Finger Lakes Wine Report Part 4
Further Notes From Our Summer Vacation….
The town of Penn Yann provides a good geographical base for a tour of the Finger Lakes but not much by way of mod cons. Its best attempt at a proper restaurant is Sarrasin’s, located at the edge of the town; old-fashioned in style and service, we checked it out on our second night in Penn Yann primarily for its view of Keuka Lake. As it turned out there was a decent if overly cheesy “pasta purses” vegetarian dish on the menu and a reasonable selection of fine wines, too. A glass of Ravines Dry Riesling 2005 had pleasant citrus aromas and a flinty finish; the Ravines Chardonnay 2005 was golden in color and had the buttery apple aromas that scream of oak aging; a little overdone for me, but well enough made. Reasonably impressed by these whites, and by word that winemaker Morten Hallgren was trained in Europe, I later picked up a bottle of the Ravines 2005 Cabernet Franc, one of the few red wines yet on sale from this supposedly excellent vintage. I’ll confess that upon opening it that I was underwhelmed; rather than throwing ripe fruit at me as an indication of a spectacular vintage, it acted all civilized and restrained. Then again, restrain is a hallmark of the Cabernet Franc grape, so perhaps I should not be affronted. Another time, then, I will stop in at Ravines; and if you should find yourself touring Keuka Lake, you too may be pleasantly surprised by Sarrasin’s.
Our second morning found us now comfortably settled in at the Best Western, its views of fast food restaurants notwithstanding. Posie went off on a run while I entertained Noel in the buffet breakfast area and attended to e-mail via the free broadband; when she returned, I jumped on my bicycle and rode two miles down the eastern edge of Keuka Lake, past Sarrasin’s, to the Keuka Spring Winery. As I pedaled laboriously up its steep, steep driveway, past rows of vines and on to the Winery’s impressive new tasting room with its even more impressive view, it hit me with a thud of stupidity that I had left my wallet at home; I had a single dollar bill on me. The thought of cycling home and back again was less appealing than trying to bluff a free taste, so I went on in to try my luck.
Fortunately, Keuka Spring is one of those rare American wineries that doesn’t charge for tastings, which immediately predisposed me towards what proved to be excellent wines. The Keuka Spring Seyval Blanc 2005 was suitably sharp and crisp, a lively example of this most picnic-friendly of white hybrid grapes, and a relative bargain at $9. The Keuka Spring Crooked Lake White is a blend of Vidal Blanc and Vignoles, two other white hybrid grapes I’m prepared to view favorably through my noble-tinted glasses, and should, by rights, have been a treat. But while it was zesty, it was a little sharp to the touch and, I noted, “not classy.” Compensation came with a semi-sweet Keuka Spring Vignoles 2004, which offered up a lovely luscious nose of peaches and apricot, the hefty 4.8% RS content only pronouncing itself on the end of the palate. Though I’m not the type to typically drink something so sugary with anything but dessert, I couldn’t help putting the $10 bottle on my “must-buy” list.
Staying with the same grape, I parted with my lone dollar bill for the winery’s only exclusive taste: the Keuka Spring 2005 Late Harvest Vignoles. With an aroma like the inside of a cake shop, it was deliciously sweet, those peaches and apricots dancing all over the tongue, but very very smooth on the palate, not at all cloying like many such “stickies.” A perfect balance of high RS (12%) and low alcohol (10%) it was truly impressive and I later ended up buying a bottle of this wine too.
Moving on to the vinifera wines, I thought that the Keuka Spring Riesling 2005 – off-dry with 0.9% Residual Sugar – had a somewhat muted nose; while I appreciated its subtle profile, there are finer examples to be found in the regional. On the other hand, the Keuka Spring Gewürztraminer 2004 was better than most Finger Lakes examples of this Alsace grape: it had the lychee nose and somewhat spicy, oily palate as typifies the grape, but it was soft and balanced, with some jasmine and orange flavors peering over the edge, politely pleading to be taken seriously. Priced sensibly (like all Keuka Spring’s wines) at just $15, I brought a bottle home, and upon opening, subsequently added to the above notes the observation that it had “very very bright tropical fruits on front end, well-rounded and bright finish.”
