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Finger Lakes Rieslings: Looking Back to Look Ahead

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 11, 2008 2:02pm ET

For wine critics, looking into the future is probably the hardest part of the job. Figuring out where a wine is going to go over time takes experience—you can’t look forward without keeping an eye on the past. When evaluating young wines, it's important to know how their predecessors performed. And as wines change over time, both in methods of viticulture and vinification as well as in style, it’s an always-moving target.

It’s also important to always keep an open mind—no matter how experienced a taster you may be, you have to approach every flight of wine as a learning experience. There’s always something to be gleaned, whether it’s a wine you may have tasted many times before, or one you know nothing about.

With that in mind, I dove into a flight of 15 older Finger Lakes Rieslings. I invited the wineries to send in a few examples of wines that they thought had stood the test of time, an invitation prompted by a discussion I had with a Finger Lakes wine fan who asked why there was no vintage chart for the region.

There’s no vintage chart because I don't think people are cellaring Finger Lakes wines in general, nor do I think there is a critical mass of wineries producing wines that truly warrant cellaring (there are always exceptions of course). So a historic record of vintages doesn’t seem warranted as it does for red Bordeaux for example (and I don’t mean it as a slight on the region).

That may be changing now however, as the number of Finger Lakes wineries tops 100, and the number of quality-oriented producers who want their wines judged on the world stage (as opposed to just selling them from the tasting room to drive-by weekenders) is also growing.

Before getting to the notes, I should clarify a few things up front. Some of you have debated with me about aging wines, and many of you have noted that my drink recommendations (the range of years we recommend drinking a wine, listed at the end of each tasting note) tend to be conservative.

Many wines can age. A well-made wine that is stored properly can endure for many years. But I think there is a big difference between wines that improve with age versus those that simply change with age.

I enjoy young wines and I enjoy old wines—the green apple snap of a young, slate-driven Riesling is just as tasty to me as the broad lanolin, petrol and quince notes of an older Riesling. Neither is better than the other. It’s simply a style preference that I make based on my mood, or the food on the table, or the friends I am with.

The results of this tasting only further cemented that feeling for me, as I found all the wines, qualitatively speaking, to be within the band where I find today’s best Finger Lakes Rieslings. They had all aged nicely—none were falling apart or showed any flaws. Yes, their flavor profiles had changed, but their quality hadn’t necessarily improved simply because of that, and I think that is an important distinction to make.

I do believe that the Finger Lakes is on an upswing—slowly, but in the right direction. I expect outstanding wines to start becoming more frequent, even if they are in the minority of the region’s overall wine production. I’m happy that these older wines showed well. It proves there’s real terroir and potential there. In the right hands—and there is now a solid group of serious winemakers at work in the Finger Lakes—it’s just a matter of time.

In order to look ahead, it’s important to look back. Below are my notes on the Rieslings, which were tasted blind. The notes are listed in descending score order. Those that were previously reviewed as new releases in the past (some by me, some by other WS editors) are so noted. I’ve also included some additional vintage background after some of the tasting notes—this information was provided directly by the wineries. (For more on Finger Lakes Riesling, reference some of my recent coverage on the Finger Lakes in day 1 of my trip blog, as well as day 2 and day 3.)

[Note: The term "Johannisberg Riesling" was dropped by New York wineries after 2002 due to new TTB regulations.]

Lakewood Riesling Finger Lakes 1990 (89 points) This has aged well. Marzipan, green fig, lemon verbena and lemon pound cake notes are backed by a hint of bitter orange, all in a slightly firm but elegant frame. [From a warm and slight wet vintage, according to winemaker Chris Stamp. A combination of both estate and purchased fruit.]

Red Newt Cellars Riesling Finger Lakes 2001 (89 points) Feels off-dry, and is quite ripe, with tasty brioche, Jonagold apple, melon and quince notes that show length and depth through the finish. Very flattering. [Originally reviewed at 88 points.]

Dr. Konstantin Frank Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes Semi-Dry 1996 (88 points) Ripe and rather sweet, with ginger, fig, braised fennel and graham cracker notes that are still offset nicely by the tangy, lively finish. Aging nicely. [From a large crop vintage that was cool and wet, according to Frederick Frank. Originally reviewed at 83 points.]

Dr. Konstantin Frank Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes Semi-Dry 1995 (87 points) Hanging on nicely, with ginger, buttered brioche, creamed peach and fig notes that are round and soft, but lengthy on the finish. An off-dry feel adds to the impression of length. [From a small, intense crop following a warm, dry vintage. Originally reviewed at 86 points.]

Heron Hill Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes Ingle Vineyard 2002 (87 points) High-toned, with floral, lime and pippin apple notes that are starting to give way to a lanolin hint on the lengthy finish. Still has nice cut.

