Finding the wine pulse of the Finger Lakes

Grape crush at Shaw Vineyards

Grape crush at Shaw Vineyards
Photo: Shaw Vineyards

as seen on

New York’s Finger Lakes is the largest wine growing region in the state, located along and adjacent the south-north flows of Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Canandaigua. The pastures perched nearly 1000 feet high upon the plateaus terraced upwards from their shores teem in colour and fertility; in red cherry, in knobbly purple asparagus, in wild, green grasses and grapevines.

Though pastoral and eerily quiet, the Finger Lakes area is anything but boring or benign. It necessitates some required reading and historical courting. That begins with Elmira’s own Mark Twain and without question a visually stunning and cerebral cortex stimulating visit to the Corning Museum of Glass. The collection of royal and ancient glass, interactive exhibits and live demonstrations are mind-blowing and utterly unique. Best of all, the @corningmuseum is run like a business and a cooperative, free from the suffocating, bureaucratic strings of government interest. Employees are young, near-hipster, informed and confident, with and without attitude.

Drive north from Corning in the late afternoon sun and see deer grazing in farmer’s fields. Walk the pier at the southern tip of Seneca Lake and go old school dining. Watkins Glen State Park is the site of a set of waterfalls so gorgeous you will imagine yourself anywhere but in the heart of New York. Oft-referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East (a stretch for sure), it truly is something else.

The caveat to this report begins with an admission of remission to the wineries, distilleries and breweries not visited on account of not being located on the western trail of Route 14 up Seneca Lake. Certainly remiss to have missed visiting the iconic Dr. Frank, the emerging star Anthony Road, Two Goats Brewing and Finger Lakes Distilling. A pang of regret lingers for lost time spent underwhelmed at Magnus Ridge. The 1970’s tasting room and stemware felt like a mirror that adds 30 lbs and who can concentrate on MOR Riesling, Pinot Gris and Lemberger while the vineyard manager (at least that’s the part he seemed to be playing) sweats, rehydrates and flashes a never-blinking, hairy eyeball your way. I felt like Pudd’nhead Wilson, tasting through wines as Cauliflower, “nothing but cabbage with a college education.” I suppose a rain check benefit of the doubt should be extended, considering the owners were away in Florida.

A 10 deep tasting at Fulkerson Wines showed off every style under the FL sun and that was only a small percentage of what could have been sampled. Dry Rieslings, in particular the William Vigne showed best. Gruner Veltliner 2012 and Pinot Noir 2010 ponied up the highest level of intrigue to walk out with a bottle of each. Still, the excess of portfolio dilutes and commercializes the exercise.  Riesling and Cabernet Franc are and should be the region’s signature wines. Dabbles in Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Brut-style bubbles are all to be encouraged.

“High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

The sense of community and cohesion that to me defines Ontario’s wine industry, especially in Niagara, is here not at once obvious. Many vintners make reference to the oenology research and development department at Cornell University and so it seems to be both the region’s patriarch and unifying factor. Next weekend’s Finger Lakes Wine Festival would likely go a long way to impress upon a taster a truer sense of famiglia. A myriad of wine making and production styles mark the region’s 100 plus wineries and two Seneca Lake houses struck me as buoy markers for the past and as harbingers for the future of viticulture in Yates County. Hermann J. Wiemer clearly sets the Finger Lakes standard while unheralded Shaw Vineyards shines as the hidden gem. Though polar opposites in attitude and execution, together they mark the Finger Lakes twain. They to me present a model to compare and contrast the stylistic spectrum of wine production found in the Finger Lakes.

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

Dundee, NY,, @HermannJWiemer

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

To those who say that the concept of terroir is bullshit, the principals at Wiemer scream to disagree. They believe so strongly in micro-climates and site specific growing areas that they designed the greatest ever wine map of their vineyard holdings and hung it in the tasting room for all to see. “Seneca Lake is the conduit between the sun and soil, giving its blessing and transforming the land fortunate enough to be near it to become terroir.” Wiemer has set the modern era bar for excellence and international approval in the Finger Lakes. Their Riesling speaks of the soil, shale and bedrock below, their facility of grace, elegance and architectural fine lines. Sustainability and biodynamic practices are more than buzz words. I’ve never seen so many ‘regulars’ paying a visit to say hello, taste through the portfolio and walk away with so much product. Wiemer has it figured out – their finger is pointed directly upon the pulse of the lakes. Co-owner Oskar Bynke lead me through the distinguished line-up.