Keuka Spring makes a number of red wines, but I tried only the two made from local grapes. The Keuka Spring Cabernet Franc 2004, from a difficult vintage, was extraordinarily fruity on the nose, but a generic raspberry rather than the grape’s trademark blueberry, and while it was smooth enough on the palate, it was not sufficiently distinctive. I had better luck with the Keuka Spring Lemberger 2005, the first red I’d tasted from this vintage. “A little smoky with sweet notes in a Gamay-like tart palate,” declared the winery’s own tasting notes – echoing the ‘Gamay’ notes I’d made at Fox Run less than 24 hours earlier. This Lemberger was subtler than Fox Run’s, the smokiness and fruit lingering in the shadows. And when I subsequently opened a bottle back in the Catskills, I found it relatively simple: I made notes of its “neutrality” and “balance” rather than its fruit profile or texture. This typifies the problem faced by wine-makers in the Finger Lakes: not just harvesting ripe red grapes in a very cool climate, but making something with them that qualifies as more than merely “good red wine.”
Still, Keuka Spring turned out to be a hidden gem of a winery: a beautiful location, a generous pouring policy, and a fairly-priced selection of well-made wines, almost all of them true to the region’s climate. That’s as much as you can ask for, and enough reasons to recommend a visit.
HERMANN J. WIEMER
I’m one of many to claim that Hermann Wiemer makes the best everyday Riesling in the Finger Lakes, quite possibly the best Riesling outside of Germany. Perversely, it is so good, so popular, and so highly rated world wide, that I worried the winery itself would prove a letdown. It did. For all that the wines were poured alongside the stainless steel tanks that hold some of these fantastic Riesling grapes, the tasting experience was curiously antiseptic. Expensive, too: trading off its famous name, Wiemer demanded we cough up $3 for five small pours.
I decided to focus on the range of Rieslings, starting with the benchmark wine. The Hermann J. Wiemer 2005 Dry Riesling lived up to its usual brilliance, an alluring nose offering orange and lime in with the citrus and apple flavors, a lovely balance and elegance, and that impressively lingering finish. I then moved on to the Hermann J. Wiemer Semi-Dry Riesling 2004 which, with 2.4% RS, the winery claims to be made “in the true Spatlese Rhone style.” I found the nose more muted, but the acidity brighter, all in all a cheekier wine – like a perky sibling to the graceful Dry Riesling. The Hermann J. Wiemer Late Harvest Riesling 2003 dated from a more difficult vintage, with peach and apricot flavors but also lively acidity. “Not too sweet” I wrote, and rightly so: the RS is a relatively modest 4.3% and the alcohol a mere 9.5%, though at $23 a bottle, it’s just starting to push the price bracket.
Notably more expensive, at $29 for a 500ml bottle, is the Hermann J. Wiemer Select Late Harvest Riesling 2003, with a 13%RS content, made from 60% botyrised fruit. I wrote that it was “very very sweet and very very together” which, admittedly, is hardly my most eloquent of observations. That may have been because the pour was too small; because I was talking with someone else taking notes, a visitor from Ontario, where they make sweet white wines to rob for (at $100 a bottle and up); because Noel was being entertaining in the courtyard outside; or because, Goddamnit, I know Wiemer makes great Rieslings, and maybe I should have been tasting something else for my $3 instead.
So I moved on. I skipped the Chardonnay 2002, the Reserve Chardonnay 2003 and the Dry Rosé, passed over the typically Finger Lakes mix-n-match that is the Estate Red 2004 (Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Lemberger) and went for the winery’s two stand-alone red grapes. The Hermann J. Wiemer Cabernet Franc 2004 I found somewhat light and tart, sharp and unpronounced, no way worth its $25 price tag compared to Wiemer’s whites, the Cab Francs from other Finger Lakes wineries or the price of quality Cabernet Francs from the Loire.
Still, it was a work of art and a bargain compared to the Hermann J. Wiemer Pinot Noir 2002. Despite hailing from a good vintage, this wine was light in color, anonymously fruity on the nose and positively nasty on the palate. It should, perhaps, be expected that the producer of the Finger Lakes’ best white wine – or at least, its best Riesling – would under perform with its reds, but I had not expected them to be quite so poor. A strange experience.
Heading down Route 14 from Wiemer, on the west side of Seneca Lake, we were suddenly beckoned by a brand new, standalone roadside tasting room for Heron Hill Winery. Though I hadn’t planned this stop, the spacious environment, knowledgeable young female pourer and free samples was enough to delay us. (I should stress that Posie was driving.)
