If two times is a coincidence, then perhaps three times is a trend, and in the Finger Lakes, a trend seems to be emerging: A third wine producer has decided to focus on riesling, pinot noir, and nothing else.
There is no denying riesling’s regional strength, but the search for a regional stalwart red wine has led winemakers down many paths, not all of them successful. Pinot noir would be the most challenging of paths, a cliffside stroll as opposed to the more leisurely journey to quaffable reds such as cabernet franc or blaufrankisch. That’s not to say that any red wine is an easy endeavor in the Finger Lakes; it’s simply to point out that focusing on pinot noir is choosing to take college-level calculus when a simple course of basic math would suffice for most students.
The first two to chart this course were Heart & Hands Wine Company and Forge Cellars. Now, the soon-to-launch Bellwether Wine Cellars will make it a trio of small wineries choosing only riesling and pinot noir.
“I’m really happy to be in such great company with these two producers,” says Kris Matthewson, Bellwether’s winemaker and co-owner. You might know his name, and you might already know the Bellwether name, too. Bellwether Hard Cider is a successful Finger Lakes cider producer that has been around since 1999. Matthewson has worked in several prominent cellars, including Atwater Estate on Seneca Lake.
Regarding the focus on these two grape varieties, Matthewson continues, “I think the commitment to narrowing our focus to these two varieties that grow so well in the Finger Lakes will allow our region to really start producing world-class wines. I was excited a few years ago when Heart & Hands started to see someone taking that step, and when Forge Cellars announced their plans, it solidified my belief in these two varieties and inspired me to go forward with our winery. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three of us have all come to recognize the potential that those two varieties hold for our region.”
The small but growing body of evidence suggests that pinot noir might indeed offer something special in the Finger Lakes. The benchmark is and always will be Burgundy for this variety, and consider that the weather in Burgundy tends to be miserable. The weather in the Finger Lakes is generally more pleasant than the gray, drizzly French vineyards where pinot shines brightest. (The growing season in France is a bit longer in most years, however.) Then think of California, where the strongest producers recognize that they’re not going to duplicate Burgundy. They’re making a different style of pinot, impressive in its own right, but for Burgundy junkies, the search continues around the world for the next great terrain.
Kermit Lynch famously wrote about pinot noir, “California pinot noir is to Burgundy what the Empire State Building is to the Notre-Dame. But should the rest of the world seek to rebuild the Notre-Dame, or should it build the edifice that makes the most sense in its locale?
The good news is that these three Finger Lakes producers revere Burgundy without declaring a quest to perfectly capture it. They search for the finest vineyard sites, the limestone soils, and they set out to make highly perfumed, elegant wines reflective of the Finger Lakes first and foremost. Matthewson says that’s crucial to making good pinot noir in the Finger Lakes.
Then he says something that really catches your attention.
“As a winemaker, I hope to make a Finger Lakes pinot noir that meets the ideas I have for the grape and the region. That might only happen once in my lifetime, but there are about 25 vintages ahead of me to try to make a great one.”
Now that, it must be said, is dedication. That is risk. That is devotion that can lead to ruin, but it’s also the kind of devotion required to get past the mundane wines most regions crank out. Consider that Matthewson is launching a business with the hope of pulling off something profound one time — just one! — in perhaps a quarter century. He knows the challenge and he accepts it.
Like his counterparts at Heart & Hands and Forge Cellars, Matthewson will seek out the finest vineyards as the source for Bellwether fruit. He’s willing to pay a premium. “Riesling and pinot noir are two of the most terroir-driven varieties out there,” he says. “The geography of our area lends itself to really dramatic differences in the qualities of grapes grown from site to site, and I think producing single-vineyard wines is the best way to showcase that to consumers.” Bellwether will begin by sourcing fruit from Sawmill Creek Vineyard on the southeast side of Seneca Lake. The first Bellwether pinot noir will come from the 2011 vintage; the first Bellwether riesling will be made in 2012.
Matthewson offers praise for other Finger Lakes pinot that comes from winemakers similarly enchanted with the variety. Ask him for a benchmark and he’ll try to dodge naming a single wine before settling on recent vintages from Ravines Wine Cellars. Then he mentions Hermann J. Wiemer, Red Newt, and Sheldrake Point’s BLK 3. He drinks wine from across the region because he’s trying to learn how the land is impacting the grapes from site to site.
“You can’t be everything to everyone,” he says. That means there are a lot of things that Bellwether wine won’t be. Matthewson hopes that what it can be is consistently good,and occasionally great, when the land and the vintage provides.