By Evan Dawson
Hosmer Winery winemaker Aaron Roisen cannot help himself. If you spend more than five minutes with him, he's going to blurt out something so unique, so memorable, that you're going to wonder if it's all an act.
No one is this quick-witted, right? No one is this quirky, this astute, this honest. Right?
It's not an act with Roisen, whose comments might occasionally seem condescending when written on a notepad, but his charm comes from his humble authenticity. He speaks his mind, but he doesn't seek to offend.
Ask him about Lemberger, and he quickly maligns the big, dark, oaky versions he finds occasionally. "It might have Donald Trump's hair, but it doesn't want to be a real estate mogul," Roisen says in reference to Lemberger's dark color on the vine.
When it comes to what kind of wine Lemberger should be, Roisen says, "It should be like all the good parts of pinot noir without the gag reflex when it gets overdone. Most people are over-oaking Lemberger. It's a light red wine that people don't really know how to follow through on."
He's also not a fan of the trend that sees Lemberger blended with cabernet franc (his beloved "Frankie"). "That blend is not true to the varieties!" Roisen says. "It's got to do its own thing, which is fruit driven, almost like an easy-drinking Sangiovese."
And regarding the use of oak in any red wine, Roisen offers this: "It's like the chorus in Dante's Inferno. Necessary, but probably the boring part."
He is unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom in Finger Lakes winemaking, but he's also one of the nicest guys you'll meet.
Balanced Vines: Smaller Crops Don't Mean Better Crops at Hosmer
Standing in a row of Hosmer riesling, which is developing beautifully, Roisen asks me if I want to "go check out the Frankie." It leads to a discussion about crop loads. On this subject, Hosmer parts ways with what has become conventional wisdom among some producers — and certainly among most wine writers.
At Hosmer, reducing crop size is often seen as a bad idea, not a good one.
"Our pinot noir is usually four or five tons to the acre," Roisen explains. "The Frankie is five tons, sometimes more. You're making a mistake if you fixate on getting a tiny amount of fruit on each acre of land."
"We care about balance, because balance is what leads to quality," says Tunker Hosmer, the owner and longtime grower. Tunker is gregarious and jocular and, like his winemaker, unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. "Some vines can support a lot of fruit, and some can support less. You can't over-generalize."
The easiest way to determine whether the Hosmer approach is working is to taste the wines, and that means young wines and wines with some bottle age. The evidence is strong in Hosmer's favor.
The cabernet franc, never the darkest and heaviest in the region, is light-to-medium bodied in most vintages, and even the 10-year-old versions show some energy.
Roisen thinks some winemakers fixate on crop load with pinot noir in particular. "When it gets super-low in yield, it gets weedy and green," he says, making a face. "That is not what we're looking for."
It all sets up an interesting discussion best left, in depth anyway, for another day. But adherents to this idea must recognize that many of the best wines in the world come from vines with low — and sometimes extremely low — croploads. And some of the best wines in the Finger Lakes come from vines cropped to bring in lower yields than those seen at Hosmer. So what's going on with those world-class wines from low yields? Are the growers simply not telling the truth about croploads? Is the Hosmer stance wrong? What gives?
We'll get back to those questions in the near future.
A vertical of riesling yields a surprise
The 2009 rieslings were the standout in each category.
Far from the severe, prickly rieslings that were the inevitable product of a leaner vintage, Hosmer's '09 Rieslings are broad and filled with character. The semi-dry is rich and seamless, long, balanced and beautiful. In contrast, the Homer '08 Riesling was a bit of a letdown, a touch sharp and choppy. The '07 Rieslings were different animals entirely, glazed by petrol and nuts and the first signs of oxidation (as anyone would expect from a hot, drought vintage).
But Tunker Hosmer is not buying the excuse that 2009 made for difficult winemaking.
"It was a fooler vintage," he says, laughing. "People love to forget about September. If we would have had a bad September, then people could complain. But September was almost perfect, and we think it shows in the wines."
If the Hosmer '09 Semi-Dry Riesling is impressive, the '09 Dry is even more so. Crisp and racy but layered, there is a reason it turned out so well. Roisen stopped fermentation when this wine had nine grams of residual sugar; he typically lets it go further, but he didn't think it would maintain its balance without more sugar in a high-acid year.
The Hosmer Rieslings offer one of the great values of the region, regularly selling for several dollars less per bottle than their peers.
It has been a fascinating tasting, but Roisen wants to make sure to add one more point. "I'm still young and still new here," he says. "I have a lot — a whole lot — to learn."
For someone who tends to speak with such conviction, it's a shade of modesty. But it's not all that surprising once you spend time with Aaron Roisen. Somehow, that certitude and self-doubt are seamlessly balanced, not unlike many of his wines.