May is officially Riesling Month in New York state. What’s this all about?
Riesling has been grown in the Finger Lakes since the early 1970′s. Some of the first vineyards were planted by Gold Seal Vineyards on a site just five miles north of Red Newt. It took a couple of decades for Riesling really to catch on. There certainly were nice, to excellent, Rieslings being produced through the 80′s and 90′s; largely in semi-dry, straightforward styles. But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that most Finger Lakes winemakers started examining the full breadth of quality and style that Riesling has to offer. As we examine these styles, the full potential of Finger Lakes Riesling is coming to the surface.
The expression of place with Riesling is strong. I realized early on, starting at McGregor Vineyards in the late 80′s and later, during the early 90′s, on Seneca Lake working with fruit from Chateau Lafayette Reneau and (then) Rolling Vineyards (Atwater Vineyards now) that there was a dramatic difference in the fruit from vineyards planted as closely as a few yards apart. At that time, most of these vineyards were 5-10 years old. Now, of course, they are more than 20 years old, and showing great maturity and depth. (The changes in fruit and wine expression with vineyard age is a topic for another discussion.) Over the years, I have had my favorite vineyards, and still do, that displayed the combination of fruit intensity, complexity, and finesse that I consider to be the quintessential Finger Lakes Riesling.
So why celebrate Riesling? The Finger Lakes industry has had its ups and downs. When I became involved as a winemaker in the late 80′s the region was definitely poised for an upswing. There were some nice wines being made, and alot of energy in the thoughts and actions of the pioneers of the day. Sparkling wine looked to be a major focus for the area. We did, with great attention and focus, find that great sparkling wines could be made in the Finger Lakes, but the economic success in that market segment did not generally come to fruition.
Reds were barely on the scene, with a few Pinot Noirs and some red hybrids. (This was pre-Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes.) And the rest of the wine production was made up of Chardonnay, Riesling, Cayuga, Seyval, Vidal, Niagara, Delaware and Catawba…something for everyone. Riesling was one of many and had not yet gained the attention that it deserved. Then something started changing. I remember well making a conscious goal in about 1992 to “figure out” how to make Riesling that was not just good, but truly excellent. I then, over the next 15 years, worked diligently to explore the parameters of vineyard selection, fruit maturity, harvest management, fruit handling, press management, juice fractions, yeast selection, solids management, fermentation temperature, lees contact, stirring, phenolic management, sulfur management and ageing strategies. And I was not alone: all of the winemakers in the Finger Lakes were on board with this effort, and these kinds of details were common topics of conversation among us.
Now, Riesling really has taken the limelight of the Finger Lakes wine industry. Exploration has led to innovation and quality. And passion has let to achievement. We are still making a wide variety of other wines, but Riesling truly forms the framework that will carry the region forward.
As a native of the Finger Lakes, and as a winemaker who’s career has spanned three of what must be the most exciting decades of the modern Finger Lakes wine industry, I see the evolution of Riesling as the most exciting developments of my career. It’s reason for celebration. And May is Riesling month in the Finger Lakes. So let’s celebrate!