By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor

Photo by Morgan Dawson Photography

If there is a more loaded, more controversial, more debated word in the world of wine than "terroir," I don't know what it is. Well, perhaps you could argue that "natural" can provoke such conversation, but that's about it.

The Old World, roughly defined, tends to view terroir with some propriety. The New World seems determined to ignore the word while simultaneously establishing that we, too, can produce wines with a sense of place. Wines with "somewhereness," as the great writer Matt Kramer once said. 

So if you prefer, we can scrap the usage of terroir for now, but what we're after is whether New York is making wines with a hallmark of their origin. You might not care about this, but it is vital to a region's development. Think of this as my own entry into the "What New York Wine Needs Now" series.

And here's my answer: No, most of the time New York is not producing wines with a true sense of place. But — and here's the most important part — Yes, that is indeed happening in certain places with certain varieties, and when it does happen, it is inspiring.

Have I been reading too much Terry Theise? Maybe, and a book review is coming. But this is a conversation that needs to be had, and the conclusions need to be shared beyond the borders of this state. 

Ground rules for this debate

I'm going to establish some ground rules, and you might not agree, but these are the ones with which I view this debate.

First, a sense of place only comes from the right grapes for a particular place. You can have gorgeous and ideally suited land and soil, but if you grow the wrong grapes, you're going to get banal wines with little character. 

Second, the most effective approach is the one that is as natural as possible, but we are not absolutists. Wine is a product born from intervention, and we do not exclude the hand of man in winemaking discussions. Wines can show a sense of place even after man's work in the vineyard and winery.

Third, we will never stop learning. Yes, the Bordelais had centuries to flesh out their ideal sites for merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. But the moment you abandon the search for new answers is the moment you limit yourself in expressing the land on which you stand. Even the Bordelais should be seeking higher understanding.

Finally, imitation is the sincerest form of mediocrity. The last decade has seen Finger Lakes vintners stop invoking Germany, while Long Island vintners more rarely invoke Bordeaux. Good. Terroir is not about trying to show how close you can come to somebody who's already doing something at a high level. Terroir is about discovering and exposing what your land has to say, warts and nuances and idiosyncrasies and all.

Does all of this sound a bit hokey? That's okay if it does. But if you're not thinking about a wine's sense of place, you're missing out on the intellectual aspect of the experience. And haven't we learned that pure hedonism is boring in life and in wine?

Sense of place in the Finger Lakes

I'm not going to break new ground when I say that riesling is the right grape for the region. But I'd like you to think about why that is.

Think about how riesling from the Finger Lakes compares to riesling made around the world. It is not as rich and fleshy as most of its Mosel counterparts. It is bracing and often dry like Austrian riesling, but the flavors are different. Why is that?

The best Finger Lakes rieslings are nervy, racy, and fresh — even with some residual sugar. Newcomers to Finger Lakes riesling often find it to be an adjustment. This is a good thing. The wine is challenging them to think of riesling in new ways. It is providing a pleasurable drinking experience — alongside food, we hope — but it is also speaking about the Finger Lakes in general.

Consider common descriptions. Newcomers will occasionally use the word "severe" to describe the natural acidity in a Finger Lakes riesling. And what is the challenge in making wine in this region, if not severe? What are the slopes on the bottom parcel of Sawmill Creek vineyard, betokened by shale and other stone, if not severe? What are the rough winters, the annual swings in weather patterns?

"Severe" sounds like a pejorative until you consider the badge of achievement it represents.

Of course, these newcomers tend to evolve in their thinking of Finger Lakes riesling. What was once "severe" becomes "electric," "crisp," "fascinating," even "balanced." This is not the same model of balance that we see in, say, California, nor should it be. These are wines with pure fruit flavors that just so happen to match the fruits grown across the region: peaches, apples, and the like. These are wines with secondary nuances that seem to channel the land, even though there's no scientific evidence they're doing anything of the sort: a Finger Lakes riesling might show vivid fennel flavor, but not because it's borrowing that flavor from a physical thing, right? And Finger Lakes riesling has an undeniable stony core, a combination of river rocks and fresh gorge water and slate and shale — all the things that we sort of know, and understand, but can't quite explain. They're not volatile, generally, so how do we know what those things smell like? And how the hell did they get into the wine?  

Yes, I'm the writer who urged my colleagues to abandon use of the word "minerality" in describing wine. You'll notice I've not returned to that word myself in the past year. I prefer specificity, because every wine region has its own minerality, and using the catch-all term tells us nothing about a specific sense of place.

