Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Heron Hill Hits The Highnotes

As I've noted in my previous few posts, the Finger Lakes Region of New York is filled with simple, unassuming-looking wineries churning out high-quality stuff, such as Hosmer and Dr. Konstantin Frank. But the modern, palatial winery is starting to pop up these days in the region, laying claim to "wedding destination" status in addition to winemaking operation.

Not all are worthy winetasting stops but one clearly is, Heron Hill. Unlike the other mega-wineries, Heron Hill actually has been around for a while, and it shows in the quality of their wines.

John and Josephine Ingle planted their first vines in 1972 and built their new winery on a hill overlooking Keuka Lake. Today, the grapes used in Heron Hill wines come from two main locations in the Finger Lakes region; Ingle Vineyards, situated on the western slopes of Canandaigua Lake, and Heron Hill Vineyards, located on the western slopes of Keuka Lake. Heron Hill Vineyards, located at the winery, contain chardonnay and riesling that are some of the oldest vinifera vines in the Finger Lakes region.

Housing almost 80,000 gallons of stainless steel tanks and 10,000 gallons of oak barrels, the production facility was built into the side of the western hill overlooking Keuka Lake. The design allows Heron Hill to use gravity feeding rather than pumping much of the time.

Tasting at Heron Hill costs a little more than some of the region's other wineries, but you get to taste a lot of wine. And, up and down the lineup are very good wines. Heron Hill makes a very nice chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot noir and cabernet franc. The reds are a little short on the finish, but are nonetheless respectable with interesting aromas and a medium body. There are no fewer than 5 different rieslings, all quite good.

The best value in my book is the Ingle Vineyard Johannisberg Riesling 2004 at $17.99 a bottle. This wine has wonderful aromas of apples, dried apricot, melon and a splash of citrus on the finish. Slightly richer is the Riesling Reserve 2005 at $29.99 a bottle.

Really interesting was the flight of dessert wines. The Late Harvest Riesling 2002 at $35.99 was quite nice, loads of honey with a splash of peach. It lacks a bit of acidity, but is otherwise delicious. Then there was the Ingle Vineyard Riesling Icewine 2004 at $49.99, which shows terrific aromas of flowers and peaches with good balance.

Then there's the big guy, the star of the show, a Riesling Icewine 2003 for $99.99. You read that right -- $99.99. Though not billed as such, it's another single-vineyard icewine, and Heron Hill thinks they've got something special here. They describe it as a "bouquet of flowers and exotic fruits intermingling with mineral undertones."

On the one hand I want say, give me a break. Mineral undertones? I've never in my life tasted mineral undertones in a late harvest or icewine. And, the price is in the stratosphere, blowing past the best Niagara wines and cozying up to the best German icewines. It can't be justified. But, on the other hand, it's a fine, fine icewine. It not only has the bouquet of flowers and exotic fruits, it has a lovely citrusy twist at the end that gives it an awesome finish. Winemaker Thomas Laszlo cut his winemaking teeth in both Niagara and Tokaj, Hungary, some of the best dessert wine regions around, and it shows.

Whether or not you agree $100 is appropriate for a Finger Lakes icewine, think of the fun you can have noodling over this one for a $10 tasting fee for both icewines. (I bought the $50 Ingle Vineyard Icewine, by the way.) You just don't get that kind of opportunity in too many places. Don't let the wedding mill setting fool you, Heron Hill is a terrific place to sample a whole lot of good wine. And the views are lovely from their hilltop perch.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Just What The Doctor Ordered

If you read up on Finger Lakes wineries, you'll quickly learn that the Dr. Konstantin Frank winery has played a huge role in the development of the region's reputation for producing outstanding wines.

It's located a short distance from the shores of Keuka Lake, a little off the beaten path since the largest concentration of wineries line the shores of Seneca Lake and also Cayuga Lake. For us, the location was a blessing since the busloads of graduating college kids from Cornell don't venture this far.

Dr. Frank, who immigrated from Europe in the 1950s and started his winery in 1962, is revered today for leading the way toward the production of quality vinifera wines in the Finger Lakes region and away from the mediocre hybrid varietals so ubiquitous 40 years ago.

The winery today is run by Frederick Frank, grandson of the winery's founder. The gift of the grape obviously has been passed on since the wines produced here continue to win award after award. Our own tasting made it easy to understand why. While we skipped many of the winery's sweeter offerings, we tasted consistent quality across everything we tasted -- the several different rieslings we tried really impressed.

But if there's one wine that I think best exemplifies what Dr. Frank can do it's the Rkatsiteli.

