By Jason Feulner, Finger Lakes Correspondent

The eternal debate among those who follow Finger Lakes wines, and even among those who don't, is whether the red wines can hold their own. Critics point to numerous examples of flat, unripe wines and castigate the entire category, virtually ignoring any promise shown by a handful of outliers. Proponents of Finger Lakes reds cite improving quality and, in their promotion of cool-climate potential, take advantage of the growing sentiment among wine enthusiasts that many California and Australian reds are too ripe, too alcoholic, and just plain overpowering.

Whether or not Finger Lakes reds have yet to arrive as a clear alternative, cabernet franc is widely considered to be the variety that shows the best quality and consistency of the Vitis vinifera reds grown in the region. When I was asked recently to host a tasting for the PALATE 2009 event, it occurred to me that by focusing on what may be the region's best red grape, I could draw attention to the main variable — vintage — and perhaps draw some general conclusions.

 On Sunday, February 22, I, with a group of tasters descended, upon Glenora on Seneca Lake, guided through technical matters by Fox Run Vineyards winemaker Peter Bell and his assistant winemaker Tricia Renshaw. Our goal was to taste a flight of cabernet franc from six different wineries, tasting an '05, an '06, and an '07 from each.

The reason I selected those vintages is simple: 2005 was warm and hospitable, an ideal vintage overall; 2006 was cool and damp, good for riesling but leaving many other varieties with issues; and 2007 was hot and dry, and by hot and dry I mean darn hot and dry, a vintage made for reds in a way the Finger Lakes rarely sees.

The group tried wines from Damiani Wine Cellars, Fox Run, Glenora, Lamoreaux Landing, Ravines Wine Cellars, and Red Newt Cellars. During the three-hour event, I implored the group to share their impressions while Peter and Tricia graciously answered questions about varietals, vintages, closures, winemaking, and all kinds of general topics.

To cycle through every aspect we approached in the tasting of these 17 wines (Red Newt did not produce a 2006 cabernet franc) would require a very long post. Since the point of this exercise was to consider vintage and winemaking choices, I am not going to highlight what were, in my opinion, the best wines, although I can say with confidence that the majority of the wines were good to very good.

So, what did the group find?

First of all, the 2005 vintage was very kind to cabernet franc, allowing winemakers to flesh out a wide variety of flavors. Undoubtedly, the extra time in bottle showed itself with these wines as well. The 2006 wines were weaker across-the-board, although most of the winemakers purposely made a leaner, subtle wine that did not hit you over head but held its own in terms of balance and drinkability. The 2007s were extremely aromatic, with bright fruit, and showed a great deal of potential despite their youth. The youth of these wines and the variance in styles (Fox Run and Lamoreaux both made a Loire-style stainless steel version for '07) left more questions and answers at this point.

By all accounts, the 2006 vintage was the type of cool year that should outright ruin a Finger Lakes red and buoy the argument that the region is a risky place to produce such wines. This tasting certainly doesn't prove anything about long-term potential, but I believe it did demonstrate that good winemaking decisions can "save" a cool vintage. Sure, anyone would rather have an 2005 cabernet franc than its companion 2006, but in tasting both side-by-side, the 2006s held their own quite well. If made well, these wines can exhibit enough flavor and certainly enough balance to be enjoyed, especially with food.

Cool vintages will happen in the Finger Lakes, and those years will provide challenges in making good reds. Since consistency from vintage to vintage is important in assessing the overall potential of the region, cool years must be judged on how much they depart from the ideal vintages. This tasting demonstrated, to me at least, that good winemaking can allay some of the negative effects of cool vintage, allowing for a better profile of a particular winery's cabernet francs over a multi-vintage period.