Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by Shannon Brock, wine coordinator at the New York Wine & Culinary Center.
Those in the know are well aware that Finger Lakes wines, particularly rieslings, are capable of ageing ten years or more. A couple weeks ago, a group of Finger Lakes wine community members gathered at Red Newt Cellars prove it.
Their mission: to select about 40 library wines to send to James Molesworth of Wine Spectator.
The hope is that if Molesworth finds the wines to be holding up well over time, or even improving, he may begin using phrases other than “drink now” when rating Finger Lakes wines. The tasting also may lead to Finger Lakes being listed on the magazine's vintage chart.
Organized by Morgen McLaughlin of Finger Lakes Wine Country, and officiated by Richard Leahy, organizer of the International Eastern Wine Competition, the tasting included about 75 wines dating back to 1988. Wines were organized by varietal and style, with the oldest vintages tasted first within each flight. Wines were brown-bagged and numbered. Approximately 20 tasters, myself included, were asked to eliminate wines that had noticeable faults or were distinctly different from the rest of the group.
Tasters included Dave Whiting, owner and winemaker at Red Newt, Steve DiFrancesco, winemaker at Glenora Vineyards, Mark Veraguth, winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Chris Stamp, winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards, Ted Marks, owner of Atwater Vineyards, Morten Hallgren, owner and winemaker at Ravines Wine Cellars, John and Stacy McGregor, owners of McGregor Vineyards, Paul Brock, winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing, Bob Madill, owner of Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Marti Macinski, owner and winemaker at Standing Stone Vineyards, and Leigh Triner, owner of Hazlitt.
We were split into two groups: one group tasted riesling, chardonnary, gewurztraminer, and sparkling wines. The other group tasted pinot noir, merlot, cabernet franc, Bordeaux-style blends and dessert wines.
At the end of the official tasting, we were allowed to taste the other wines, but our scores for those did not count. Bottles were set up on counters around the perimeter of the room and we tasted standing up. Some conversation ensued during the tasting, mostly about possible faults or indicators of excellence.
By the end, tasters were energized and proud of what they found in their glasses.
In the dry and semi-dry riesling categories, it was difficult to eliminate wines. With the exception of one corked and two oxidized bottles, the wines all had merit. Flavors ranged from petrol to bright citrus to intense mineral. Many of the wines from 2002 and 2003 still seemed young and fresh. A 1991 Dr. Frank Dry and a 1988 McGregor Semi-dry were the oldest in their respective categories and remained amazingly balanced, with petrol and nutty aromas. Several of the rieslings received unanimous approval from the group, including 1991 Lamoreaux Landing Semi-dry, 1995 and 1996 Dr. Frank Semi-dry, 2000 Atwater Dry, 2001 Red Newt Off-dry, and 2002 Sheldrake Point Dry and Semi-dry.
In the chardonnay and Gewurztraminer categories, fewer wines were entered and only one was deemed worthy of Molesworth: a 2001 Atwater Gewurztraminer. I was disappointed that all of the chardonnays were kicked out. Two were superb: 1993 Lamoreaux Landing, which won Best of Show in the New World Chardonnay competition back in 1994, and the 2003 Ravines, which is at its peak right now. I think people under-appreciate aged characteristics in chardonnay. Also, there seems to be an attitude among most in the Finger Lakes to move the variety to the back burner. It’s a shame because some producers are doing an excellent job with it, as evidenced by this tasting.
A pleasant surprise was in the sparkling wine category. Steve DiFrancesco brought 4 bottles of Glenora sparkling. The 1988 20th Anniversary Cuvee Brut won him a roaring toast from the group, and his 98 Brut and 98 Blanc de Blancs will also be sent to Molesworth.
The group was disappointed by the pesky Pinot Noir category, but found some nice things happening in bottles of merlot, cabernet franc and the Bordeaux-style blends.
Unanimous support went to 1999 Red Newt Merlot, 2001 Sheldrake Barrel Reserve Merlot, 1998 Hazlitt Cabernet Franc, 2001 Heron Hill Cabernet Franc, and 1999 Dr. Frank Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The reds were difficult to taste because they were not decanted and obviously needed some time to breathe. The ones that were eliminated often had oxidation or acetic acid. Standouts had pretty bottle-age aromas and fruit with soft tannins. Some of the newer vintages like 2002 Meritage blends from Standing Stone, Sheldrake, and Ravines, seemed like they even needed more time before they would show their best.
Dessert wines largely failed to deliver, mostly because I had high expectations for them. Late harvest wines can be some of the longest lived of all wines, and the Finger Lakes has a good reputation in this style. Out of 8 wines, only 3 were chosen for Molesworth, and none of them unanimously. They were 1993 McGregor Late Harvest Vignoles, and 2000 and 2004 Standing Stone Vidal Ice.
I’d like to add a few of caveats about the results of this tasting. First, bottle variation in older wines is commonplace. If you get the chance to try the wines mentioned above, you may have an entirely different experience. Scarily, Molesworth will likely get a few bottles that are nothing like the ones we tried. That’s part of the triumph and the heartbreak of old wines.
Second, wine tasters — even experienced ones like those in this group — are victims of their own experience. Few of us get a chance to taste older wines regularly, so it can be hard to know if what you smell is okay or not. The chardonnay example from above is a prime example.
All in all, I don’t think the results of this tasting were skewed by this. Only a few of the wines that I eliminated were chosen to move ahead, and nearly every wine that I felt was excellent quality was chosen.
You may be wondering why some well-known wineries were missing from the tasting. According to Morgen, all wineries that were making premium vinifera wines before 2003 were invited. Some simply chose not to participate. At least one non-participating winery cited the use of synthetic corks as a reason why their older wines would not be competitive (because these closures begin to break down over time and the wine becomes oxidized). Perhaps wineries can finally give up these corks, at least in their premium wines?
This unprecedented tasting proves not only that Finger Lakes varietals are capable of ageing, but that the achievement of this important milestone is more widespread than previously known. Prior to this tasting, I had only experienced older wines from a few wineries: Dr. Frank’s, which sometimes offers library tastings at wine conferences, and Hermann J. Wiemer and Standing Stone, which offer library wines for sale at their wineries from time to time. The wines chosen by the tasters last Friday represent a much larger group of producers. At the end of the tasting, discussion turned to ways that older wines can be shared with the public, so that everyone can enjoy the accomplishment we got to experience. Cheers to that!