The Best Wine You've Never Heard Of?
Never heard of it? Nor had I until recently, and I worked in a wine shop for several years. Turns out Rkatsiteli is not only the most widely planted white grape of many eastern European countries, it is among the most widely planted in the world. Its cultivation is believed to go back 5,000 years in what is today Georgia.

It is only vinified by a handful of American wineries today, and the first may well have been Dr. Frank. When he first came to the States, Dr. Frank knew vinifera could flourish here if only it was attached to the proper root stock. He turned out to be right, changing the course of wine production throughout the Northeast.

Among the earliest European varietals he began cultivating was Rkatsiteli, a grape with which he was familiar in his native Ukraine. Rkatsiteli is known to have a flavor profile something like riesling, but with the spiciness of gewurztraminer. And, it has developed something of a cult following in the Finger Lakes area, selling out long before the next vintage is available.

When I first tasted the 2006 Rkatsiteli, I had no expectations. As I said, the rieslings were great, but the Rkatsitelli turned out to be my favorite wine of the tasting. I was swept away by aromas of peaches and mango and citrus and flowers with a spicy, long finish. I mean a lip-smacking long finish. It is fairly crisp, though it does retain a bit of residual sugar. And, similar to many rieslings, it has just 11.4 percent alcohol.

The wine is fermented entirely in stainless steel, which helps explain the clean explosion of fruit. While clearly the grape produces a superior wine, Dr. Frank showed a lot of confidence and/or faith to produce this wine so long when Americans were for years clamoring for more and more chardonnay. But Dr. Frank clearly aims for something higher than simple popularity, and they achieved it in this wine.

Hopefully, more wineries will try cultivating and producing this wine. It clearly has great potential. It's up to the rest of us to catch up to this new "old" success story.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Finger Lakes Surprises

Having stopped at a fair number of wineries in New York's Finger Lakes region, I would have to say some of my expectations were right on the money -- the consistency of the rieslings across the board is there and the quality is high. And, it's an absolutely idyllic environment in which to enjoy wines.

But there have been a few surprises along the way.

Pinot Gris Explosion
I was quite surprised to see one of my favorite whites, pinot gris, is relatively common up here. Some of the wineries call theirs pinot grigio, for the lighter style of this wine as produced in Italy, but most seem to use the pinot gris label and tout their wines as Alsatian in style.

The pinot gris I tasted was pretty good overall, but I'd recommend the region be careful about throwing around comparisons to Alsace or even Oregon. The Finger Lakes is producing some nice melony pinot gris, but the richness is not there yet if they want to talk about Alsace. Still, it's another exciting white varietal for the region that could be sensational eventually.

Why Cabernet?
The Finger Lakes does so many varietals so well, but no wine region is perfectly suited to every varietal. So why does nearly every winery in the area produce a cabernet sauvignon when the results are nearly always thin and green? The answer, I'm sure, is that cabernet is universally recognized and likely to appeal to a lot of consumers who buy on impulse.

My advice -- when your tasting fee limits the number of wines you can taste, don't waste a pick on the cabernet. There are so many other good wines to taste.

Sweet Chard
One delightful suprise turned up on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake where the Standing Stone winery is turning out a couple of great ice wines, including one made mostly from chardonnay. I've seen only one other ice wine with a similar pedigree, from Wolffer Estate on Long Island.

It turns out that the winemaker at Standing Stone spent some time at Wolffer, according to the staff. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that this blended ice wine uses 53 percent chardonnay. The results are just great, rich aromas of melon and peaches wrapped in a honeyed package. Standing Stone has carved out a nice reputation for its Vidal icewine, but I think its quest for innovation may mean even greater things are in store for this winery in the future.

Dollar Signs
Also on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake is an interesting little winery call Red Newt. In addition to the usual suspects, the winery produces a number of quality red wines. They readily admit that the weather often does not cooperate in the making of full-bodied reds, but they are very excited about their 2005 reserve wines.

Indeed, the 2005 reserve merlot was very good, and a 2005 reserve syrah was even better. It had incredible complexity, with plenty of black fruit, pepper and earth. But, the problem is, they want roughly $50 for it. The merlot -- close to $40.

It seems like Red Newt got carried away with enthusiasm for these wines. Of course I've bought more expensive wines, but you have to look at the market for the varietal and, quite simply, there are many better syrahs out there in the $30 range. Red Newt simply does not have the cache to command these kinds of prices.

If I sound peeved, I'm just concerned about seeing a little more realism in the picture. The beauty of an area like the Finger Lakes is that you can get some excellent, different wines at reasonable prices. Let's hope it stays that way. In the meantime, I am very encouraged by the chances that some winemakers out in the Finger Lakes seem willing to take.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Trolling the Finger Lakes

We’ve just wrapped up three days in New York’s Finger Lakes and, now after a day of touring Niagara Falls, I’m finally able to blog about some of our wine experiences so far. Getting connected in the farm country of upstate New York turned out not to be easy, but the good news is that the next B&B, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is wired for guests.

