Posted September 12, 2013 Shows cut and drive, with apple and fennel notes racing out from the start. Mouthwatering melon rind, jasmine and citrus oil elements course through the slate-framed finish.
Now here's a wine with very little body fat—the sinewy physique of a marathon champ. The flavors are tart, taut and racy. Though most of the grapes at the starting line grow in most of our regional choices, we can single out a few that will come up short of the finish.
Highly aromatic and floral, Gewürztraminer is thought to be a mutation of Traminer, an ancient variety which begat or shares familial ties with many of the best-known vinifera grapes today, including all four options here, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, Pinot Noir, which is just a clone of Pinot Gris. Today, however, Gewürz plays to smaller audiences, and while it can be fermented dry, its high natural sugar content makes it ideal for sweet or off-dry versions, and its sugar often transmutes into bright tropical fruit flavors. Neither smell nor taste is a match here.
Chenin Blanc, hero of the middle Loire's opulent Vouvrays, Chaumes and Savennières, is another grape beloved for its floral aromas and its natural fruitiness. Balanced by high acidity, Chenin is also game for sweet and semisweet confections. But even dry versions flaunt a richness and ripeness not in character with what's in our glass.
Pinot Gris or Grigio takes on many guises, from the vendange tardive (late harvest) and sélection de grains nobles (botrytized) dessert treats of Alsace to the Sélection de Drew Barrymore. When fermented dry, it makes a spicy, smoky, intensely aromatic wine. It does often share the apple appeal of our wine, but more in the vein of pie-deployed apples than tart Granny Smiths. Lacks the razor edge of our pick.
If PG is a shapeshifter, Chardonnay is the international master of disguise, a grape that famously acquiesces to the whims of terroir and winemaker. It's a vessel for expression, whether chalky Chablis or oaky … Oakville—and everything in between. Even in its sleekest expressions, however, Chardonnay is typically more forward with fruit, bearing honey, lemon and warmer tones of toast or pastry. And besides, this wine is such a classic case of …
Riesling! The cut, the mouthwatering zest of tart fruits, the arguably unparalleled ability of the grape to telegraph the minerality of slate terroirs—all hallmarks of Riesling, the vinifera grape that actually likes being left out in the cold. All our regions here make esteemed expressions of the grape in a variety of styles, so we've got some more unpacking to do.
But this wine is definitely a Riesling.
Riesling is a cool-climate grape, but there are cool climates and there are cold climates. Riesling is the most prominent vinifera variety that can thrive in both: It has been known to hang on Canadian and German vines through February or March before a hard (19° F) frost makes it suitable for ice wine. Because the vines flower later than most, frost damage after budbreak is less of a risk, and the grape ripens most evenly when temperatures are depressed enough to let it mature until October or November, in the Northern Hemisphere. In Mediterranean climates, Riesling would shrivel before having the chance to develop its flavors. Unsurprisingly, it is the grape that's taken climate change hardest now that "cool-climate" regions sometimes aren't.
Riesling's spiritual home is Germany, where a gemisch of ever-changing rules and classifications regulates the style of the wines. The most traditionally desirable Rieslings got ripe enough late enough to develop Botrytis cinerea, the noble rot that causes grapes to lose water, concentrating sugars and flavors. From least to most concentrated and ripe, these wines are labeled kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese.
In more recent years, however, it's the dry styles that have come into fashion, natural complements to light meals with their zippy profiles and mouthwatering acidity. (Ironically, some winemakers now complain that shifts in climate have made it more difficult to harvest a balanced kabinett than the superripe styles that, a few decades ago, would've only been attainable in select, extra-warm vintages.) Clearly our wine is in the dry camp, but given the trimness, precision, and lack of open fruit flavor, it's also in the extra-cold camp.
For this reason, we can rule out Australia and Washington. While Australia's Eden and Clare Valleys and Washington's Columbia Valley give the grape a cool enough reception, they're still warm regions, Riesling-wise, and the best dry versions pack a fruit salad of apricot, peach, pear, pineapple and more, enough that they may lean toward off-dry.
France's Alsace is every bit as versed in Riesling as Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, but these are also typically wines with some girth—broad, ripe and creamy—and carry their own set of signifying flavors, like spice and smokiness often developing into what the French call goût de pétrole—petrol taste. Not really a fit for us here.
We're left with Germany and New York. The great, sloping vineyards along Germany's Mosel and Rhine rivers have made a wine hoisted by Europe's kings, emperors and other grandees for centuries, and even today, the enophilic world doesn't lack for boosters who consider it the finest expression of white wine there is. The cut, the citrus and that unmistakable slate are all traits of the purity Germans famously demand in their Riesling.
There's no definitive way to spot this as a New Yorker, perhaps, but if one compares the climates of the Finger Lakes and Mosel Valley, the former is slightly more variable, generally reaching higher high temperatures during the growing season. While this is a particularly austere style for Riesling, it does exhibit more floral ("jasmine") and essence-of-fruit ("melon rind"; "citrus oil") than stone and mineral notes, which puts it more in line with the New York state of wine.
This is a New York Riesling.
The incredible combination of sugar and acidity make the best European Rieslings some of the longest-lasting wines out there; plenty outlive their makers.
Of course, this wine is fresh and taut, without much in the way of tertiary bottle notes. But it has also matured past straight fruit-off-the-vine stage. One does not often find "rind" of any sort, nor a fennel/anise/licorice element to nouveau stuff.
This wine is three years old.
Both of New York's major winegrowing regions are in the mix, and both make Riesling. Long Island's proximity to the Atlantic gives it a maritime climate that shields it from the extremes of summer and winter: Breezes fend off winter's depredations and keep vines cool in the summer. But all in all, it's a touch too warm for dry Riesling, and lacking the slate soil composition that gives this wine its cut. The East End is better suited to late-harvest Rieslings, which are by nature overripe.
The Finger Lakes have much the same effect on the wine region that bears their name as the Atlantic on Long Island, though via different means. The deep lakes store summer's heat, protecting the surrounding hillsides from extreme lows in temperature; that function is essentially inverted in the summer, when the water's cool and the weather's hot. It's an ideal situation for a grape that blooms late and ripens late. And then, of course, there's the distinctive shale-based soils that impart the elemental, mineral aspects Riesling channels so well.
This is a Finger Lakes Riesling.
This wine is the Tierce Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2010. Tierce is a supergroup wine label, bringing together the stylings of three of the most respected winemakers around Seneca Lake: Peter Bell at Fox Run, Johannes Reinhardt at Anthony Road and David Whiting of Red Newt. The wine retails for $30 and scored 92 points in the June 30 issue of Wine Spectator, as high a rating any dry Finger Lakes Riesling has received to date. It should drink nicely through 2016.
Ben O’Donnell, assistant editor
Test your knowledge with our fun, biweekly quiz.
We break down the basics—from tasting like a pro to buying strategies to storing and serving.