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard wine map

PHOTO: Michael Godel
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard wine map

Rosé Cuvée NV ($12.50) argues old-school values by blending vintages and does so in sheer modernity from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and a quick date with Chardonnay. Suggests a dry, southern French attitude.  87

Dry Riesling 2012 ($18.50) seems near-Kabinett to nose but is really what Oskar calls “Trocken Spätlese,” or dry, late-harvest. A smack dosage of tree fruit in hyper-ripe tone gets upside and personal with your sense of smell. Terrific entry into the world of Wiemer Riesling.  89

Riesling Reserve 2012 (not yet released) tasted from a tank sample increases in viscous velocity and fueled tension. With this one “I think it’s gonna be a long, long, time ’til touchdown brings me ’round again to find” the reserve ready to offer Riesling gratification. In terms of this grape, in this part of the world, this one’s a rocket man90-91

Dry Riesling Magdalena Vineyard 2012 (not yet released) from tank ramps up the citrus and petrol and at an increased level of concentration. Magdalena comes from a more Northern site, away from the sheltered warmth of the lake. Cooler in dimension, not unlike the laser-pitch of Beamsville’s Thirty Bench Steelpost. This is dazzling juice, with diamond clarity and pure, cool-climate fruit.  91-92

Semi-Dry Riesling 2012 ($17.00) summers in warmer climes, snacks on ripe, tropical fruit and lays down for a siesta. Closest of the line-up to a true Mosel Kabinett, minus the slate, mineral and flint. Flirty and foxy, “a cute little heartbreaker.” Lady of the house.  88

Hermann J. Wiemer wines, from left: Dry Riesling 2012, Gewürztraminer 2012, Cuvée Brut 2006, Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009, Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling (TBA) 2008

Hermann J. Wiemer wines, from left: Dry Riesling 2012, Gewürztraminer 2012, Cuvée Brut 2006, Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009, Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling (TBA) 2008

Late Harvest Riesling 2012 ($24.50) emulates the Spätlese thematic and unlike its Ontario counterparts is really not like dessert wine at all. Has enough atomic weight to match food of spice and capsicum-laced ethnicity while still remaining earthbound. A honeyed accent speaks for the bees. Delicate and floral on the lighter (5.6 per cent alcohol) side of vinous life.  90

Gewürztraminer 2012 ($25.00) from the oldest plantings in the region is as good as it gets in North America. No, really. This is the best expression to date. Impeccable balance, nary a bitter note and all the varietal components are there. Rosewater, South-Asian tree fruit, almond blossom, citrus and density. Dry and dewy. Delish.  91

Cuvée Brut 2006 ($32.00) disgorged in 2013 is tightly wound around itself, magnetic, animated, indefatigable bubbles. Yeasty bread speaks of the Champenoise, as does the arid Tarlant Zero tart apple style. Good fizz.  90

Cabernet Franc 2010 ($23.00) spends time in neutral barrels so a scant trace of vanilla succumbs to ripe cranberry, red rose and July Chemung cherries. Peppery without ringing a bell and current but not tart currant. For pleasure in the here and now.  88

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 ($28.00) deepens the focus. Fermented in individual 100 gallon lots and aged for 10 months in new and older French oak barrels. More bite, grit and conversation here. “The average man don’t like trouble and danger,” but I’ll chew on this CF any day.  A Huckleberry Finn to the normale‘s Tom Sawyer.  90

Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling (TBA) 2008 ($95.00, 375 mL) does German Trockenbeerenauslese like no one else on this side of the pond. As a dessert wine it walks that fine sugary line, refusing to sacrifice acidity for love. An expertly extracted and refined sweety that holds “the ends out for the tie that binds.”  Just a drop will do you.  Cash money.  93

