The folks along Seneca Lake may not want to hear this, but Keuka Lake is the prettier of the two. Not only does its distinctive "Y" shape make it stand out, but some of its banks are exceedingly steep, affording not only terrific views, but also some sun-baked terraces that beg for vines to be planted on them. It’s the most "wine region-like" of the Finger Lakes, visually. Consequently, it’s no surprise that some of the Finger Lakes' earliest vinous pioneers set up shop here, including Dr. Konstantin Frank and Walter Taylor.
Winemaker Thomas Laszlo has been at Heron Hill since the 2002 vintage, bringing with him a level of outside expertise that is still rare in the area – he spent four years at Henry of Pelham in Ontario before taking over the winemaking duties at Château Pajzos in Hungary’s Tokaji region from 1997 through 2001. Laszlo likens the west side of Keuka Lake to Germany’s Saar valley – a particularly cool spot that will struggle in cooler years, but can deliver exceptional quality in warmer vintages.
The soils around the winery and along much of Keuka’s shores are shallower than those along Seneca Lake, and they feature more fractured shale than Seneca’s silt and loam deposits. The resulting low vigor soils produce wines of high acidity and more pronounced minerality than fruit.
Laszlo is talkative, engaging and he pulls no punches. As for why he came to the area, he notes that he knew the area from visits during the ‘80s when everything “sucked” except for Wiemer.
“I asked myself, how can they be making wine this good and there’s nothing else here? It’s higher elevation and cooler than Ontario, so all the signs pointed to making good Riesling here. And compared to Washington, or British Columbia, I honestly think hands down this is the best area for Riesling in North America. I’ve always liked the underdog – Ontario, Tokaji, Loire, Finger Lakes.”
Vines on the west side of Keuka Lake are afforded one of the best views in the entire region.
“But,” he continues, “we need to get some single vineyard exploration going and we need to develop longevity in the wines."
To demonstrate his belief that single vineyard exploration is the way to go, Laszlo takes me 30 minutes north of the winery to the Ingle vineyard on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, a spot named for the owner of Heron Hill, John Ingle, who planted vinifera vines way back in 1972 – an eon ago by Finger Lakes standards. The 20-acre site is several hundred feet lower in elevation than the vineyards around the winery (Laszlo is replanting the parcels around the winery so there are only an additional four out of a possible 16 acres now planted on the Keuka site).
In the accompanying video, Laszlo talks about some of the challenges of growing vines in the Finger Lakes, and the technique of ‘hilling up’ that growers use in order to help the vines survive through tough winters.
The Ingle vineyard site forms the backbone for the winery’s top wines and was among the first to have its name adorn labels – dating back to the mid ‘80s. It’s a warm, bowl shaped spot that gets good ripeness, while the old vines push out a meager three tons per acre maximum for the white varieties (Riesling and Chardonnay dominate the plantings here, along with smaller amounts of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc).
Planted in 1972, the Ingle vineyard on Canandaigua Lake produces outstanding Rieslings for Heron Hill winery.
“The only way you can do that here is if you have other wines to sell – this vineyard alone isn’t really commercially viable,” says Laszlo.
But thanks to the winery's ample production – Heron Hill also buys in grapes to fill out its 20,000 case annual production – Laszlo is able to maintain the low yielding old vines in the Ingle vineyard for separate bottlings. At their best, Heron Hill's Ingle Vineyard designate Riesling is tight and firm when young, with a mouthwatering minerality that can carry the wine through a few years of bottle age.
"I try to bring out the mineral in everything I do – then I worry about the fruit. You need to get the bare bones first to understand what you have."
Laszlo also releases wines later than most – the 2006 Riesling Finger Lakes Late Harvest Ingle Vineyard is outstanding, while the 2006 Riesling Finger Lakes Ingle Vineyard shows fresh lively acidity cutting through slightly mature lanolin and brioche notes.
While I’ve found the wines from Heron Hill to be a little hit and miss, I’ve found them to be more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’ lately. Now that Laszlo has a few years of experience in the region, as well as the strong ’07 and ’08 vintages in the pipeline, I could see that trend continuing easily.
The poster child for diversity in today’s wine world could be Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars. In any given vintage, this winery might have one to two dozen bottles of different wines – all vinifera, from Eastern European varieties such as Rkatsiteli and Sereksia to more blue chip varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and of course Riesling. And they are all more than competent bottlings.
Winemaker Mark Veraguth has been at Dr. Konstantin Frank for 20 years, while Frederick Frank represents the third generation for this family owned winery, which had its first commercial vintage in 1962.
