GRAPE EXPECTATIONS

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The Millbrook Winery (top), one of the leading
Hudson River Valley wineries, and Finger Lakes region winery Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards (bottom).

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I still think of New York State wines as being clumsy and barely drinkable? Think again.

“The bad reputation of New York State wines is disappearing,” said Hermann Wiemer, the German-born proprietor of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard of Dundee, NY. “More good quality wines are being produced than ever before from Long Island to the Finger Lakes.”

Wiemer continued: “I remember when I started with Walter Taylor at Bully Hill in 1968. There was so much undrinkable wine around… from everywhere in the state. But it soon became clear to me that the Finger Lakes region held tremendous potential as a wine district for cool climate grape varieties, such as riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir.

“Now, with all the remarkable progress in vineyard management and winemaking technique, especially in the last decade, we’re finally seeing the rewards in the form of well-made wines, wines that are winning acclaim at international competitions and in the press.”

As an example, early last year, Wiemer’s superlative riesling became part of a wine list focused on German rieslings at Lutèce, the renowned French restaurant in New York City.

Mark Wagner, owner of the Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, a young, award-winning winery near Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes, described why he thought New York State wines have improved so dramatically in the last few years: “Competition is forcing everyone to produce better wines from better grapes. The days of mediocre, clumsy wines from native grapes have given way to elegant, well-balanced wines made from the classic varieties, like chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir and the cabernets (sauvignon and franc).”

Indeed, everything changed for the state’s wine industry when it became clear in the 1970s that the classic vitis vinifera grape types of European origin could successfully be cultivated in the various regions, even those with harsh climates, such as the Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley.

Scott Osborn, president of Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake — a progressive winery that specializes in riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc — believes in the state’s wine renaissance and even welcomes more competition. “The young guys are driving the older producers to continually improve. This type of competition is healthy. I want more quality wineries to open up around us because it’ll help the entire region to become a serious player in the wine world.”

Long Island’s North Fork region broke ground as a wine district in 1973 when Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted the initial commercial vitis vinifera vineyard. In the subsequent quarter century, the North Fork has catapulted forward, becoming one of the state’s premier regions with frequently stunning merlots, cabernet sauvignons and cabernet francs.

Bob Pellegrini, a successful Manhattan graphic designer, purchased his vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island in 1989. Pellegrini’s first vintage, the 1992, totaled 2,800 cases. Last year, he topped 10,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, a meritage red, and even an ice wine made up of gewürztraminer and sauvignon blanc. Growth has been sure and steady.

Said Pellegrini of the North Fork’s status, “Everyone looks to Napa Valley when it comes to the bordeaux claret-style reds. We feel that we have a better climate because the Forks are impacted by the maritime influence, very similar to Bordeaux. Napa isn’t. It’s much warmer, with a shorter growing season. Sugar isn’t the only measure of top quality reds. Acid is every bit as important. Our lengthy growing season promotes both sugar and acid in our grapes.”

New York State winemakers can’t help but draw a line in the sand for their California counterparts now that they’re employing many of the same grape types.

Peter Saltonstall, who owns and operates King Ferry Winery on Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes, is particularly proud of his reserve chardonnays. “We barrel-ferment our chardonnays in Hungarian, French and American oak barrels, looking more for crispness than for woodiness. My problem with some California chardonnays is the heavy oakiness.”

After trekking to France’s Burgundy region a couple of times, Saltonstall learned to appreciate the classical chardonnays, such as Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, of the Cote de Beaune. Saltonstall espouses the theory of allowing his chardonnays more time in maturity at the winery before releasing them for consumption. “I think it’s a disservice to the grape if the wines are released too soon. They shouldn’t be rushed into the marketplace.”

Positioning NY Wines In Your Store

* The history angle. Many wine lovers crave to know the history behind their wine selections. There is plenty of interesting information about the New York wine industry.

Grapes were first planted by the Dutch in Manhattan as early as 1647 by most accounts. Later in 1667, French Huguenot immigrants planted European grape vines in the Hudson Valley — the plantings failed, and the settlers turned to native varieties. In 1827, the first commercial vineyard/winery was established at Croton Point on the Hudson River. Two years later in 1829, a clergyman planted the Finger Lakes’ initial vineyard in his rectory garden in Hammondsport. In 1850, techniques in pruning and vine training appeared both in the Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley. Great Western Champagne, which comes from this area, won the first gold medal ever bestowed on an American wine in a foreign competition.

During Prohibition (1920-1933), many New York wineries survived by producing sacramental wine and grape juice. In 1936, Charles Fournier introduced hybrid grape types made by combining French and American stocks. In 1953, winemaking pioneer Konstantin Frank started planting vitis vinifera grape types in the Finger Lakes. New York state boasted 19 wineries in 1976. The New York Wine & Grape Foundation was created in 1985 by the state legislature to promote New York state wines and to conduct research in support of the wine industry.

