By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor

Photos by Morgan Dawson Photography

In a chic western New York wine bar called Sapore, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, a group of colleagues and competitors did something they had never done before. They poured one another's wines in an introduction to the New York Cork Report and an effort to promote the Chautauqua-Lake Erie wine trail.JenniferJohnson_MorganDawsonPhotography


Producers chose to feature only white and dessert wines for this tasting, and while these wines represented the best of this wine region, they're not showing the same quality that consumers can find in the Finger Lakes and Long Island. But for now, they don't have to. More than anything, this region needs to demonstrate consistency and a baseline of quality to tourists, local wine enthusiasts, and curious writers.


The tasting showed that the early drumbeat of quality is getting louder, though it's not without a few off notes.


"We have our eyes wide open when it comes to what we should be growing and what grapes will produce the best quality," said Jennifer Johnson of Johnson Estate, the oldest regional commercial winery and the clear leader in quality.


That search for the best regional viticultural fit should be the top priority for any emerging wine region. Growers can waste immeasurable resources on attempting to ripen cabernet sauvignon, but they're dreaming a nearly impossible dream. A wine region's awakening coincides with the discovery of its most suitable grape varieties. Here in the rolling land that lies not far from Lake Erie, some growers still struggle with warm-climate grapes – but more are ripping out those vines in favor of a range of more suitable options.


And yet of the 30,000 acres under vine in this region, roughly 28,000 are planted to Concord and Niagara. The locals jokingly wonder aloud what old Mr. Welch would think about the rising tide of vinifera and hybrids. Winery owners say that vinifera and hybrids can thrive here – but they must be cool-climate grapes, like pinot grigio and traminette, Chancellor and Vidal Blanc. But they also stand by the wide appeal of Concord grapes and Concord wines. It's a thriving variety, and seeking to eliminate it would be a serious mistake.

"Look outside," said Fred Johnson of Johnson Estate, pointing to the snowbanks lining the Westfield street. "This is Germany, not France."

The white wine tasting revealed some surprising potential – as well as some puzzling decisions. To wit: Why did one winery submit a chardonnay that wasn't simply oaky; it was like an abusive relationship where the chardonnay refuses to leave the oak that's causing the problem?

And why submit a riesling that is either heavily reductive or clearly cut with some portion of native grapes? (Both, perhaps).

But there were some pleasant wines and some wines that show an opportunity for the region. We selected three white wines to take with us to our January 23 New York Cork Report Wines of 2009 tasting.

We also selected the 2009 Chautauqua-Lake Erie dessert wine of the year. (That's because, of four dessert wines submitted, one was a clear standout with no reasonable competition).

Here are the finalists for wine of the year from this region. Thanks to Sapore in Westfield, a classy wine bar that hosted the tasting. It's spots like Sapore that fit perfectly into the fabric of an emerging wine region and help elevate its status.


Johnson Estate Winery 2008 Vidal Blanc

This was the revelation of the tasting, a white wine that threatens to become cloyingly sweet before a current of acidity emerges in the finish and amps up the flavors. All of this in a Vidal Blanc, most commonly used for dessert wine. "We think it's versatile," winemaker Jeff Murphy told me. "We're not afraid to see what it can do beyond an ice wine, and we're happy with what it's shown."

Liberty Vineyards 2008 Pinot Grigio

Evokes the straightforward northern Italian pinot grigios. Crisp, showing a nice aromatic profile that carries through to the palate. Went nicely with lunch. I asked Liberty Vineyards owner Gary Burmaster about the potential of this grape in the region. "We think it has a place," he replied. "We think dry whites like pinot grigio are doing very well." He didn't go into depth about the specifics of this grape and why it might stand out, but this wasn't the only pinot grigio in the tasting, and clearly other growers are excited about it.

Vetter Vineyards NV Dry Riesling

The other Rieslings in this tasting showed a processed corn character, evoking a range of candy flavors from Lik-m-Aid to Now And Later to Bazooka Joe gum. This Riesling brought a nice varietal character, led by waves of grapefruit. The strong aromatics made it even more appealing. Taken down a notch because not all of the fruit is from Chautauqua-Erie.  

Winemakers in this region also speak optimistically of Traminette, and Johnson Estate produces a seriously aromatic version that indicates their optimism is warranted.

Now, the dessert wine of the year from this region:

Johnson Estate Winery 2006 Ice Vidal

Slightly hot, this wine brings a complex melange that includes apricot, honey, and maple candy. It's more lithe in the mouth than I expected, with a kiss of butterscotch to round it off. Well done.