Shaw Vineyard

Himrod, NY,

Steve Shaw has been involved in Finger Lakes viticulture for 40 years. In appearance, he and his winery seem the antithesis of their state-of-the-art brethren down the road. But don’t be fooled by appearances. Serious winemaking and an experimental scientist’s work is at hand. Shaw is part J. L. Groux (Stratus Vineyards), Arlo Guthrie and Jim Clendenan. His wines currently on the market have been aged low and slow. “I know we are a little off the radar compared to other Finger Lakes wineries, but we kind of like it like that” he says. “We are working hard to offer a nice line up of aged and age worthy wines for the wine drinkers that want something a little different.” Shaw chooses not to focus on the over-discussed. He is unconcerned with disingenuous wine speak. He needs not linger over the merits of indigenous yeasts and pseudo bio-dynamics. He avoids bâtonnage, is frank about the necessity of sulphuring and concerning a winemaker’s duty to resist overburdening wine with heavy oak distraction. His reds reach healthy brix levels and they are encouraged to speak their mind. They are pure expressions of Seneca and Keuka Lake grapes and are truly made in the vineyard. He notes, “our unique approach to wine making uses gentle extraction methods with both our red and white wines.”


PHOTO: Shaw Vineyards

Chardonnay 2005 ($15.00) was whole cluster pressed and barrel aged in (two to three year-old) French oak for approximately 24 months. Reminiscent of older Chablis, in green apple, citrus and ever so slightly blooming cheese.  Lithe and ready to desist. Catch a Lake Trout, grill and match.  87

Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($19.00) was hand-picked at optimal varietal ripeness and flavor, whole cluster pressed and shocked with an initial cold ferment. Shaw then went Dr. Frankenstein on his juice by choosing to leave it on the fine lees for over one year to help develop complexity and mouthfeel. Singular to itself, incomparable to Loire, Marlborough or Stellenbosch for that matter. Possessed of a perfume, like honey-fragrant dogwoods, like marshy white cranberry. “Nothing in the world smells like this” SB. “Smells like, victory.”  90

Riesling 2008 ($17.00) developed some Botrytis (noble rot), was whole cluster pressed, cool fermented,  properly sulphured and left on fine lees for 36 months. Riesling vinified by a rogue master’s attitude. Exculpates sweetness and humidity, turns arid and is metered by citrus cohones and prickly petrol. Crazy cool.  91

LiBella Pinot Grigio NV ($15.00) blends the cool ferments of 2011 (60 per cent) and 2012 (40) and also receives the Shaw proprietary lengthy 12-24 months of fine lees contact. Similar in aromatic profile to the Chardonnay but with a richer palate. Certainly not your Alto Adige PG, nor Veneto neither. All Finger Lakes.  85

Pinot Noir Reserve 2008 ($30.00) was unfiltered, unfined and subjected to a lengthy cold soak. Whole berry fermentation, repeated punch downs and gentle, low pressure pressing has allowed for what Shaw sees as a “fuller, more complex flavor and surprising aromatics.” Spent 36 months in French oak searching for and discovering the holy trinity balance between alcohol, fruit and acidity.  89

Keuka Hill Reserve 2007 ($30.00) looks to the Gironde with 40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 Cabernet Franc and 30 Merlot. Deft and coddling vinification processes were employed as they are with all of Shaw’s reds. A lengthy 48 months in French oak barrels has done the tannin softening and perfused this Bordeaux blend with a complex, Old World style. A glass of warming, resolved and velvety carmine ink.  91

Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($35.00) saw very similar treatment and also spent 48 months in primarily French oak barrels but also some Pennsylvania oak, resulting in already soft tannins and subtle aromatics. Another one of Shaw’s gracefully-aged experiments “more interested in laying up the riches of the mind” than burdening the taster with mocha jam and crème anglaise.  89

Cabernet Franc 2007 ($35.00) slumbered cryogenically for 48 months in primarily French and with some American oak. The variety’s kinship with the climate and a winemaker’s keen understanding of crop reduction makes for a more aromatically profuse wine and so I prefer it over the Cabernet Sauvignon. Avoids the grape’s natural vegetative tendency and finds natural balance. Has retained more bite and looks to have plenty of life ahead.  90

Shaw Vineyard Riesling 2008

PHOTO: Michael Godel
Shaw Vineyard Riesling 2008

Good to go!

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