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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Finger Lakes, Day 2: A Promising Seneca Newcomer

Morten and Lisa Hallgren have moved Ravines winery to Seneca Lake after purchasing White Springs Farm
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 8, 2012 11:40am ET

After leaving Fred Merwarth at Wiemer to deal with his remaining 70 tons of Riesling fruit, I headed farther up the western side of Seneca Lake to check on the new digs for Ravines Wine Cellars. Owned by Morten and Lisa Hallgren, the winery was started over on Keuka Lake in the 2002 vintage, and it's grown steadily since then, from a few thousand cases to now 14,000 cases annually, with a projected 20,000 cases within the next five years. You can reference my notes on previous visits with Morten Hallgren at Ravines from my October 2008, November 2009 and October 2010 blogs.

That growth necessitated a change in winery facility, and when the White Springs Farm came up for sale, the Hallgrens found themselves competing with a few other prominent Finger lakes vintners for the property. In the end, they won out, picking up a 60-acre tract of land (with 40 acres already under vine) and a new, large, well-appointed winery set inside an old barn. The estate, a historical farming property that has been used for cherry orchards and dairy farming in the past, sits on a gentle rolling slope just a few miles west of Route 14. A few turns down some unpaved roads and you're there.

"At first our banker told us not to do it," said Morten sheepishly. "But things have been going well. We still have the tasting room on Keuka and now this facility finally gives us the room we needed. And now, the banker is happy too."

The former White Springs label which was made here will continue to be made by Hallgren for the next five years, with an option to opt out at that point. His own Ravines wines are now made here as well and he'll slowly absorb some of the additional vineyards into his own production.

"Normally, adding 40 acres would mean a rapid increase in production right away," said Hallgren. "Be we didn't want a sudden jump. We can buffer that increase by continuing to make the White Springs wines for that label's owner. In the meantime we can grow Ravines at a more reasonable rate while keeping contact with the growers I've always used."

Hallgren still brings in about 50 percent of his production from outside growers, and while the official target is 20,000 cases in five years, the facility could accommodate 30,000 cases, so there's even more room to grow.

Hallgren was enthused with the property not only for the winery facility, but for the vineyards as well. They feature the region's typical loamy, clay soils but sit above a limestone base, making them the only vines other than the Argetsinger vineyard on the eastern side of Seneca to be planted on limestone according to Hallgren. He had been using some fruit from the property before buying it, so there's a familiarity there as well.

And as with many older Finger Lakes vineyards, there's a mix of both vinifera as well as hybrid or native grapes. Some Corot Noir and Valvin Muscat vines—two hybrids not of much use for serious wine production—are planted at White Springs. Hallgren has decided to field graft over to Riesling.

"It's the first time in 25 years anyone has field grafted in the Finger Lakes," said Hallgren. "It makes sense: You keep the root structure in tact, don't have to redo the trellis system and only lose one harvest, rather than the four or more harvests you'd lose if you replanted entirely. We brought in a team from California and the success rate of the grafting was 98 percent. Anything around 80 percent is considered good. So we are really happy. But that's the firs step. Now we have to get them through a winter and this first one will be the most risky for the newly grafted vines." (See the accompanying video.)

While Riesling is the top bottling here, Hallgren was eager to show of a wine that has been six years in the making. The Brut Finger Lakes 2006 has been released following its recent, and first, disgorgement back in June.

"Lisa was mad at me about that one," said Hallgren with a sideways glance at his wife. "Sitting on a wine for six years before selling it, while trying to grow a small winery, probably not the best idea."

There were 375 cases of the wine produced, made from equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Argetsinger vineyard and done in the classic méthode Champenoise style. Only one-third of the production was disgorged in June, with two more disgorgements to follow in the coming years. It's very refined, with subtle, fresh-cut pear, white peach, jicama and almond notes and a refined, gentle mousse through the finish. It shows a light toasty note but stays lighter in feel and more floral throughout. At $39, it retails at the high end for a Finger Lakes wine, but I'd like to see it put in blind with a flight of Champagne—I think it would hold its own.

"From a business view, a sparkling wine is a little tough for a Finger Lakes winery," said Hallgren. "Especially if you want to do late disgorgements. But I really think it's something that the Finger Lakes could excel at. So we're committed to it and I'll aim to maybe do 500 cases per year," he added, looking at Lisa to gauge her reaction. She rolled her eyes, a little, before smiling in agreement.

The Finger Lakes Riesling Dry 2011 looks to be one of the top bottlings from this heterogeneous vintage. It shows lovely cut from the start, with tarragon, flint, lime and pear peel notes and a long, nervy but invigorating finish. Costing just $17 a bottle (and there is an ample 2,100 cases made), it's an excellent value.

As the Hallgrens settle into their new digs, develop their newly acquired vineyards and grow their winery, they seem to be on a track to be one of the standard-bearer wineries for this emerging region.

David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  October 8, 2012 12:54pm ET
Nice to see what Mort is up to, love his wines and am heading up in two weeks for my semi-annual visit. Interesting he is flirting with sparklers, but I am concerned about the cost as it seems pretty high to me, will people be willing to spend almost $40 when you can get so many others for less (French, California and Oregon)? I have a feeling I will at least try a bottle though...
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 8, 2012 4:46pm ET
David: That's the thing - at what point is a consumer willing to pay $40 for a really good sparkling wine, irregardless of where it's from? Or are they going to always consider where it is from first, before then using price as a potential obstacle? On the flip side, there's plenty of overpriced champagne and California sparkling wine...
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  October 8, 2012 7:53pm ET
I agree, which is why I said I would certainly try it, but you have to admit the price is somewhat high for the FLX, not that I mind if the quality is there. I am a big fan of Heart & Hands and just purchased their current sparkler and as I recall its about $10/bottle less, that being said, Mort is probably my favorite winemaker with the possible exception of Weimer and Red Newt...and they are the ones that push the envelope price wise for the whole region. But, when they get it right, they are exceptional wines. $39 is pricey and will push some people away, that is my only complaint, in order to get the masses to try it, you have to price it accordingly. BTW, haven't seen you review Heart & Hands wines, did I just miss it? If not, you REALLY should - best pinot in the Finger Lakes.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 8, 2012 8:30pm ET
David: But this isn't necessarily a wine for the masses - there are 375 cases made and it was on its lees for 6 years before being disgorged, which factors into the price. Ultimately, the consumer has to decide if it's 'worth it'. My main point is that dismissing a wine based on a region/price ratio is perhaps not the best way for a consumer to decide about trying a wine.

Yes, I have had the Heart & Hands wines. Tom Higgins is on to something with his Pinots and I am enjoying watching his progress. His Rieslings are pretty darn good. There's a previous blog post based on a visit with Tom here: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/The-Finger-Lakes-Day-3-From-Seneca-to-Cayuga-and-Beyond_16211.

In addition, his wines are regularly submitted for review so you can keep an eye out for my tasting notes...
Ron Brooks
alexandria va —  October 9, 2012 8:48am ET
I have to admit when I visited their tasting room I thought I'd pick up some RIesling, but after tasting the sparkling, I thought, "Wow! I don't care where this is from, I'm buying it." It is quite an achievement for the Finger Lakes community. Nice job Morton and Lisa.
Craig Kuziemsky
Ottawa, ON, Canada —  October 13, 2012 9:46am ET
I like the fact that more sparkling wine has been showing up at Finger Lakes wineries. Glenora or Dr. Frank's had been my go to places for sparkling wine in the region (Brut from both are good and reasonably priced). I look forward to trying sparklers from other Finger Lake's wineries and hearing other people's reviews on them.

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