On my second day in the Finger Lakes I made my usual lap around Seneca Lake, the region's most prominent lake and home to the largest collection of wineries.
While I always try to mix in some new faces on each trip, I need to stop in at benchmark estates on a regular basis. Since assuming control in 2007, Fred Merwarth has made sure that the Hermann J. Wiemer estate hasn't skipped a beat. With 75 acres under vine and three-quarters of its 15,000-case annual production represented by Riesling, this is the flagship winery for the region's best grape. You can reference notes on previous stops here via my June 2009 and November 2009 blogs.
Housed in a large brown barn on the main road along the west side of Seneca, the winery was abuzz with activity during my visit. Labeling, pressing, all amidst the normal energetic nature of harvest. Though no grapes were coming in this day, as the weather was a little wet and gray, Merwarth was even-keeled as always.
"It's similar to last year, as the botrytis pressure is coming as full ripeness comes," he said. "It's tricky because we're waiting for fully ripe flavors and sometimes botrytis development can outpace that. But that's the thing with the Finger Lakes. I keep telling my interns this is a normal Finger Lakes harvest. It's cloudy, it's unsettled and the weatherman is always wrong. You can never plan for a harvest in the Finger Lakes; you just have to react to things."
"This season was dry and fresh though, up until the last 10 days or so. I'm really happy with the fruit we picked for the dry stuff," added Merwarth, noting that he still has a fair amount of fruit still hanging, despite the generally early harvest.
"It's a little nerve-racking to have 70 tons of Riesling still out there for possible single-vineyard and late-harvest wines. It would have been easier to take it all in last week, but then it would have only been good—it wouldn't have been that next level, which is what we want for single-vineyard and TBA bottlings."
With that, we headed out to the Magdalena Vineyard, about 15 miles up the road from the winery. The old, graying barn fell down over the winter during a storm. Here, as well as in the neighboring Josef Vineyard, there are a few rows that have been picked at the lower part of the vineyard, while the majority of the fruit further up the gradual slope remains. Merwarth builds his bottlings with successive picking—early picking for acidity, middle and later pickings for increasingly riper fruit flavors and potential botrytis. See the accompanying video as Merwarth talks about how he manages picking times in his vineyards, with an eye on how the fruit will create the final blend.
After kicking the dirt for a bit, and noting a little bit of new botrytis infection on some bunches, we headed back to the winery to try the not-yet-released 2011 lineup. Always a late release, the 2011s took an even longer-than-usual time to ferment. Starting with the Riesling Finger Lakes Dry HJW Vineyard 2011, which represents a blend of six different pickings, the wine is tense and crackling, with taut lime, tarragon, quince and bitter citrus notes. The Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Magdalena Vineyard 2011 didn't finish its ferment until Aug. 2 (Merwarth uses natural yeast and does not push the fermentation with temperature changes, but rather lets them move along at their own pace). It was then bottled almost immediately afterward, Sept. 1, which is why Merwarth is waiting to formally release the wine.
""I'd rather have evolution in bottle, where the wine unwinds better, than leave it in tank for any extended period of time after the ferment," he said. "Plus with 10 months of slow ferment and lees contact, the wine was stable and clarified anyway at the end, so no need to let it sit further. But I do want to wait until it's recovered a bit from the bottling before releasing the wines."
The Magdalena bottling shows quince, pear peel and green almond notes. It's very pure, with mouthwatering freshness and a lovely echo of slate on the finish.
"I always pick fruit thinking 'dry Riesling' first, though, and then hope I have enough left over to make some of the single-vineyard bottlings separately," said Merwarth as we tasted the Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Reserve 2011. Made from a blend of Magdalena, HJW and Josef vineyard fruit, the wine is very vibrant and open already, despite the late bottling. It shows great cut, with kaffir lime, green plum and pippin apple notes, with a nervy finish that is already showing impressive breadth.
With 70 tons of fruit still hanging, I figured it was best to let Merwarth get back to work. Next stop: Ravines winery, where Morten and Lisa Hallgren have recently moved into new digs, shifting from their Keuka Lake base to a spot on the west side of Seneca.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.
Kyle Schlachter — Colorado — October 6, 2012 9:54am ET
Doug Wallace — Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA — October 22, 2012 4:47pm ET
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