Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tasting Notes: New York Slate of Rieslings

Of all the classic grape varieties, Riesling is arguably the one most affected by its terroir. Of course, all grapes are influnced by their soil and climate and whatever other elements one factors into the T-word, but Riesling seems to be so delicate and sensitive that it can take up the actual taste of shale or slate or sediment from the earth of the vineyard where it is growing and transfer it into our glass of wine. So it may not be surprising that among people who drink a variety of wines, Riesling also appears to be one grape or wine where preferences as to what is great or merely good also varies most widely. Perhaps it is because there are so many variables within the glass that it is difficult to settle on one, or even a set, that best shows off the variety.

All this came to mind a couple of days ago when Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine, led a tasting of 10 selected wines at the 2008 Finger Lakes Riesling Summit at the Astor Wine Center in lower Manhattan. Greene is an expert at the region, one that he has staked out, but rather than being pedantic, he was like an museum curator who has put together an exhibit and wants you to understand what went through his mind in assembling it, including connections that may be tenuous even to his own mind. Ten wines was a workable number -- big enough to give a representational variety, yet small enough to examine in detail.

Which is what Greene did. He explained that his main theme was terroir, and he started with the geographic component, a distribution of locations around the three major lakes, Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka, assembling the wines into three flights according to their location. This geographic spread also allowed him to examine two other primary aspects of Finger Lakes terroir -- soil composition and the region's multiple lake effects, including those of Lake Ontario to the north. Which led to a discussion of the 500-pound gorilla in the room, in this case the far-larger glaciers that alternately gouged and flattened the landscape, creating deep lakes and plateaus. By selecting these 10 wines, Greene wanted to open the consideration of how these major points of terroir affected the grapes grown and the wines made. But it was also clear that he was not leading a rush to judgment, to tidily wrap up the causal factors in each wine's tastes.

"You get a lot of variability of factors that have nothing to do with terroir," he said, and easily brought many of them into the discussion, which was aided by a sampling of the wines. For example, the yeast used for fermentation. Or the rootstock. The clone. Age of vines. Drainage. Aspect. Density of planting. Yield per vine. Oxygen treatment. Acidity. Residual sugar. Levels of alcohol. And, of course, the philosophy of the wine grower. To be sure, we wine writers had been through all this before, in rooms with other regions and other grapes, but Greene's exploration seemed at once intellectual and entertaining, performed in a thorough yet casual manner.

More than anything else, I came away with the idea that soil, from the granular level to the fractured slabs of slate, has more to do with the way a Finger Lakes Riesling (or any Riesling) tastes than anything else, that ability of the Riesling grape to bring what is at its roots to the tips of our tongues. It is a marvelous sensory achievement, but it still leaves us with the difficult decision of which roots, and which winegrower who interprets those roots, makes the best wine.

As a group, the Finger Lake wines, all from the 2006 vintage, were good to very good. They reflected great minerality, balance, acidity in most cases, and food-friendly flavors. Were they as good as the German Rieslings -- or those of Alsace, Australia or New Zealand? The question is bound to be asked, and, to my palate, the answer is a qualified "no." Certainly, the wines are worthy of exploring further, of our rooting for them to improve with each coming vintage. So, very well-made wines, very enjoyable wines, very good wines for the price (mostly under $30), but not wines that dance around on the palate and through the brain.

So, for now, enjoy the wines. But don't schedule that Judgment in Wiesbaden.

Notes on the Wines Tasted

All wines tasted are from the 2006 vintage, and all are apparently made of 100% Riesling. Retail prices and availability not provided,

The Favorite:

  • Treleaven Dry Riesling. The only wine to exhibit much of the petroleum-like aromas so associated with German Rieslings, it has almost tropical fruit and citrus flower flavors, excellent balance, with a flavorful, yet lea, profile.
Not Far Behind:
  • Fox Run Reserve Riesling. Haunting pears and mineral aromas, followed by a wine that is initially in two parts: juicy tart apricot (pause) followed by stony minerality and a white peach skin finish. It melds the longer it is in the glass, so I would decant before serving, even if that isn't the current practice.
  • White Springs Red Label Riesling. Mote-like particulates in the glass (unfiltered?), but the wine itself has great Riesling juiciness and acidity. Not long on the palate, however.

In the Running:

  • Chateau LaFayette Reneau Johannisberg Riesling. Fruity on the nose and velvety in the mouth with nice white flowers framed by tonic-water prickling around the edges.
  • Red Newt Riesling Reserve. Very lean, raspy minerality, with ripe, red gooseberry flavors.

In the Pack:

  • Buttonwood Grove Dry Riesling. A little heavier on the palate with not as much finesse, the flavors coming mainly at the finish.
  • Sheldrake Point Reserve. Very nice aromas and tart orange flavors, but fuller, heavier with some tart vegetal notes and a constricting finish.
  • Standing Stone Riesling. Good balance, but not a lot of fruit. Most of its considerable character comes from the minerality.
  • Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling. Delicious nose and good flavors, but comes up short with some papery undertastes.
  • Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling. This is a wine I wanted to like even more than I did -- beautiful nose and a bundle of varietal fruits up front and even some dusty tannins, but it lacks finesse and is short on the palate.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

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