The 2012 Finger Lakes Vintage: Finally, the Hype is not Hyperbole
“Don’t judge me by the size of my parents’ house.”
These were the words a friend said to me in ninth grade before I came to hang out. He was concerned that I might judge him based on the opulence in which he was being raised. He worried I would assume he was just like his house: extravagant, showy, boasting of power.
He needn’t have felt that way. No one should have to apologize for their parents’ success; we can simply hope it won’t make them lazy and entitled. The house is not the person. Circumstances change.
I couldn’t help but recall that long-ago conversation after speaking to Morten Hallgren, owner and winemaker of Ravines Wine Cellars, about the 2012 vintage. You see, something happened in 2010 to hamstring some of the enthusiasm about stellar vintages. 2010 was supposed to be the stress-free, ripe, balanced year. But it has hit with a kind of thud from red wines: the best are nicely concentrated, but few are complex. The best rieslings from 2010 are excellent, but too many veer toward flab.
Then 2012 cruised along, from the start of the season (with mid-March temperatures in the 60s, and a remarkably early bud break) right on through harvest. The burst of heavy September rains that dampened 2010 did not resurface in 2012. Ripening was an embarrassment of riches.
2012 was that house: so good that you almost feel silly. It is living up to the hope and the hype.
“This is pretty atypical for cabernet franc,” Hallgren told me as he poured a glass of the 2012. I am always hesitant to dissent from the views of experienced industry professionals, but Hallgren is selling himself short. His lineup of 2012 wines are wonderfully typical of the variety, and the ripeness of the vintage only amplifies the best attributes. Sure, the cab franc veers more toward fruit than savory notes, but it is hardly a cartoon. It is a beauty.
I suspect that Hallgren knows not every vintage will match 2012, and so is careful not to overplay his hand. The 2012 wines will sell out, and then it will be on to the next vintage. But the best winemakers are making excellent wines in the toughest conditions, and it doesn’t get tougher than 2011 and 2013. So my careful, measured counsel to Hallgren and his colleagues is to enjoy 2012: a truly special vintage that is unique in its potential for ripeness and complexity across all varieties.
The 2012 Rieslings
The very first riesling I tasted from the 2012 vintage is one of the finest Finger Lakes rieslings I’ve had to date, and it is assuredly the best I’ve had from this particular producer. Standing Stone’s 2012 Old West Block Riesling is a marvelous wine. If the typical riesling is a painting with two or three colors, the Old West Block has a dozen, some vibrant, others subtle and meant as accents. When I told owner and winemaker Marti Macinski how much I enjoyed this wine, she smiled and explained that the 2012 vintage seemed like the ideal time to offer a single-parcel wine.
I have not encountered a truly bad riesling from this vintage, and that is saying something extraordinary. Consider 2007, another long growing season, but one marked by heat stress and drought. The rieslings tended to fall apart quickly. 2012 enjoys the classic regional acidity, but draped across it is an array of fleshy flavors and aromas.
Think beyond the basic apple and lime flavors. 2012 was a year to expand the possibilities. I have tasted standout rieslings from Ravines, Boundary Breaks, Fox Run, Anthony Road, Kemmeter, Heart & Hands, Hermann J. Wiemer, Keuka Spring, Forge Cellars, Atwater, Lamoreaux Landing, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Bloomer Creek, and more. The joy of a region’s diversity means that I can’t sum up the wines in a single paragraph. But I can report that there are no wines that were imbalanced toward acidity; I can also say that while a few wines were a bit fat, most retained a healthy jolt of acidity to provide the structure of a long life ahead.
However — there is a however in considering 2012.
A Great Vintage is Not an Easy Vintage
There is no more common misunderstanding than the idea that a long, warm-but-not-hot vintage is “easy.” All “easy” means is that the grapes could ripen with minimal work. But the goal is not to choke every last ray of sunshine into a grape.
“Most years we’re looking to extend the growing season, because we need time for maturation,” Hallgren told me. “But in 2012, there was a decision to make. Do I let them go further, just because I can? I ultimately decided it was unwise to go to the end just to see what would happen.”
That kind of restraint is vital for a region that seeks to prove it is comfortable in its own skin. It’s rare that the Finger Lakes will have a growing season that eclipses the so-called “growing degree days” (a measure of warmth and ripening) of many California appellations. You can’t blame growers and winemakers for wanting to take that opportunity to let the fruit turn raisined, concentrating every last bit of sugar in a quest to see what this unique vintage would do.
But that 2012 Cabernet Franc from Ravines needed nothing more. Checking in at 13% alcohol, it is ripe without veering into clumsiness. Tasted blind, it is easily identified for its place, but it is also more deeply appreciated for its complexity.
And here is where the hesitation comes in. While the 2012 rieslings have largely hit the market — and many are gone — the 2012 reds are just beginning to arrive. I’ve not tasted the full assortment. I suspect that some wineries suffered from the allure of super-ripeness, but until the full vintage is released, we won’t know for sure. I won’t speculate in this space about possible offenders, though my conversations indicate that some growers couldn’t resist a record-setting hang time.
Oddly, even the region’s pinot noirs have already shown a high ceiling from 2012. Many vintages favor either the early ripeners or the late ripeners. 2012 had something for everyone. Some pinot was ready to be picked in August of 2012, when some industry professionals were still on planned vacations.
If you’ve read NYCR for some time, you know that we’ve been planning vintage reports. We’ll need to see more of the 2012 reds released to get a final appreciation for what happened that year. But to my mind, it does not diminish the 2011 or 2013 wines. In fact, 2012 reminds us that the best winemakers deserve support through all vintages; they can not control the weather, and when they produce great wines in challenging conditions, that’s special indeed.
But my mind returns to another conversation, this one only a few years back. Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell told me that “the world’s best wines tend to come from cool climate regions in warm vintages.” The more I taste the 2012 Finger Lakes vintage, the more prescient Bell seems.