Frank is understandably proud of the winery and family history – Dr. Frank emigrated from Russia in the 1950s, speaking five languages of which English was not one. Yet he ground out a living in upstate New York, working up the rungs of the wine industry, which at the time thrived in the town of Hammondsport, on the southern tip of Keuka. He was convinced he could get vinifera varieties to grow in the area if they had the right rootstock – phylloxera had held the Finger Lakes back in that regard.
“This is the epicenter for the phylloxera in America, so far our lone contribution to the wine world,” says Frederick Frank, dryly.
Dr. Frank started out with five dozen different varieties – from cold climate varieties such as Riesling to pie-in-the-sky choices such as Pedro Ximenez (typically used for sherry). While he narrowed down his choices, the Finger Lakes was going boom with native and hybrid grape production for Wild Irish Rose, Manischewitz and other jug wines – but Dr. Frank stuck to his vinifera guns. When the big companies that dominated the region began to go under in the late 1970s, Dr. Frank was well on his way to establishing the winery as one of the region’s best. Dr. Frank was followed by his son Willy Frank, who took over in 1984, a transition that was always smooth.
“Dr. Frank was a scientist who wanted to spread knowledge and help the region as a whole. Willy Frank was a businessman,” says Frederick Frank. “So they often disagreed.”
After working for a dozen years at Banfi Vintners, during which time he set up the Old Brookville vineyard on Long Island, Frederick Frank returned to the family business to assist his ailing father Willy in ’93. They wound up working alongside each other until Willy’s passing in 2006, during which time Frederick helped push the wine into distribution in 30 states – an unheard of level of exposure in the marketplace for a Finger Lakes winery. Fred’s son has been working during the summers at the winery and according to his father has shown an interest in continuing the family tradition.
“That would be special,” says Frank. “Four generations at an Eastern U.S. winery. Who would’ve believed it?”
Despite the grass roots movement in the area to move towards single vineyard wines (as at Hermann J. Wiemer and Heron Hill), Dr. Konstantin Frank believes blending various areas is the best approach. With vineyard sites on Keuka and both sides of Seneca Lake, Frank aims to produce wines that combine minerality with juicier fruit flavors, while having a range of dry to off-dry Rieslings. The winery currently owns 100 acres of vines and produces upwards of 50,000 cases each year, along with its separate side operation. Chateau Frank, which produces a few thousand cases of sparkling wine annually.
In addition to Veraguth, the winemaking team includes what Frank refers to as ‘specialists’ – young winemakers from varying regions around the world who work on specific wines. Currently staffers from Germany, Burgundy’s Mâcon region and Australia form the winemaking team.
“It’s difficult bringing in foreign winemakers because of visa issues, but there are so few university trained winemakers in this region that we have to look outside,” explains Frank. “There are plenty of people here with experience – starting as cellar rats and working up – and we feel experiences is good. But we think that a combination of experience and a formal degree is the best.”
Dr. Frank has been a de facto university, as several former employees have moved on to winemaking positions elsewhere, including Ravines’ Morten Hallgren, Fox Run’s Peter Bell and Anthony Road’s Johannes Rheinhardt, as well as Eric Fry of Long Island's Lenz.
Dr. Konstantin Frank is one of the few wineries to have kept a library of older vintages, from which they proudly demonstrate the aging capacity of Finger Lakes Rieslings. The very good 2001 Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes Dry still shows fresh snappy apple and floral notes, while the outstanding 1997 Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes Dry shows more quince, fig and lanolin notes with a still-vibrant finish.
The soon-to-released 2008 Riesling Finger Lakes Dry (a change in TTB regulations forced the dropping of ‘Johannisberg’ after the 2001 vintage) is very taut and precise, with peach, quince and lime notes slowly unfolding on the nice, weighty finish. It should stretch out nicely over its first few years. With the vintage also producing perfect botrytis conditions, there will be a TBA-level offering as well - the term trockenbeerenauslese can’t be used on New York wines, but the wine meets the German wine law parameters for the designation. Labeled as the 2008 Riesling Finger Lakes Late Harvest Bunch Select, the wine is ripe and unctuous, with orange, apricot, quince and persimmon fruit with a very vibrant, lengthy finish and impressive focus. It has the potential to set a new high water mark for the region (a ’08 TBA level wine is also in the works at Anthony Road, which should give spirited competition).
With the high quality level in the 2008 vintage, Dr, Konstantin Frank seems set to continue it strong history. It’s a history that’s been an uphill climb all the way however.
“I feel like we’re the way California was 30 years ago,” says Frank. “We’re doing missionary work whenever we travel and introduce people to the wines from this region.”
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