Once famed purely for its high-toned, nervy Riesling, the Finger Lakes region of New York State has been branching out. Although the region is small by international standards, its many micro-climates are facilitating experimentation with Grenache, Syrah and even Rkatsiteli. Justin Keay had an audience with Christopher Bates from Element Winery, Meaghan Frank from Dr Konstantin Frank Winery and Oskar Bynke from Hermann J Wiemer who showed Keay their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürtztraminer respectively.
“Producers are doing a lot here right now, looking at mountain varieties and others, also at vineyard density to see how that can be improved,” Oskar Bynke says.
When I sat down to write this feature, I was determined that not one word of Frank Sinatra’s famous ode to the Big Apple would make it into it, despite the fact that I couldn’t get it out of my head.
But then I thought again. No, not those words about “the city that cannot sleep” because downtown Manhattan is over 260 miles from the Finger Lakes, the focus of this piece. But “if I can make it there I can make it anywhere” and natch, “Start spreading the word” – because, quite frankly, wine drinkers here need to start getting acquainted with some of the wines coming out of New York State.
When you talk about wine from the USA, most people will assume you mean California or maybe Oregon or Washington State. However, New York is the third biggest wine-producing state in the country with well over 400 producers, five officially recognised regions and nine AVAs, of which two lie in the Finger Lakes, now home to almost 130 wineries. Which brings us back to Sinatra, or rather Christopher Bates MS of Element Winery, who admits that growing any grapes in this region, just to the south of Lake Ontario with its bitter cold winters – can be a challenge. If you can grow grapes here, man, you really can grow them anywhere.
“Vinifera struggles when you have regular nights of minus 10°C or more. And bud break here is late, not like in Europe – we are usually talking early May, with a definite end to the season in mid October. On the plus side this short season is efficient, with regular rainfall and bright, pretty predictable weather,” Bates says, resulting in wines that show ripe fruit, lowish alcohol and good natural acidity.
Bates, along with fellow winemakers Meaghan Frank (of Dr Konstantin Frank Winery, one of the Finger Lakes’ first, founded in 1962 by Dr Konstantin Frank, the first person to grow quality vines in the eastern USA) and Oskar Bynke of the Hermann J. Wiemer winery, were spreading the word at a webinar organised by New York Wines, showing a wine each. Typically Finger Lakes producers show Riesling, for which the region has acquired a well deserved reputation, but they were not on the agenda today – the idea being to show New York’s ‘other grapes’.
Bates showed his Element 2015 Pinot Noir (“it really sucks to grow Pinot here, like it sucks to grow it anywhere where it’s good”), Frank her moreish 100% Chardonnay Blancs de Blancs 2016 sparkling wine, and Bynke his feisty Gewürztraminer 2019. But actually they could have shown more.
Bates says the Fingers Lakes region – which is 90 miles across, east to west – is blessed with lots of micro-climates which makes experimentation possible; winegrowers are seeing how varieties like Grenache, Syrah and, in Frank’s case, Rkatsiteli fare in an area once thought best suited to weather-hardy hybrids. There is huge potential here which is only now starting to be realised.
Bynke echoes this. “Producers are doing a lot here right now, looking at mountain varieties and others, also at vineyard density to see how that can be improved.”
So how were the wines?
Given that he name-checked mountain varieties, it seems apposite that Bynke’s dry Gewürztraminer reminded me of the variety when it is grown in Italy’s Alto Adige region, by someone like Alois Lageder or Elena Walch. This had lovely balance and acidity, with just the right amount of residual sugar, roundness but freshness and precision, with just 12.5% – far below a typical Alsace interpretation of the variety. (US RRP $25)
Frank’s 100% Chardonnay Blancs de Blancs 2016 was really quite delicious, made Champagne style but with 8 grams of sugar so much less austere. The wine has some barrel fermentation but mainly sees stainless steel; the richness comes from the four years that the Chardonnay spends on the lees. This has great length, texture and character (RRP $35).
Which brings me to the Element Pinot Noir (RRP $50). Medium weight, it has lots of white pepper and spice on the palate and some surprising greenness too – so much so, that I was prepared to describe this as a Marmite wine until Christopher Bates admitted to whole bunch fermentation and crucially, a brave 100% usage of stems. “OK, this may have been too much” he admitted. Except it wasn’t. Re-tasted the following day, everything seemed to have fallen into place, leaving a wonderfully moreish, balanced, predominantly red fruit Pinot Noir, with a lot of character.
This being my first taste of wines from the Finger Lakes – aside from a very decent Sheldrake Point 2019 Dry Riesling, which gave me an inkling of why the variety has become such a big deal there – I really would have loved to have tasted more widely. Billed as a ‘Deep Dive into the Finger Lakes’, this tasting was frankly more of a shallow paddle. But an enjoyable one, with memorable and individualistic wines from creative producers clearly on a roll.
Damn it, I’ll say it. They made them Their Way, with no regrets to mention.
Not even a few.