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Wine Tip: Get to Know New York's Finger Lakes

With quality ever-improving, upstate New York is giving Riesling lovers reason to rejoice
Heart & Hands consistently excels in the Finger Lakes.
Heart & Hands consistently excels in the Finger Lakes.

James Molesworth
Posted: February 13, 2017

Note: This guide originally appeared in the Jan. 31 - Feb. 28, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, "Editors' Picks."

Upstate New York state's Finger Lakes region faced a tricky growing season in 2015, but established producers continued their pattern of fielding Mother Nature's vintage vagaries with a steady hand.

A markedly wet first half of the season had growers doubling and tripling antifungal measures in their vineyards to ward off disease. A late spate of dry and warm weather saved the vintage, though a heavy downpour in mid-October dashed any grapes that hadn't yet been picked (mostly late-ripening reds). The result is wines with broader textures and lower acidities; aromatic whites far outpaced the reds. Not surprisingly, Riesling, the region's signature grape, provides the best set of wines for consumers to choose from.

Since my last report on the region ("Keeping Cool," March 31, 2016), I have reviewed nearly 200 wines from the Finger Lakes in blind tastings in our New York office. Of these, 17 earned outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.

The top 2015 tasted so far is the Keuka Lake Vineyards Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Falling Man Vineyard 2015 (92 points, $40), sourced from a steep site on the western side of Keuka Lake. Showing ripeness and drive that belie the vintage's generally softer character, the wine delivers juicy yellow apple, peach and persimmon notes backed by dried chamomile, pine and jicama streaks through the finish. It's a superb effort, and a result of the rigorous standards employed by owner Mel Goldman. There were just 66 cases produced from this 1.3-acre vineyard, with naturally lower yields from harsh winter weather compounded by Goldman's insistence on strict selection.

"2015 was not an easy year," says Goldman, who founded Keuka Lake Vineyards in 2005. "Low temperatures were severe enough to cause major bud loss on more sensitive varieties like Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer, which were virtually wiped out. Even Cabernet Franc, a more cold-hardy variety, suffered tremendously. Then flowering was during a very wet June, resulting in further crop reduction, as well as increased levels of disease. In our case, [winemaker] Katey Larwood introduced a sorting system in the vineyard as we hand-harvested all our Riesling and other estate wine grapes."

Producers that stayed on top of the early-season disease pressures benefited from a late stretch of good weather-dry and moderately warm. Though most producers noted lower acidities, the wines are showing good fruit and persistent finishes, but without the rapier-style cut of years such as 2012 and '14.

There are 44 Rieslings from the 2015 vintage in this report, 30 of which earned ratings of 87 points or better. Other top bottlings from 2015 released so far include the Ravines Riesling Finger Lakes Dry White Springs Vineyard 2015 (91, $23), a blend of two lots of grapes sourced from vines planted in 2003 and 2007. Ravines winemaker and co-owner Morten Hallgren also scores with his Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2015 (90, $18). A blend of fruit from three vineyards covering both sides of Seneca Lake, with contrasting limestone and shale soils, it proves that the recent trend toward small-production, single-vineyard lots isn't the only way to make outstanding wine. Among other current releases, Silver Thread and Boundary Breaks also produced excellent Rieslings in 2015.

"Our consensus on the 2015 Rieslings is that they are broad on the palate," says Shannon Brock of Silver Thread. "There is a mouthfilling quality to them that runs through the dry, medium-dry and medium-sweet styles. We think this is due to the warm September weather that lowered acids and built ripe flavors."

The number of enticing values from 2015 signals additional success on the part of Finger Lakes wineries. While prices for top Rieslings in general, and single-vineyard bottlings specifically, have crept into the $30-and-up range, there are still scads of delicious wines at less than half that. Among them are the Heron Hill Chardonnay Finger Lakes Un­oaked 2015 (88, $15) and Thirsty Owl Pinot Gris Finger Lakes 2015 (87, $15). And many top values are now being produced at levels that make them readily accessible in the marketplace, such as the nearly 2,400 cases of the Lamoreaux Landing Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2014 (88, $15).

The top value Lamoreaux is among more than 80 2014s under review here, and the earlier vintage contributed one of this report's top-scorers, the Forge Riesling Finger Lakes Les Alliés 2014 (92, $26), which shows lemon curd, marzipan and apple gelée notes, with a taut thread of acidity through the middle. A trio of single-vineyard bottlings from Heart & Hands, including the winery's Riesling Finger Lakes Patrician Verona Vineyard 2014 (91, $29), as well as a pair from perennial leader Hermann J. Wiemer, including its Riesling Seneca Lake Dry Magdalena Vineyard 2014 (91, $36), round out the top late-release '14s.

With the challenging 2015 growing season coming on the heels of the Indian summer-marked '14, the wet '13 and the warm and dry '12, it's clear that Finger Lakes producers can produce quality under myriad conditions. These wines merit the full attention of consumers who appreciate generally dry, freshly styled aromatic whites and more.

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of the Finger Lakes.

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