Friday, March 23, 2012

Finger Lakes Reds Gaining Deserved Recognition

No doubt about it. Finger Lakes red wines don’t get the recognition they deserve – and we may be part of the problem.

We simply love the stylish Rieslings from dozens of producers in the Finger Lakes and the Gewürztraminers are among the finest produced this side of Germany. Something about the cool climate, the sloping vineyards near the lakes and the shallow soil rife with slate results in heavenly whites. We tend to zero in on the whites and zip past the reds.

But the creative and skilled Finger Lakes winemakers are aiming to turn heads with a crop of distinctive red wines that let winemakers show the region is not just a one-trick pony.

The TWAV tasting team gathered earlier this week for a virtual tasting to sample eight new red releases to check the pulse on the Finger Lakes “other” wines.

The tasting, sponsored by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, opened up with a pair of Lemberger wines. Lemberger is known as the “Pinot Noir of the East” because of its reputation in Eastern Europe. The 2009 Lakewood Vineyards Lemberger is smooth and light with raspberry flavor notes and prominent roasted finish.

It isn’t often you get to do a side-by-side Lemberger tasting, but we had that chance when the 2009 Fox Run Vineyards Lemberger was poured. The Fox Run had a blackberry flavor with some black pepper and a smoky finish. The Fox Run also has 4% Merlot and 2% Pinot Noir. This mixture was to my liking but the group was split about 50-50 on which Lemberger they preferred. The oak aging seemed to have a very different outcome in each of the wines.

Anthony Road Wine Company’s 2010 Cabernet Franc/Lemberger signature blend was up next. This is a grape pairing that really worked for us. In sum, the wine is a much greater creation than either wine alone. The grapes come from the Martini Family vineyard block. By itself Lemberger can be a lightweight – the Cab Franc adds some heft and the Lemberger smoothes out the rough edges. This wine was the highlight of the tasting thus far.

The next wine was the 2010 Wisdom Cabernet Franc Reserve from Inspire Moore Winery. My initial reaction upon sipping was “Who are these guys?” The wine is impressive but the Inspire Moore Winery has never even been on my radar despite several visits to the Finger Lakes. It definitely will be from now on!

Wisdom is 80% Cab Franc from three different Seneca Lake
vineyards and 20% Merlot. The wine is barrel fermented in local oak and aged 15 months in Hungarian oak. Cranberry and pepper flowed smoothly with this wine. It is structured with a dusting of vanilla and spice. The winery opened in 2007 and produces a few thousand cases each year. This wine was a clear favorite with the tasting team!

We caught our breath and then prepared for the second flight. Opening was Damiani Wine Cellars 2010 Pinto Noir. Damiani is on our list to visit due to its reputation for outstanding vino. This offering is a single vineyard wine from the Sunrise Hill Vineyard on the west side of Cayuga Lake.

This is a very light Pinot and some of the tasters felt it was a bit lackluster. Tasting through eight wines in an hour leaves very little time to savor the wine and let it open up. I found nice ripe cherry and delicate earth flavors as I swirled mine in the glass.

There is no way to sugarcoat this. The 2010 Estate Barbera from Stoney Lonesome (part of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates), did not fly well with the team. Sax Man took an early “dump” and said he was done. This was before the wine had reached my lips. The primary taste for me was of Sweet Tarts. Ace of Bass commented that this would be a good choice for someone just developing their palate.

Billsboro Winery is another spot that has beckoned me but I’ve not yet visited. I was anxious to try their 2010 Syrah. There just aren’t many made in the Finger Lakes. Although a pleasing wine with dark berry flavors and a smooth body, it lacked the boldness and complexity of a Syrah from Washington State. Billsboro gets props for working with one of our favorite grapes – but their best Syrah is still ahead of them.

Steve Shaw is an eclectic winemaker with a style inspired by the Old World. His Pinot Noirs are among the best in the Finger Lakes. While the rest of the wines we sampled were from 2009 and 2010, we sampled a 2006 Shaw Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine sports raspberry and cherry flavors with a medium body and a short finish. The wine, while pleasant, doesn’t exude the same polish and power as a Napa Cab.

The bottom line on Finger Lakes reds? For us, Cabernet Franc remains king. Lemberger is a versatile grape that can blend well or make interesting wines on its own. The region is not ready to wrest the crown from Napa, Oregon or Washington State with some of the “noble” red varieties such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

We have fallen in love with various reds during past visits to the Finger Lakes, so you certainly can’t pass judgment based on only one tasting. One thing is for sure, the Finger Lakes produce some of the best wines in the world. It has the terroir and the talent to produce amazing wines. We look forward to exploring and enjoying their reds in the future.

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Anonymous said...

Part of the "problem", as you describe it, is that too many consumers neither recognize nor do they understand the difference between New World and Old World styles of wine. To compare FLX Reds to those from Napa or Washington illustrates my point. FLX reds will never be west coast reds - they are not made to be that type of wine; they are made in a different style. Now take it one step further and compare the climates of the two regions. No comparison. The growing conditions are completely different and the wines are going to be completely different also.

Dave Nershi, CSW said...

Very good insight. That's an unfortunate barrier we sometimes encounter when encouraging friends to try wines from lesser known regions. They don't know what they are missing.

Of course California, Washington and the Finger Lakes all produce New World wines. When a consumer purchases a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, I believe he or she expects it to have the varietal characteristics of that grape and so there is a reasonable basis for comparison.

Vive la difference! We enjoy the style of Finger Lakes wines as part of a wide wine spectrum.