Monday, December 7, 2009

The New York Finger Lakes Riesling Shootout

So, there's this guy Lenn who, for the last couple of months, has been encouraging my friend Joe Roberts (aka, 1 Wine Dude) and I to get together and taste a bunch of Rieslings from the Finger Lakes. It's all part of a program called Taste NY – Lenn Thompson is its founder, prime champion and chief sample sender – that's designed to get wines from New York state in front of a select group of wine/food bloggers and, thenceforth goes the hope, into the public eye.

The stars and schedules having finally aligned, last night was to be the night. Joe and I, along with our significant others, descended on Teikoku, a member of the Win Signature Restaurants group, where the owners and staff had graciously allowed us to BYO6B (that's "bring your own six bottles," y'all). Rather than just conducting a quick sip, swish and spit routine, we'd decided to taste and imbibe along with a table full of sushi in order to get the complete picture of how the wines work both on their own and with food.

I half expected to walk into the restaurant and find Joe, who was the recipient and caretaker of the bottles in question, with the wines already bagged and lined up for blind tasting. But nope, he'd opted to keep things open and easy, simply taking a best guess at the appropriate tasting order. In keeping with that approach, there was no doling out of points – just tasting, consideration, discussion and a modicum of note taking. Below you'll find my own take on the six Finger Lakes Rieslings we tasted, listed according to my order of preference.

  1. Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling 2007 (12% alcohol, $18):
    With a snoot full of slate and diesel oriented aromas, the Wiemer had the most precise nose of the bunch. Though labeled as dry, the wine felt to me like what the Germans would call halbtrocken or medium dry, not because of a high concentration of sugars but rather due to the gentle attack of its acidity. With our food, I wouldn't have minded just a touch more cut but then I am a bit of an acid freak.... It still worked admirably and, in fact, was both finely balanced and very persistent on the finish, marred only slightly by a just noticeable dash of sulfur. Unquestionably the most Mosel-like of the line-up and, for me, the most complete wine and the best overall value of the night. I'm pretty sure it took top spot among the group consensus as well.

  2. Red Newt Cellars Riesling "Reserve" 2006 (12% alcohol, $24):
    Like the Wiemer, Red Newt's Reserve Riesling was not terribly RS-rich (5 grams/liter, per the back label) but definitely showed a graceful kiss of up-front sweetness before resolving to a fairly dry finish. Delicacy was the word here. Very clean and polished wine, with a pretty nose of yellow grapefruit and elderflower. A slightly bitter finish – think of the pith from that same yellow grapefruit – worked with the wine's medium acidity to make it a solid pairing with our sushi assortment.

  3. Fox Run Vineyards Riesling 2008 (12% alcohol, $14):
    This was the first wine we tasted and I was quite surprised by the ferocity and grippiness of its acids. Though labeled as just left of center on the wine's rear label "sweetometer" (with all due credit to Mrs. Wine Dude for her coinage), this was actually quite dry both up front and on the finish, showing its hint of sweetness only on the mid-palate. (Its slight off-dry character became more obvious when revisiting it later in the evening at a slightly warmer serving temperature.) Green apple and yellow apple skin flavors dominated on the palate, along with hints of baked lemon and mace. A touch of volatile acidity (VA) in the wine's top-notes and a slight vegetal hint kept this from moving higher up the ladder. Nonetheless, a pretty solid wine, especially at its sub-$15 price point.

  4. Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2007 (12% alcohol, $17):
    Soft and by a good shot the lowest acid of the evening's lineup, this was also the most disappointing wine of the night for me because I know that Dr. Frank can do better. It places fourth only because I found greater flaws in the following two wines. Very gentle and round, with a faintly floral nose followed up by apricot nectar on the palate, where the wine otherwise lacked focus and washed out, particularly when tasted with food.

  5. Heron Hill Winery Riesling "Old Vines" 2005 (13% alcohol, $24):
    At 13%, this was the biggest wine of the night. That extra dose of power resulted in an aggressive finish, with the wine's flavors not able to stand up to the intensity of its structure. There was some interest here. In fact, the wine reminded me a little of one of the old white Riojas from Lopez de Heredia; however, it didn't have the fruit, the balance or the nuance to carry things off. Very truffly and a touch oxidative, this also showed a touch of VA. My biggest complaint, though, is that I found this to be much more developed than I'd expect at only four years of age; it was nearly bereft of fruit. I can't help but wonder if the wine wouldn't have survived and worked better if finished at a slightly lower alcohol level (higher RS level).

  6. Sheldrake Point Vineyard Riesling "Reserve" 2006 (12.1% alcohol, $26):
    If anything, this was even more intensely vinous and powerful on the palate than the Heron Hill. Though showing the darker fruited flavors of its bit of age, the wine was still quite yeasty on the nose and lacked aromatic vibrancy. Hot on the finish, overtly muscular and unbalanced, this was definitely an example of a wine marked by over-extraction at the expense of fruit. Though arguably less flawed than the wine I slotted into fifth place, it was also less compelling.

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that the importance of balance in a wine should always come before the achievement of dryness (or any other stylistic expression), no matter what the market and prevailing tastes dictate. I'd absolutely purchase Wiemer's Riesling for my own drinking pleasure and would definitely consider doing the same with the wines from Red Newt and Fox Run. But I can't say the same for wines four through six.

All in all, even though my results were pretty clearly split right down the middle, I found the tasting persuasive enough that a trip up the Finger Lakes might just be in order for sometime in the impending New Year.


Evan Dawson said...

Excellent review, cheers. You're on the money when it comes to acid; 2007 was perhaps the lowest natural acid vinatge in the region's history, and it shows. 2008 was on the high end. As an acid freak like you, I think the Fox Run is on the edge - close to showing too much cut, while the '07 Dr. Frank was a bit sloppy and fat. The Wiemer Rieslings, consistently world-class and the best of the region, are even more structured and compelling in '08, and I'd urge you to seek those out.


Evan Dawson / The New York Cork Report

philadining said...

Interesting results, and not too surprising to me, except for the Frank, which, as you noted, is capable of some pretty fine Rieslings. That Red Newt reserve is a nice wine - while the non-reserve stuff is perfectly drinkable, it's not especially thrilling.

I think you should indeed make a trip up there, there's an interesting loop to be made around a few lakes, that can involve some very good wine and good food too.

In the interim, we really need to meet up for dinner, I just recently acquired a late-harvest Wiemer that I think you'd be interested in!

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the added insight into the acid/vintage character in '07 and '08. Wiemer's basic Rieslings sometimes make it into the PA state system (believe it or not), so I'll keep an eye out for the '08s. Or, better yet, I'll head up there for a taste in situ.

I seem to remember you bringing a bottle of the Red Newt Reserve to dinner at Cochon quite some time ago. Perhaps a revisit would be in order.... And I'll definitely be picking your brain for restaurant recommendations for that trip up to the FLX.

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