I enjoyed the Heron Hill Chardonnay 2005 for its good clean, unpretentious flavors and very light touch of oak. I found the Heron Hill Eclipse White 2004, a blend of 64% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Blanc and 16% Pinot Gris that had seen 90 days in oak, and then further upbringing in stainless steel, to be similarly clean, with green apple flavors shining through on the palate beyond an initially muted nose. The Heron Hill Late Harvest Vidal 2005 is made in what was referred to as a “Hungarian style,” i.e. lighter and not as sugary as most. True, its 10% RS was a touch lower than the otherwise comparable Keuka Spring Late Harvest Vignoles 2005, and truer still, it was gorgeous, with a very delicate, fine finish complementing its spicy mango flavors.
Of the reds, the Heron Hill Pinot Noir 2002 had seen 18 months in Hungarian oak. It emitted aromas of dark cherries (as it should) and a little spice (ditto); it was quite light in body, but with good structure to it. I likened it to a simple Burgundy. And at $15, I would maybe have bought a bottle had Heron Hill been selling the wines it was pouring for free. (Apparently, the owners thought the winery’s liquor license would also cover the new tasting room; it didn’t, and until they acquire a new license, they can’t sell wine on the premises.) The Heron Hill Cabernet Franc 2002 had been through a solid 24 months in oak, and it showed. Though there were good berry flavors hiding in the wine, they were mostly overshadowed by cedar. Finally, the Heron Hill Eclipse Red 2003, a Bordeaux-style blend on Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc offered up more palatable cedary aromas, and while I can imagine a casual wine drinker being instantly impressed by its apparent heft, I can’t help noting how almost every East Coast Bordeaux blend tastes the same – encased in wood and lacking any sense of terroir.
The grounds to Miles Wine Cellars, another mile or so down Route 14, are more impressive than most, a large manor house complete with Grecian pillars parked right on Seneca Lake, surrounded by tasteful gardens and a beautiful willow tree. But the upscale location doesn’t justify the graces and airs of a Bordeaux chateau. Our wine pourer was an overly pretty young lady dressed as if to attend a perfume counter at Bloomingdales, and she had not only been instructed to charge $2 for tastings, but to offer such miniscule measures that the winery would profit from every pour.
From what I could tell from the few drops of wine in my glass, The Miles 04 Cayuga White was well enough priced at $8 for a picnic style hybrid, but it had, I wrote, “not much to say.” The Miles ’03 Chardonnay was a textbook Chardonnay with butter and apple refuting the claim of “low oak.” The two reds were the same type as those just sampled at Heron Hill. A Miles ’02 Pinot Noir had a very distinct cherry note but more of an oaky finish than the spice flavors I might have anticipated. Given that it was barrel fermented in French oak, this might not be surprising, but seeing as it was priced at $25 I was not going to buy a bottle to dig deeper. The Miles ’02 Cabernet Franc was a more solid wine, with plummy fruit and the tobacco texture that had been missing from other Cab Francs I’d been tasting. Had it been priced five bucks lower than its $22 tag, I might even recommend it.
For the so-called fun of it, I tasted the winery’s semi-sweet red blend, Miles Call Me A Cab (80% Cab Franc, 20% Pinot Noir), the kind of wine popular with tourists who like chilling their reds (i.e., not me). And I tried the semi-sweet white Miles Willow wine made from the rightly maligned Delaware hybrid grape. The wine smelled of American grape jellies and I likened it to “sucking on jam.”
I don’t like dissing a small winery, but I don’t mind putting the hex on Miles. The place smelled of bourgeois aspirations and screamed of greed; in a part of the country where most people are poor and even the bigger wineries at least feign humility, I found Miles sadly out of place. When it wins real acclaim for its wines, then it can act all mighty; until then, it should jump off its high horse.
This had not been intended as a wine-tasting trip, more just a brief late summer vacation. So we ended out the afternoon by Keuka Lake itself, where Noel spent an hour playing in the shallow fringes of the lake and the sun lingered long in a pleasant late summer sky. In the spirit of a summer holiday that now seems so distant, I cracked open our bottle of Fox Run (Semi-Dry) Riesling 2005 and looked at the lake through the hue of local grape juice. People wonder why wine always tastes better on holiday but there is, indeed, a reason: when you’re not rushed by a schedule and you aren’t pressured by the thought of tomorrow’s work, you are so much more inclined to enjoy the glass in hand. The Fox Run Riesling tasted just delightful in this environment; while the Finger Lakes may not be producing many world class wines, it’s got no shortage of fine drinks to bring on a picnic, and in the right climate – as on this sunny late summer trip – the region offers its share of good memories. Best yet, we still had another day ahead of us.