By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor

HeronhillWhen is the ideal time to open a well-made Finger Lakes riesling?

It seems like a silly question, doesn't it? The answer is often, and appropriately, "Whenever you feel like it."

And start with this: There's no Finger Lakes riesling that will be so closed as to be unready if you open it young. Even the 2010 rieslings coming off the bottling lines this spring will be fine in short order.

But the best wine tells an extended story, one that unfolds in multiple acts. A great riesling in its youth is all nervy, adolescent energy. In its second act, the story evolves to something more complex and measured, perhaps richer and more rounded. The denouement brings a new kind of intensity, one that simultaneously echoes its youthful core while delivering wisdom and fullness. 

If you've not had the pleasure of enjoying mature riesling yet, trust me when I tell you it's an experience worth pursuing.

But how long to wait? Ask ten Finger Lakes winemakers, and you'll hear a wide range in responses. Most often, but certainly not always, I'm told the safe bet is to open the wine at age three. As long as you've stored the bottle properly, that ensures that you'll still capture those primary notes while getting an early glimpse into where the wine might go.

But it's the first intermission, and you'll miss the rest of the show.

It's important to acknowledge with New York wines — not simply Finger Lakes riesling, but Long Island merlot and other varieties grown across this state — that we don't have a large enough track record to know. Not yet. For years, even the finest New York producers were not building a library. And the dirty little secret is that some winery owners will confess to not-quite-ideal storage conditions for some wines they did hold.

There is more of a focus than ever on observing aging trends in Finger Lakes rieslings. Any consumer can be part of the exploration. One bottle always puts pressure on the owner to find the "right window" for drinking. Yes, it's more expensive, but when you find a truly special riesling, buying a case can be immensely rewarding. Opening one bottle every year for a dozen years is a fascinating process to watch unfold. Detailed notes help recall the prior incarnations.

Better yet, there are more opportunities than ever to hook up with Finger Lakes producers that are offering vertical tastings of rieslings to the public.

Earlier this month, Heron Hill Winery offered a vertical tasting of its Ingle Vineyard Riesling dating back to 2002. Here are some notes from that tasting.

  • 2002: Mature and classy, turned over to significant petrol
  • 2003: Stunningly fresh, this wine shows tremendous cut and energy, with no petrol whatsoever. It has added mouthfeel with time, but the fruit is still primary. While the 2002 is in its final act, this wine is arguably just seeing the start of act two.
  • 2004: A bit one-dimensional in its petrol character, with perhaps more weight than younger versions
  • 2005: Not poured; the winery decided it has not aged as they prefer
  • 2006: Complex, with nice juiciness to balance the steely edge that often comes from this vineyard
  • 2007: Difficult vintage shows in the petrol and advanced age; not one to hold for too long
  • 2008: Just a baby, with all of the elements for a dazzling life ahead