But if you'd like to use "minerality" to describe Finger Lakes riesling, I'll know what you mean. That stony core, that complex texture and fresh aromatic quality. It's there.

Taking it a step further, that sense of place in Finger Lakes riesling is not only regionally existent, but it can manifest with varying shades based on diverse vineyard sites. No one who enjoys Finger Lakes riesling ought to go without tasting the two Hermann J. Wiemer single-vineyard rieslings side-by-side. In fact, the HJW Riesling and the Magdalena Riesling are the two most important wines produced in the region right now, because they say so much about what is possible when it comes to expressing riesling's sense of place in the Finger Lakes.

The first broad step in establishing a sense of place is choosing the right variety and observing its character, but even more significant is watching that regional profile develop while also observing the subtle (and sometimes not at all subtle) differences from site to site. HJW and Magdalena offer the starkest example, as they come from the same winemaker. Wines like Ravines' Argetsinger Vineyard Riesling, or the rieslings of Atwater Estate and Billsboro, enhance the discussion. 

For a moment, imagine the most bone-chillingly cold, gray winter day. On these occasions it's natural to wonder if we'll see the land come alive again. Maybe you even feel despair. Finger Lakes riesling is the viticultural embodiment of the resilience of an entire region and its people, a kind of Summer-In-a-Glass that reminds us the greens and golds will find their way back. Who has more appreciation for a glorious summer day than a person who spends long months wondering if summer will return? In this lens, Finger Lakes riesling has the vivacity and energy of the local people making the very most of the warm days. The best versions have tension and excitement — some you might even call over-eager. This is not a coincidence.

But what about gewurztraminer, you might ask? What about pinot noir? Cabernet franc, or Blaufrankisch, even? 

We are not far enough along to say with conviction what is happening with those varieties. But thanks to growers and winemakers alike, we are starting to find out. Let's revisit that question in a decade's time. (Or, really, in a century's time. But barring medical miracles, I won't be around to tell you my thoughts on the answer). 

By the way, an open and patient mind doesn't mean we can't make some hard conclusions. You can wait forever for a varietal Finger Lakes cabernet sauvignon to speak to you, but you won't hear much.

Sense of place in Long Island

This summer, my wife and I drank through our entire stock of Long Island whites. What was telling to us was not simply that we enjoyed the wines and wanted to drink them, but that we often found ourselves saying, "This meal simply begs for a Long Island white."

I am not nearly as qualified to write about this subject as my colleague Lenn Thompson. I'll be brief. 

There is a saline quality to the minerality of Long Island whites that is not only appropriate but beautiful in its demonstration of place. I don't need to wax on about the salty air, or the seafood trade, to make clear what this kind of minerality means to a wine region. In the best Long Island whites, that character is so vivid that I feel transported to the shores and I long for a bivalve companion on my plate.

What about reds? I tend to think New World wine regions will always have a tougher time establishing a sense of place with red wines because there is more temptation to allow oak to join the fray (and occasionally obscure it). Having said that, the Long Island merlot I've opened in the past several years has shown a consistency and a unique profile that sets it apart from any other region currently producing merlot. 

Notice I didn't say this unique profile makes it "better." That nebulous term is probably best abandoned along with "minerality", though I'll argue all day that Long Island merlot is better, as a whole, than California merlot, for example. 

To me, the unique character of Long Island merlot combines richness without being sweet and acid without being jarring. How many merlots have you had from around the world that were dominated by sweet, gobby fruit? Or perhaps they were soft and chewy – like a damn marshmallow. Long Island's version shows a naturally complex nature, a density that is hard to describe, along with a freshness that makes for a wonderful long-term evolution. 

I recently read a blog writer who compared Long Island merlot to merlot made in France, and he seemed disappointed. This is like critiquing Morgan Freeman by saying, "Dude can act, but he's got a terrible singing voice. I heard Pavarotti last week, and Morgan Freeman is not Pavarotti." In other words, who the hell cares if Long Island merlot doesn't perfectly match a region thousands of miles away? How is that relevant?

Benchmarks matter, of course. But we're not aiming for parity.

Other red varieties seem to hold great promise on Long Island as well. If I were a grower I'd rip out pinot and plant cabernet franc and even petit verdot. I'd spend years listening to what those varieties say in that specific place.

The story of New York wine is now moving into a definition of its terroir. You don't have to use that term. But with a small group of friends, as you discuss the ways the best New York wine channels its people and its place, we won't blame you if you slip.