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How Do You Judge an Emerging Region?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 7, 2008 11:00am ET

Tasting wines from the Finger Lakes isn’t as easy as tasting wines from a more established region, say, the Rhône. The difficulty isn’t because these cool-climate wines are more acidic, making them more difficult to taste than warm-climate wines that are riper, fleshier and more up front with their power. It isn’t because I’m any less familiar with Riesling or even Vidal Blanc than I am with more commonplace grapes such as Syrah or Chardonnay. Instead it’s because there is no paradigm yet established for the Finger Lakes.

I’ve tasted the wines from the Finger Lakes for several years now. But the region’s still-nascent wine industry has expanded, from five-dozen wineries to over 100 in just the past few years, and the number of wines has increased as well. I reviewed nearly 300 Finger Lakes wines this past year, a major jump from the nearly 500 wines I reviewed in the several years preceding that. The growth comes as more and more Finger Lakes wineries look to improve their quality and compete in markets outside the comfort zone of their own tasting rooms and a few cities in upstate New York. The growth is the kind of trend I love to watch—more wineries means more competition for quality and more diversity. The region is also teeming with value: Most wines cost under $20 a bottle. To top it off, consumers are steadily taking to cool-climate whites, so what writer wouldn’t want to be there to chart the progress of an emerging wine region when all the lights are green?

But how do you judge such a rapidly growing number of wines without a paradigm? On the surface, it would seem easy: Simply apply an already established, outside paradigm—German Riesling, or Rieslings from Austria or Alsace, for example. Granted, they are the accepted benchmarks for Riesling, which is the one grape that should be able to put the Finger Lakes among other prominent wine regions. But while an auslese from Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenhur site or a smaragd-level Riesling from F.X. Pichler’s Dürnsteiner Kellerberg are among the wines that help define their respective regions and the grape itself, is it fair to impose them as the sole barometer for Rieslings from the Finger Lakes? The answer is yes, and no.

From a qualitative perspective, I think one must use the already-established top wines from other regions as a guide for judging those from a new or emerging region. When it comes to definition, concentration, balance, purity of fruit, minerality and all of the other components that make up great wine, such A to B comparisons are inevitable and necessary. This may be where some people see a glass ceiling in my reviews, which to date have doled out a very small percentage of outstanding marks (90 points or better on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale). Sorry, but the best wines from a certain region aren't simply 90-point wines because they're the best from that region. Overall, the Rieslings from the established regions are better, but that is based on a qualitative assessment only.

What about the other half of the equation, the stylistic perspective? Should we expect a top Finger Lakes Riesling to simply copy or mimic a top Mosel or Wachau or Alsatian bottling? No. These are all completely different regions, each with different methods of expression for Riesling (and other grapes). In the case of the Mosel, Wachau or Alsace, the regional profiles are already clearly defined, thanks to generations of winemaking and a familiarity with their terroir. But in contrast, the Finger Lakes has yet to fully establish a profile or personality for its wines – and some of the area’s best winemakers readily admit they may not see that profile determined in their lifetime.

“We’re doing great work for our grandkids,” said John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Winery, who has grown grapes in the Finger Lakes for more than 30 years. “They’ll really be the ones who know how things work around here.”

Martini spent the first 20 years of his grapegrowing career growing hybrids for the Taylor Wine Company. When that safety net disappeared, Martini was smart enough to change his vineyards to vinifera grapes. In the process, he’s helping to define the region while also leading the quality movement. But these things take time.

Just a few years ago, Finger Lakes winemakers would almost grudgingly admit they produced a Riesling, but would happily tick off all the other grapes they hoped to "really" make, with Pinot Noir usually leading the way. Today, most quality-oriented Finger Lakes wineries proudly put their Rieslings front and center, a noticeable change in commitment in a relatively short period of time. That, combined with more and more attention to their vineyards and an increase in vinifera plantings—primarily Riesling, along with other varieties—will add diversity, and in turn spur competition and increase quality.

And therein lies the answer to how to judge the wines from an emerging region: As the region develops over the next generation or two, I can judge the wines’ quality based on a parameter already in existence while at the same time letting the region establish a style and personality for its wines (and that’s what I love to watch).

That's why there's still plenty of room at the top end of the scale for the Finger Lakes to move into. You simply can't rush in and make grand pronouncements, when a region is still finding its way and clearly still has a ways to go.

Rick Rainey
Trumansburg NY —  November 7, 2008 12:57pm ET
Well put Mr. Molesworth. As someone that frequently travels to France to buy wine professionally, as someone that lives locally and has done their "time"in the vineyards of Seneca Lake your assesment is dead on. Great job and yes the potential here is great and though we do have our challenges (yields) I believe their are a handful of wineries/growers that will put us on the map in a respectful way.RRTrumansburg
Michael R Bernardo
Boston, MA —  November 11, 2008 9:48pm ET
James,I know off topic, but possibly Spectator can set up a forum\blog where users create new topic? Anyhow, a quick comment on the 2004 Le Vieux Donjon..You seemed to think of it better (94 pts) than other established wine critics. I totally agree with you. Had it last nite and thought it awesome. Not quite the weight or complexity of some other Donjons but superior fruit and texture. Very pure. An exciting time to be reviewing CDPs as Bordeauxs are just too darn expensive. Also had '03 Pegau Reserve at a restaraunt recently and thought the 04 Donjon better...Am I crazy?! Keep up the great Rhone critique, Chris...
James Molesworth
November 12, 2008 9:38am ET
Michael: No problem for off topic comments...if you try our forums though, you might get a few other people joining in the conversation.

Glad you liked the '04 Vieux Donjon. It's a wine that doesn't show all is has to offer when young. The '04 CdPs are fresher than the '03s and not nearly as structured as the '05s...

As for the '03 Pegau, the hyperripe, almost porty style of the vintage plays right into Laurence Feraud's personal preference and so some folks might find the style a bit exaggerated. The '03s have also really shut down, which is a good sign, as it shows they have the grip and structure for longer term cellaring. I don't think the vintage is showing well right now...
Andrew Miner
November 12, 2008 2:58pm ET
Hi James, Another off topic question. I'm sure a billion factors are at work here but here it goes. 2004 Chateau Beaucastel gets 96 points and doesn't crack the top 100. 2005 gets 96 pts and reaches number 8. Isn't the 2004 more impressive since although it was a great year wasn't as "easy" as 2005?
James Molesworth
November 12, 2008 3:47pm ET
Andrew: When it comes to picking 100 wines out of the 20,000 a year we taste, there's probably going to be a little room to quibble with us...fair enough.

In this case, the excitement of the '05 vintage (and excitement, or 'x' factor is one of our four criteria when choosing wines for the Top 100) - it's the best vintage for CdP since '90 in my opinion - trumps out. Plus there were four other '04 CdPs to make the Top 100, which I think was ample representation for that vintage.

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