Riesling Reflections: Finger Lakes Riesling
- by Dan Berger
I’ve been a big fan of Finger Lakes Rieslings for a long time, in part because of the intriguing variation of aroma and taste characteristics from within one region, which I’m still trying to understand.
When you want to know something about what’s in a particular wine, you typically go to a university viticulture and enology department and pose a specific question.
If the college does a research project on the issue, it may take years to get any meaningful results. But what happens when it’s hard to even formulate the question?
That’s the case with the Finger Lakes Riesling. One of the first questions that arose with this fast-growing category of wine wasn’t that complicated: Is there a distinctive regional difference between the Rieslings of the various areas of the Finger Lakes? And if so, what are the differences?
We could also ask, “Which specific attributes are worth fostering, and are there any negative attributes that are worth trying to minimize?” And, “Do these differences really exist? And if so, are they related to growing vines or to enological decisions?” And then came the confusing questions that make answering the first one so difficult:
Do the Finger Lakes have such variable seasons that Riesling comes out radically different each
Is the choice of yeast strain very important, slightly important, or unimportant in the final result? Does the temperature of fermentation affect any of this?
And it keeps getting worse.
From an intuitive point of view, Peter Bell, wine maker at Fox Run Vineyards, said that a few years ago he firmly believed there were differences between the various regions surrounding the lakes.
“I used to think that the west side of Keuka made more minerally kinds of wines,” said Bell, “but I have had to kind of change my mind in recent years. It seems to be that wine maker intervention trumps the regional issues, and today I see no discernable differences.
“I’m prepared to believe that all three — Keuka, Cayuga, and Seneca – make very similar wines.” Some of what Bell now believes came out of a recent Cornell University study coordinated by Anna Katherine Mansfield, assistant professor, who said that there may be some subtle differences, but that generally, “We see a need to define Finger Lakes Riesling as a whole.” Mansfield said “the challenge of east coast wine making” throws a monkey wrench into such investigations.
The research project was done on a site-specific basis, rather than sorting by lake. So the vineyards used were on the east shores of three lakes, Seneca, Keuka, and Cayuga.
“And what we found was, there were no significant differences,” she said.
In 2009, weather was so wet “no vines were water stressed,” and the differences between sites were subtly apparent. In 2010 it was warmer, causing some water stress — “and water stress affects the production of monoterpenes and the TDN [petroleum] notes could change.”
Mansfield said the research did find some differences in the wines from different regions, but there are many differences and variables.
She added, “You get more of the tropical flavors and pineapple from a southeast Seneca wine and the wines of the northwest shore show more lime and apple, and the wines are really steely and minerally on Keuka Lake, and the wines show less of the fruit forward character.” But she asked rhetorically if the differences were really related to the styles of the producers.
“And certainly it is related to the yeast strains used and the temperatures of fermentation — all of that impacts it.”
Bell said he was not “consciously bowing down to some altar of a similar style of wine; I’m not trying to toe the line of a style for this lake.”
Chris Gerling, also of Cornell, noted that weather in the Finger Lakes “is so variable that we have no standards of production from year to year. I have no idea what a typical year is for us. In 2009, it was so cool and moist wine makers were all asking how do you get the acid out? Then in 2010, we had the
opposite problem, lower acids.”
He said vintage variations make such investigations difficult to do. “2007 was not a prototypical year, it was warm and dry, and many people did different things in the vineyards.” That year, he said, there was a bit of rain in October, which had an effect on the final wines. “Some people picked before the rain, some people picked after.”
He said 2008 might have been better suited for a look into regional distinctiveness; “you might get a better handle on regional character. However, although there are more good characteristics in 2008, that may not magnify the differences more.
“And then what happens when some wineries use a synthetic cork? The wine may not last as long, or it might.”
So far, with mixed results as well as differing weather patterns, all we know for sure is that Riesling consumers around the world who have tasted these wines now get the fact that “Finger Lakes Riesling” is a phrase that automatically implies high quality, and still leaves us with questions of specificity that we have not yet answered – or even posed!