What we found in upstate New York are many consistently terrific white wines and even a few, here and there, interesting and well-made red wines. I have one caution, however, for anyone considering touring Finger Lakes wineries – stay away from graduation season.

I had no idea that a Cornell and Ithaca College tradition for graduating seniors includes touring Finger Lakes wineries by bus. Consequently, we often found ourselves arriving on the heels of college kids, by the busload, at tasting bars across the region, taxing the ability of the winery staff to pour and be otherwise helpful. It is not unusual to wait 10 minutes or more between pours. One bedraggled pourer told us that one winery nearby simply closes its doors for the week.

Generally, the kids we met up with in the morning were better behaved and attentive to the tasting experience than those in the afternoon. At one winery, late in the afternoon, we found girls chug-a-lugging wine out of the bottle on the lawn, boys raucously shouting encouragement and a couple, apparently ignorant of the fact that "crush" is not for another four months, rolling across the lawn in a clinch. Call me old fashioned but I prefer a more serene tasting experience with all my senses focused on the properties of the wine at hand.

But we persevered and, overall, had a great time. As I’ve observed out on Long Island, some wineries have been building newer, palatial tasting room facilities that try to evoke the Napa experience. But there are still plenty operating out of modest, friendly buildings that let the wines and the staff do the talking. And, by the way, the lakes, waterfalls and farmland are just breathtaking.

There are so many wineries out here that I developed a game plan that leaned heavily on what some of the so-called experts had to say. I focused on their favorites and then filled in with a few other wineries that caught my eye. In almost every case the research paid off, as the best wines I found came from those recommended by one reviewer or another and not from those I decided to try on a whim.

Hosmer Winery
This was clearly the case with the first winery I’d like to blog about, Hosmer. In general I found the wineries around Cayuga Lake area not quite up to same standard as the wineries along Seneca and Keuka Lakes. But Hosmer, which has netted a number of awards for its lineup of wines, is a notable exception.

I actually got to enjoy about 20 minutes at Hosmer before the first busload of kids arrived, and in that time I tasted a lot of excellent white wines that included a rare but lovely pinot gris, a very credible, enjoyable chardonnay, and two delicious rieslings. Hosmer also offers a number of sweet wines and hybrid varietals, but I stayed away from those. And, unlike many other nearby wineries, the dry wines were very good across the board.

I really spent some time with the dry or off-dry rieslings, since the Finger Lakes is reputed to make some of the country's best. The 2006 Dry Riesling did not disappoint, especially at $12 a bottle. It had lovely apricot aromas with a clean, citrusy finish that makes this just a terrific food wine. This wine has 0.7 percent residual sugar, an almost imperceptible amount that makes the "dry" label appropriate.

In contrast, the 2004 Vintner's Reserve Riesling has 1.8 percent residual sugar -- categorized as semi-dry by the winery. While the sugar is more noticeable, the wine is so rich and delicious that I believe it will more than satisfy fans of dry wines. It has layers of peach, tangerine and floral notes with just a touch of honey. At $25 a bottle, it's a great buy and a very versatile food wine.

Hosmer also makes a 2006 Riesling with 3.5 percent residual sugar, but it just wasn't my cup of tea. There was a bit of peaches in the bouquet, but overall I found it simpler than the others.

I also have to note that I tried, out of curiosity, a 2005 Pinot Noir and a 2005 Cabernet Franc. The pinot noir truly surprised me. Though light in color, it had enjoyable aromas of cherry and spice and a very respectable medium-length finish. I'm not surprised that pinot noir could do well in this climate by the lakes, but I am surprised the vines would survive the frigid winters. Nonetheless, the pinot is definitely a decent companion for salmon, so I surprised myself by picking up a bottle.

Without a doubt, there's a lot of good wine to be found around the Finger Lakes to help make your stay here even more memorable. But Hosmer has the kind of wine you'll want to pick up anytime, anywhere because they're not just about memories but about finding a great wine for your dinner table.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

New York and Niagara Bound

In the coming week, Kathy and I will be heading up to the Finger Lakes Region of New York for a little R&R and, of course, winetasting. Then, after half a week there, we're driving to the Niagara region where we plan on exploring some of their terrific ice wines.

Of course, I'd love to blog as we go. But I've already learned we'll have no Internet connectivity at our B&Bs. I'll be on the lookout for Internet cafes, but if that doesn't work out there will be plenty to blog about when we get home.

