Don’t worry – I haven’t gone sober on you all. It’s been a crazy few weeks at Ratapu HQ (aka, suburban Brooklyn) and I haven’t had a spare moment to rave about the beautiful bottles that have very briefly graced my wine shelves. Any minute I’ve not been hustling for zombie boy band westerns (yep, that’s all me and you are welcome) I’ve been re-watching the West Wing and going full nerd-HAM into Josh Malina’s new podcast. It’s a struggle bus folks; thank god we have wine to get us through it.
Last weekend, Dan and I decided to say suck it to New York City and left to go hang out with the Mennonites. We rented a cabin near Keuka Lake, one of the eleven remarkably large bodies of water that make up The Finger Lakes in upstate New York. If you are familiar with New York wine, the Finger Lakes are really the old guard: they reintroduced vinis vinifera to the region in the 1960s and took a serious approach to wine production from the outset, particularly with Riesling. Having wet our whistle for the region during New York Drinks New York (the only time you’ll get Manhattanites to express state pride) we were ready to deep dive into the region’s bounty.
The Finger Lakes, unlike trendier New York wine AVAs like Long Island and Hudson River, are wet and cold most of the year, with obvious maritime influence on both the soil and the climate. (Literally, the most exciting event going on when we were there was the annual Polar Bear Plunge – an event which last March apparently required extensive ice removal.) The four primary wine-growing lakes – Canandaigua Lake, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga (the last two being AVAs of their own – have a mix of terroir: there are golden pockets of limestone (like that used by Ravines winery), shale, clay, and even sand. While there are a few established wine giants – notably Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Weimer – there are an alarming number of boutique wineries who barely have distribution outside of the Lakes, let alone New York state. It is also notable that there are a lot of expats working here. Germans, French, Austrians – everyone wants a piece of this still relatively cheap territory.
I will wax on in more depth about the history and wine techniques of the region in my 50 States Project post on New York, so let’s jump right into the juice. Holy shit guys. When I say I’m ‘excited’ about an emerging wine region, I wholeheartedly admit that with a few exceptions, most of the wine you’ll find from those locations will be mediocre at best. North Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico…they’re all getting there, but they haven’t tipped the COW (California, Oregon, Washington.) Dan and I fully expected that at least half of what we tasted in the region would be average, but boy were we ever wrong. The Finger Lakes is out here to slay. Do NOT shade these wines for they will CUT YOU with their razor-sharp acidity and bone-dry finish.
Ravines Wine Cellars
Ravines was our first pick for the trip as we tasted their phenomenal 2012 Argetsinger Pinot Noir at the NY fair and lost our breath. Pinot noir is a difficult grape to grow in the Finger Lakes (it’s a diva) and as we learned from the lovely host at the winery’s Keuka Lake tasting room, the clone which was brought to the region was from Champagne, where pinot noir is exclusively used for sparkling wine. Remarkably, while the pinot doesn’t bear the same sort of earthiness of its Oregon counterparts or the fruit-forward power of California pinot, it has a delicacy and grace reminiscent of Burgundy. Curiously, the chardonnays (which I was expecting to just be a crowd-pleasing quaffable wine at best) were similarly Burgundian in style, expressing very little buttery quality and going for that clean, almost tart finish in both the oaked and stainless steel varieties.
The head turner for our whole group was a special surprise from our host: a Sauvignon Blanc. Warning us that it might taste like the grassy whites of New Zealand, I gobbled it down with delight. This wine had the stony minerality of Kiwi Sav with all of that spectacular grapefruit, lemongrass and citrus beauty that comes with it, but none of the cat pee aroma!
2012 Argetsinger Pinot Noir – $49.99
2015 Sauvignon Blanc – $18.99
Keuka Lake Vineyards
This was a hard bugger to find (especially after stuffing yourself in Hammondsport) but it is well worth it. Keuka Lake has quite a bit of restaurant exposure in the city, but very little retail presence, which makes its wines cult gems. Our wine host quickly cottoned on to our desire for some challenging rieslings and let us taste three of the winery’s best: the Semi-Dry, the Evergreen Lek and the Falling Man (an extra special treat). The last two are single-vineyard varieties and the power of this producer’s terroir really pushes through. These are intelligent wines that demand contemplation and can likely be enjoyed without food. Keuka also is jumping on the orange wine train, using Vignoles, a French-American hybrid that yields a saucy and tannic amber delight. We finished off our tasting with the weirdest wine of the entire trip: a single-varietal Delaware. Delaware is a purely American grape which usually is a big red flag, but somehow this was…fun? I can only call this fun – it tastes like straight up grape flavoring. Not grapes, but the patent purple Jolly Rancher flavor that is so coveted by fol f my generation. Our host told us she used the 15.6% alcohol wine as a decongestant and I fully agree: this wine is the perfect spoon (glass?) of sugar to help the medicine go down.
2014 Dry Riesling, Falling Man Vineyard – $40
2014 Dry Amber Vignoles – $25
2012 Delaware, 1950 Vineyard (Because where else will you find this?) – $13
The husband and wife owners/winemakers of Domaine LeSeurre pride themselves on being boutique. These guys run the cellar door, taste all of the barrels, hand pick every bundle. Hailing from Champagne, Sebastian LeSeurre is quick to inform his customers that he comes from a long lineage of winemakers. After working at wineries around the world, Sebastian and Celine settled in the Finger Lakes to make finger snapping cabernet franc and peak-Willow Smith hair flipping riesling. Maybe lose the tacky 1920s french bistro table cloths at the bar, but otherwise keep on keeping on guys.
2014 Rose Cabernet Franc – $22.99 (It’s rose season hunty)
2013 Cabernet Franc Barrel Select – $27.99
In Part 2, we’ll talk about the populist Heron Hill, extra special Hermann J. Weimer and a profile of the tremendous cider scene. Stay tuned!