Owner Tom Higgins addressing TasteCamp attendees before the tasting.

by Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor

Last Sunday TasteCamp 2010 came to a close with a memorable visit to Heart &Hands Wine Company on the east side of Seneca Lake. We’d all heard about this boutique winery that specializes in pinot noir but most of us had never had the opportunity to experience unfinished wines in the barrel room with owners Tom and Susan Higgins leading the way.

As a home winemaker, I was once again using this opportunity to ask some of the questions that build up over a season of playing with grapes and yeast. In the last few years I’ve become especially intrigued with pinot noir and last Sunday’s visit to Heart and Hands was, for me, one of the highlights of the weekend.

I have to admit that I am confident that the soils of the Niagara region will ultimately be where the best pinot noir on the East Coast will be made. I can’t deny the raw potential in what comes out of the vineyards. I’ve had some extremely well made Finger Lakes wines that I know are the work of passionate winemakers getting the best from their crop but I’ve struggled to describe them as anything but simple, light-bodied fruity reds.

When they’ve been bad they’ve been over-oaked or under-ripe. The good ones have remained true to their cool climate roots, revealing light cherry and strawberry fruit with restrained oak influence, but I haven’t gotten much funk or earthy qualities in Finger Lakes pinots. I’ve also noticed a lack of mid-palate depth that I assumed was partially influenced by lighter soils, but I admit I’m no expert and up until this weekend, I hadn’t had as many examples back to back.

TCHandH01With his flight of pinot noir, Tom Higgins showed what he does best: meticulously controlling each aspect of vinification. From his sorting of grapes to his complete separation of vineyard fruit until bottling, his method seems more like a controlled experiment then wine as art. Need an example? He uses only the best cooperage from Burgundy without exception.

Heart and Hands currently sources its pinot noir fruit from two main vineyards: the popular Sawmill Creek Vineyard on the eastern side of Seneca Lake and Hobbit Hollow Vineyard on the western side of Skaneateles Lake.

The 2009 Sawmill Creek barrels are further divided into two primary fermentation styles: one 50% whole cluster and one 100% whole cluster. Having never done whole cluster fermentation I was eager to taste the difference.

The 2009 50% whole cluster Sawmill Creek sample had a fierce red cherry aroma, reminiscent of the white-fleshed Queen Anne cherries that I love picking in my neck of the woods, and a hint of deeper raspberry fruit. The midpalate was spicy and the finish was chalky. The 100% whole cluster sample showed spicier aromas without such overt cherry notes. The mouthfeel of this one was reminiscent of merino wool: it had just enough grip to let you know its wool, but it was soft enough to make you all cozy and comfortable. It too had a chalky finish.

The Hobbit Hollow barrel sample was also 100% whole cluster fermented had a darker color. There was less spice on the nose then both the previous wines and the fruit profile was more concentrated dark cherry. On the palate this wine was less impressive as it wasn’t as seamless, lacking the mid-palate weight of the first two wines.

With the way these samples were showing last weekend, it’s hard to believe that these are still only works in progress. I was amazed at how well the 2009s are drinking already because I’d hang out with a glass of any three of these barrel samples today.

Next up we tasted the bottled pinots, starting with the 2008. Made up of 60% Hobbitt Hollow with 30% whole cluster, this wine showed pure fruit from end to end. It was filled out nicely in the mid-palate and had just enough oak to frame the fruit.

The heavy-hitting 2007 Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir was next and to no one’s surprise stole the show thanks to its bright fruit, cocoa and vanilla aromas. The perfectly ripened grapes of that vintage in combination with the 100% whole cluster process gave this wine a wonderfully fleshy texture with big fruit and stylish oak.

It seems that Higgins’s deliberate techniques and careful selection of grapes has clearly shot him to the top of the “who’s who” in East Coast pinot noir. His wines are showing such purity of fruit while they also demonstrate a poise on the palate that is not being replicated by anyone else in the region. Unfortunately, I’m still not finding that funky quality or the autumn leaves aroma I get in some pinot and I am looking forward to tasting wines made from his estate vines he is planting this spring on the limestone-rich slope.

In the meantime though I’d really love to see what he would do with Niagara Escarpment pinot noir. From what I can tell, he might be the best person to express what those grapes have to say just like he’s already doing in the Finger Lakes. But if that never happens, I hope winemakers from my area make the trip out to see what he’s doing because they’re bound to learn something about how to get the most from their pinot noir.

I know next fall I’ll be experimenting with whole cluster fermentations myself.