I've long been a fan of Niagara ice wines and am really excited about indulging in some new labels. But I'm really intrigued to learn more about the wines of the Finger Lakes Region. While we have explored Long Island wineries several times, we have never ventured out to western New York to see what the many Finger Lakes wineries have to offer, mostly because...well, I didn't think I'd like them.

The few Finger Lakes wines that I've tasted, courtesy of friends who have been there, have been simple and sweet. For some time I thought this was all the Finger Lakes produced. But for years now I've been reading very favorable things about their dry and off-dry rieslings, gewurztraminers, Burgundian-style chardonnays and even, now and then, pinot noirs. So, it's time we checked it out for ourselves.

Turns out, from my pre-reading, there's lots I didn't know about the Finger Lakes. Did you know that it's the largest American wine-producing region outside of California? News to me. Why have these wines remained either unknown or the victim of mischaracterizations? Tom Pellechia over at VinoFictions has a few interesting ideas on this subject, such as a lack of promotional savvy and the mistaken belief, on the part of many, that Finger Lakes wines are made mostly from "foxy" tasting American hybrid grapes. You should read his post on that subject.

Whatever's going on out there, we hope to learn for ourselves exactly what these wines have going for them. And, I plan to share in the very near future.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Monster From the Languedoc

Today is wineblogging Wednesday, an occasion on which many winebloggers try to explore a common theme to see what a multitude of winesoaked minds can come up with together. And, the theme on this occasion is Languedoc wines under $30. It's the brainstorm of Marcus (aka Dr. Weingolb), whose blog can guide you to many different takes on this topic.

Preparing for an upcoming trip, I have not been able to get out and search up any new Languedoc wines in the past week, but I do have an outstanding Languedoc red in my basement that I've been dying to try again. It's a 2001 Mas Cal Demoura L'Infidele from Coteaux du Languedoc, and it's worth writing about again because it's a monster of a wine.

This is an intensely earthy wine that can make you forget all about smooth, dapper wines with pedigrees. Powerful and somewhat rustic, this wine uses syrah, grenache, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault. How's that for matching up with Marcus's grape chart. At $29 a bottle, it just comes in under the $30 cutoff, but it's worth every penny. Here's what I had to say about it in November:

"It was a virtual explosion of barnyard aromas, from freshly tilled earth to soggy, ripe cow pasture...There's no denying it's a big wine for under $30. And, the barnyard quality will fade after an hour or two. Then you can look forward to mushrooms, earth, leather, lead pencil and anise. How many wines can say that?"

How did it show tonight? Wonderfully, of course. I got a bit of the barnyard aroma I noted six months ago, but this time it was more of a sidelight than upfront and center. Primarily I noted rich aromas of smoked meats seasoned with rosemary. And then the leather showed through. I wished that I was having roast leg of lamb for dinner to go with this wine, but the portabello mushrooms with goat cheese we cooked up served almost as well.

Without a doubt I was impressed all over again. This wine just has so many layers of complexity that you can endlessly explore its subtleties. And the length, wow.

I'm a true believer in what the Languedoc can do, and hope to find some other southern French wines just as interesting very soon. In fact, I'm off to check in with Dr. Weingolb to find out what he and others are prescribing!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Back With Bordeaux

It's good to be back, past the grind of another semester and back to drinking and thinking about good wines. As I was getting caught up in the past week with some wine-related reading, I was delighted to see that Bordeaux wines have been the focus of more than a few people writing about value wines lately.

The Wall Street Journal wine writers, John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter, for example, wrote this past week about the terrific red wines they found from the 2004 vintage in Brodeaux for around $20 or less. And, Wine Enthusiast has a feature this month on Bordeaux bargains.

Coincidentally, I recently spotted a favorite white Bordeaux, in a wine shop, that I have not had in a couple of years now. In light of the press attention focused on Bordeaux, I decided it was a good time to try this wine again -- a Chateau Thieuley from the Entre-deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. I'm happy to report this white Bordeaux remains a fantastic buy at about $15 a bottle.

Made with sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes, Chateau Thieuley hits all the right notes that fans of great sauvignon blancs love to hear. I enjoyed terrific aromas of grapefruit, lemon and even peaches. It's just such a delcious, well-balanced white for a very good price.

Many lovers of sauvignon blanc tend to overlook these fabulous wines in favor of lush sauvignon blancs from New Zealand or flinty, mineral-laden wines from the Loire. But there are terrific whites to be found in this region between two rivers (the Dardogne and Garonne) south of the Medoc. To be fair, a lot of mediocre wine has come from this region in the past, but those days are achangin.

So, as the better-known lables from New Zealand edge farther into the $20 and $30 range, keep in mind that there are some pretty darn good, affordable sauvignon blancs waiting to be discovered from places like Entre-deux-Mers and South Africa.