* The appellations pitch. Today’s wine drinkers are also very “location minded,” meaning they like to hear the details about the place of origin of their wines, such as soil types and microclimates. New York state’s appellations are as intriguing as they are stunningly beautiful.

Currently, New York boasts approximately 100 wineries in six delineated appellations, or growing regions: Lake Erie in the westernmost part of the state that girds the Great Lake of the same name; the picturesque Finger Lakes (Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga Lakes) in the west-central part of New York; Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes that’s deemed to possess a unique microclimate of its own — it’s sort of an appellation within an appellation; Hudson River Valley, one of America’s oldest and prettiest wine districts, conveniently located 75 miles north of New York City; the North Fork of Long Island, which along with the Finger Lakes is New York’s brightest wine region and located just 100 miles east of Manhattan; and the Hamptons on Long Island’s South Fork, where the primary influence is the Atlantic Ocean.

The four regions to keep a trained eye on at present are: the Finger Lakes, Cayuga Lake, the North Fork of Long Island and the Hudson River Valley. These are the areas where the most substantial gains have been made in the past few years in terms of upgrading vineyards, planting traditional European grapes and winemaking techniques. They are also the areas where more and more wineries are opening for business.

Top-gun varietal wine types of the Finger Lakes/Cayuga area, which more than 50 wineries call home, are riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir, all classic vitis vinifera varieties. The reason: These three grapes all thrive in cooler locales and can survive cold, snowy winters.

Generally speaking, the Finger Lakes/Cayuga rieslings are wonderful wines and can compare with the flowery, delicate, but complex styles of German rieslings. There are several superb high-sugar, late harvest rieslings from Finger Lakes/Cayuga as well. Don’t easily dismiss the floral pleasures of the rieslings that are designated as “dry” because they are some of this region’s most delightful treasures. Finger Lakes/Cayuga are America’s premier wine regions for riesling. That you can take to the bank.

Also, Finger Lakes/Cayuga sparkling wines are increasingly being made with the customary grapes that make French champagne: chardonnay and pinot noir. Glenora, Chateau Frank, Fox Run and Lamoreaux Landing are front-runners in this endeavor. Pinot noir is showing promise in terms of exhibiting the coveted cherry/brick color and zesty aromas and flavors. Don’t shun some of the so-called French hybrid grape types, especially the Seyval Blanc, which is responsible for more than a few of the Lakes’ delectable dry white wines.

Also,watch for a few limited bottlings of Finger Lakes Bordeaux-style reds made from cabernet franc, merlot and even cabernet sauvignon.

The Hudson Valley appellation, home to more than 20 wineries, is experiencing its finest days ever, due in large measure to wineries like trailblazing Millbrook on the east side of the Hudson and a resurgent Rivendell on the west bank. These vintners are leading the region with wines like chardonnay, cabernet franc, merlot, seyval blanc and pinot noir. A dark horse variety to watch out for in the Hudson Valley: sangiovese.

Long Island is also home to more than wineries. While the chamber of commerce hype labeling Long Island as “America’s Bordeaux” is just that, hype, the fact remains that some of this continent’s most claret-like reds do indeed hail from the North Fork appellation. Their supple, graceful merlots, chardonnays and cabernets continually improve. The North Fork appellation at the moment is far outdistancing the neighboring Hamptons appellation in terms of growth and overall quality. That trend will continue. The island’s really big names — and majority of wineries — inhabit the North Fork, period.

Wine types to keep an eye out for possible future development on the North Fork: pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc.

* The “savvy wine drinker relishes variety” approach: Wine consumers of the late 1990s are the most adventurous in memory. New discoveries excite your patrons and keep them coming back for more. New York State wines offer an amazingly broad spectrum of location, grape types and wine styles, from sparkling and still to dessert wines.

So, position yourself and your store as being genuine wine-trend prophets and begin touting what could well become America’s hottest wine state of the new millennium — New York.


F. Paul Pacult is the co-host of “The Happy Hour,” a weekly radio program, wine columnist for Sky, Delta’s in-flight magazine, and the author of Kindred Spirits.


America’s Second Largest

After California, New York produces the most wine in the U.S., and, coincidentally, the state is home to the second-largest wine company in the country — the Canandaigua Wine Co. Interestingly, this New York wine company produces an impressive lineup of California table wines including Deer Valley, Dunnewood and Inglenook Estate Cellars; high-volume value California table wines including Almaden, Paul Masson and Inglenook Premium Select; and Cook’s California sparkling wine. The company also markets the popular South American imports, Marcus James from Brazil, and Viña Santa Carolina from Chile.

But Canandaigua also continues to produce several wines in New York State. Indeed, New York’s Great Western sparkling wine was re-staged in 1996 as a chardonnay champagne, according to the company, and has been doing well since. And Taylor dessert wine has seen significant growth the past three years to more than 625,000 9-liter cases. Among Canandaigua’s other New York-produced wines are the Widmer line of varietals as well as the famous kosher wine, Manischewitz.

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