Lakewood Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 1997 (87 points) Fully mature, with McIntosh apple, ginger and persimmon notes. Still has weight and life, with solid acidity holding the finish together. [From a cool, late-running season. 100 percent estate fruit.]

Red Newt Cellars Riesling Finger Lakes Reserve 2003 (87 points) Crisp, with good cut to the lime, yellow apple and fennel notes. There's an almost bracing finish, thanks to mouthwatering acidity. A bit lean in style, but solid.

Sheldrake Point Riesling Finger Lakes 2003 (87 points) Plump and open, with ripe apple and anise notes backed by a broad, modestly juicy finish. A hint of lanolin peeks in at the very end. [Only 180 cases made, following severe winter bud damage, according to winegrower Bob Madill. A cooler year overall than 2002.]

Sheldrake Point Riesling Finger Lakes 2002 (87 points) Tasty, with an off-dry edge to the quince, yellow apple and lime notes. The fresh finish is open-knit and tasty.

Standing Stone Riesling Finger Lakes 1995 (87 points) Quite soft yet persistent, with freshly shaved ginger, green almond, fig and apple notes that are tender but also focused through the round, medium-weight finish. A nice lanolin note chimes in at the very end. Grows on you. [Just the third vintage for Standing Stone, the fruit was sourced from Rolling Vineyards (which eventually became Atwater Estate) as this winery’s now old-vine parcels had not yet been acquired at the time, according to owner Marti Macinski. Originally reviewed at 86 points.]

Atwater Estate Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2000 (86 points) This is fully mature, with a hint of bitter almond now leading the way for orange peel, lanolin and brioche hints. The finish is round and tender. [From a cool and wet year, though Riesling performed well, according to winemaker Vinny Aliperti.]

Dr. Konstantin Frank Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 1991 (86 points) Quite mature, with a lithe feel to the lemon verbena, chamomile, shortbread and green almond notes that linger on the soft, open, floral finish. Very elegant, this is hanging on nicely. [From a small crop following a dry sunny vintage.]

Sheldrake Point Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2002 (86 points) Soft and open, with yellow apple, honeysuckle and candied citrus peel notes that linger on the finish. [Originally reviewed at 84 points.]

McGregor Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2002 (85 points) Slightly firm, with apple core, fennel, chalk and lime notes followed by a brisk finish that's a touch on the lean side. [All estate fruit for McGregor, whose vinifera vines date to 1971, according to John McGregor.]

McGregor Johannisberg Riesling Finger Lakes 1994 (84 points) This is pushing it, with bitter orange, caramel and furniture polish notes that have a burnished feel, before a dash of clove checks in on the finish. You have to like them old to groove on this.

Andrew Miner
December 11, 2008 7:09pm ET
Hi James,Apologies for off topic. I see you wrote the string of great vintages in Southern Rhone may be over yet the vintage was graded as an A. Have barrel samples shown vintners beat the weather?
Morgan Dawson
Rochester, NY —  December 11, 2008 7:29pm ET
James,Interesting stuff. Does the artificial 89 point ceiling -- which you recently described in a post regarding emerging wine regions -- hold for older wines?
James Molesworth
December 11, 2008 7:49pm ET
Morgan: There is no artificial ceiling for the Finger Lakes. When and if there is a Finger Lakes wine which I feel deserves 90 points, I'll be more than happy to report on it. I always try to review wines with a global perspective. That's what my previous blog was trying to explain. These wines are in line with where I currently find quality for Finger Lakes wines.
James Molesworth
December 11, 2008 9:58pm ET
Andrew: Alas, it is a typo. The vintage grade for the southern Rhone should be 'B'. At this point it probably won't be corrected until morning.

Please keep in mind these grades are extremely preliminary, and are based solely on weather reports and commentary from winemakers. There is a long way to go before the vintage's wines can be fully evaluated.
Bruce Matheson
January 16, 2009 6:56pm ET
James, I have to ask. I started my wine journey 20 years ago as a college student in the Finger lakes area so cut my chops, so to speak on a lot of the regions wines. I've noticed for many years that Hermann J. Wiemer's wines are treated as if they've never existed by the Spectator, yet that winery has been a standard-bearer for as long as I've been drinking the area's wines. Is this due to them refusing to supply wines for tasting or is there some other issue in motion to which you can even comment?
James Molesworth
January 16, 2009 8:35pm ET
Bruce: No, nothing nefarious going on. Hermann J. Wiemer simply chooses not to submit their wines for review. We have an open door policy regarding samples - they can submit whenever they like, I'd be happy to include the wines...

I would agree that they are producing some of the best wines in the region. You might be interested in this previous blog post:

Bruce Matheson
January 18, 2009 5:59pm ET
Thanks for the explanation. Didn't figure 'nefarious' things were afoot, but had no idea if it could be something other than Wiemer's own participation. Interesting. Suits me fine, actually, more for us who know about them...Hadn't seen the other blog by the way, either...

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