is immediately appealing.

Also try: Sheldrake Point Gewürztraminer, a nicely balanced, aromatic example with plenty of spice and a hint of sweetness, but there is some nice fresh acidity too.

Sheldrake Point’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Ravine’s Wine Cellars, Keuka Lake 

Morten and Lisa Hallgren of Ravines Vineyards – photo courtesy of Skurnik Wines.

Ravine’s Wine Cellars is the creation of Morten and Lisa Hallgren. Morton is originally from Copenhagen where he lived right by the Carlsberg Brewery, but at the age of 14 his family moved to the Vars region of France where his parents owned and operated Domaine de Castel Roubine. He trained in winemaking at Montpellier University, worked at Cos d’Estournel with Bruno Pratts and eventually ended up in the Finger Lakes where he worked as the wine maker at Dr Frank’s.

Morton sustainably farms 130 acres of his own vineyards on Seneca and Keuka lakes. In addition he buys fruit from vineyards that he deems to be especially good. When I visited Morton’s wines really stood out and other commentators have confirmed to me that they still are among the very best wines in the Finger Lakes region.

Try: Ravine’s Argetsinger Dry Riesling, made from a single parcel on Keuka Lake, it has purity and energy and remains amongst the best Rieslings that I have ever tasted.

Also try: Ravine’s Maximilien (Bordeaux Blend), for me this is the best Cabernet-Merlot blend – or indeed any red made from grapes other than Pinot Noir – from the Finger Lakes that I have tasted.

Ravine’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Wines Worth Discovering

The Finger Lakes has a marginal climate and therefore never produces big blockbuster wines. They tend to be fresher, lighter and lower in alcohol. However the winemakers really understand their land and what it can do. So by concentrating on delicate varieties like Riesling and Pinot Noir, other than in certain special sites, they are producing some really exciting wines that show a very different side to American viticulture. There are plenty of really delicious and interesting wines made here that can offer us something different, exciting and a little challenging.

The region is also well worth a visit as it is very beautiful. More information is available at these websites:

https://www.fingerlakestravelny.com

https://www.visitfingerlakes.com

https://www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com

https://www.fingerlakes.com

https://www.iloveny.com/places-to-go/finger-lakes/

https://www.fingerlakes.org