Although New York Wines plays on the image of the Statue of Liberty and other New York City iconography, the most serious winemaking in New York State is not happening in Manhattan but in Finger Lakes, two hours drive from Niagara Falls. Home to some of America’s oldest vines and some seriously good aromatic whites, Finger Lakes also has a history of Hybrids, which is a completely different story.
The Riesling from Finger Lakes was the star of the show at the New York Wines London tasting – with many interesting wines to be had at decent enough prices.
Talk about a game of two halves. The New York Wines tasting was, first off, a complete revelation – who knew? Second, it was split into a tasting of Riesling and Hybrids – and the style of the wines couldn’t have been more different.
The Rieslings were generally excellent… well-made cool climate, expressive, taut, mineral, contemporary. The Hybrids were (how I can put this as politely as possible?) well, when the man presenting the masterclass looks askance at the wines and calls them “not bad” you know you’re not in for much of a treat.
Some of these Hybrids are called ‘dry’ and have 25-55 grams of residual sugar in them, with cane sugar being added back into the wines to cater for the sweet tooth of one corner of the American market. One wine tasted exactly like a melted Welch’s grape juice ice lolly – not in a good way.
We are told that the Hybrids “are a thing of the past” (despite still making up 40% of output here) – wines from cross-bred varietals that were engineered to beat the difficult climate – while Riesling is very sensibly the hook New York Wines is hanging its hat on for the future. And they really do deserve attention.
How Finger Lakes fits into the picture
First, a bit of perspective. New York State is home to America’s oldest winery in Brotherhood and America’s oldest vines, with the first records showing vines planted by Dutch settlers in the 17th Century – the region being referred to as the “land of nuts and vines”. There are six main wine-growing areas in New York with the most important being Finger Lakes, that sounds like something out of a David Lynch film but which is actually a set of long, thin lakes that look on a satellite picture like claw-marks just south of Lake Ontario.
This is sort of what they are – northward-flowing rivers that were carved deeper by the advancing glaciers in the Ice Age – the ice tearing into the landscape like a set of talons.
The soil of Finger Lakes is mainly composed of black shale, which means that the valleys and lakes make a great region for growing grapes – keeping temperatures cool in summer and warm in winter, with the added benefit of glacial deposits meaning that the area is a patchwork of terroir, great for a variety of different vines.
The soil is different to that in the Niagara region and is best suited for Chardonnay and Riesling although the big trend now is towards growing Cabernet Franc with demand far outstripping supply. Until the 1950s Finger Lakes was dominated by Native American varieties and Hybrids and it wasn’t until the arrival of Ukranian born Dr Konstantin Frank, who started experimenting with European vinifera, that the quality of wines started improving.
That, combined with the Farm Winery Act of 1976 (which made it easier to set up wineries) has seen 240 wineries established in Finger Lakes, although the climate is so severe that vines have to be planted within 1-1.5 kilometres of the shore for them to survive the winter. “Winemaking on a knife’s edge” is how Kelby Russell, winemaker for Red Newt Cellars put it.
Most of these wineries are small with 200,000 bottles per annum being the maximum output of a large Finger Lakes winery.
So, what about these Rieslings?
The tasting showed a lot of different wines and a lot of varieties but the clear favourites from all assembled were the Rieslings.
Two producers in particular stood out – Red Newt Cellars and Fox Run Vineyards.
From Red Newt we tried the Tango Oaks Riesling 2013, Dry Riesling 2015 and Lahoma The Knoll 2015.
From gravel soils on South East of Seneca Lake this is a current release, winemaker Kelby Russell sitting on the wines until he feels they are ready to release. This has already had two months on the lees as well as eight months post racking. The nose was subtle and quite closed down with surprisingly little evolution apparent. On the palate the wine was full, with a mineral/ pineapple chunks thing going on, a bit of heat on the tail and bone dry. (£17.29 DPD)
Red Newt Dry Riesling 2015
From sandstone and quartz soil on the South West of Seneca Lake, where the vines get more of the morning sun, this wine has a year on the lees which is immediately apparent from the ripe phenolics and rich style. On the nose there is a bit of vegetation, a lick of smoke; on the palate there is pineapple, candied fruit. This is a densely packed wine, opulent but not OTT and a nice dryness throughout. A real bargain at the price. (£12.69 DPD)
Red Newt’s top Riesling is wonderfully complex, with orchard fruit (yellow plums), citrus pith, green apple. It feels like a ‘large wine’ but has low residual sugar and a mouth-watering dryness. Although currently not available this is one to keep tabs on and snap up when it does.
From Fox Run we tried the Dry Riesling 2015 and Lot 11 Lake Dana Vineyard 2014.
Winemaker Peter Bell is one of the people pushing for recognition in Finger Lakes. Bell has been working on much more sleek, steely expressions of Riesling which is closest to an authentic Finger Lakes style. He picks early and has a three week fermentation to preserve the acidity. Fermentation was arrested allowing 8 g/l residual sugar. On the nose this was inviting – toffee apple, ripe fruit, a sour citrus note; on the palate the fruit was pure and focused with a twist of cinnamon bark. One of the highlights of the tasting (£11.96 DPD)
From high elevation sandy loam soils this is a delicious Spätlase style with 55 g/l residual sugar. Lovely and rich with a complexity on the nose through to the palate where ripe Asian bananas were the overriding flavour. (£18.72)
There was also a collaborative wine called Tierce Riesling 2014, made from the best fruit from Fox Run, Red Newt and Anthony Road. This wine, made since 2004, is an attempt to make the best dry Riesling possible from Finger Lakes. The wines are vinified separately before blending. The wine was elegant, had a great balance of fruit, was crisp, focused, had massive length and was utterly delicious. (£18.72)
So, in conclusion…
There is a real story with New York Wines, its links to the past and the challenge of growing grapes in such a challenging environment. In the right sommelier’s hands I can see these working well in premium on-trade. Take a chance with the Red Newt Dry Riesling 2015 and Fox Run Dry Riesling 2015 that are both very good value. The Tierce is excellent but might be too steep for some.
As for the rest of the wines on show…
Despite New York allegedly being perfect for making sparkling wine there was little evidence of that at this tasting. Some of the Hybrids were disjointed in a Frankenstein way, and the sweetness of some of the ‘dry style’ reds was out of step with contemporary UK palates.
“Have you ever tried any wine quite like this?” said one buyer to me as we both tasted the Welch’s grape juice fruit bomb. Nope and I never will again, hopefully. Best stick to the Finger Lakes Riesling that were, on the whole, finger licking good.
The New York Wines are distributed in the UK by Inverarity Morton.