Orlando has been buzzing about New York’s Finger Lakes wine country lately.
Central Florida Women for Winesense sent a hefty delegation there in July for the national organization’s “Grand Event”; fellow Central Florida blogger Melissa Radley-McConnell of Time to Unwine-d visited the area this summer too.
So when I ended up there last week, I felt a little late to the party. But it was definitely better late than never – especially since I was there during harvest!
I had just one day to hit the highlights of this beautiful and prolific wine region, so I chose four wineries to visit: Dr. Konstantin Frank, Ravines, Hermann J. Wiemer, and Standing Stone.
My itinerary spanned two lakes, with stunning vistas and early fall colors around every turn, and a wide array of grape varietals and winemaking styles.
The Finger Lakes have won national and international acclaim for rieslings, and the varietal remains the regional specialty. But the area has diversified into many other varietals too; and while I’m a huge riesling fan – I even hosted a riesling tasting at my house recently – I was even more captivated by some of those other grapes.
Dr. Konstantin Frank: Spectacular Sparklers and Georgian Wine
Ukrainian immigrant Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced vinifera grapes to the Finger Lakes in the 1950s. He founded his “Vinifera Wine Cellars” at a scenic spot on Keuka Lake (the feature photo for this post is the view from the tasting room) in 1962 and soon became famous for his rieslings.
His namesake winery is still producing good rieslings, as evidenced by the fascinating flight I tasted, showcasing three very different styles. The single-vineyard Eugenia has lovely floral notes and racy acidity; the standard 2016 is much rounder with more lemon and mineral; and the unusual Margrit is an oaked riesling with petrol on the nose and the oak showing up on the palate.
Maybe it was the time of day I visited (right around brunch), but it was Dr. Frank’s sparkling wines that most captured my palate and my heart. The 2012 Blanc de Blancs – made in the traditional way, with 100% chardonnay – was my personal favorite, but the 2012 Blanc de Noirs and the 2012 Brut were also excellent. These wines are all made using the Champagne method, and they could stand up to most any sparkling from anywhere, in my opinion.
I was also intrigued by a still white wine from a grape I’d read about but never tried – rkatsiteli. The varietal originated in the area that’s now the Republic of Georgia. On the nose, Dr. Frank’s 2016 vintage is full of white flowers and lanolin; the palate becomes more complex, with lemon, minerality, and a touch of white pepper joining the floral notes.
One piece of news I picked up while there – the winery will soon release an “orange” version of rkatsiteli, made with skin contact. That’s definitely one to look out for.
Ravines: Unexpected Pinot Noir
Next, it was on to Ravines Wine Cellars. On a great recommendation from Time to Unwine-d, I went to the Keuka tasting room and was rewarded with beautiful lake views from the tasting table.
I was surprised to find that my favorite wine here was a red. The Finger Lakes are not as well known for their reds, but given the wines I tasted on my whirlwind tour, I doubt that will be the case much longer.
Ravines 2014 pinot noir, for instance, is a lovely wine. It’s herbal and savory, with notes of olive and even a little meat.
It reminded me a bit of a Willamette pinot. Ravines also makes a very nice rosé of pinot noir, where the herbal notes become floral, with roses on the nose and palate.
Hermann J. Wiemer: Fruit-Driven Francs & a Riesling To Die For
Next, I made my way on winding roads to Seneca, the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes. My first stop was Hermann J. Wiemer.
The scene here was much different from the Keuka wineries. Even on a weekday afternoon, the place was packed, with people waiting 20-30 minutes for a tasting. My host, business development manager Jenny Menges, said that was par for the course.
Despite the controlled chaos and constant churn, she guided me through a multitude of excellent wines, including a great flight of dry rieslings and the very unusual 2016 gruner veltliner, which went through spontaneous malolactic fermentation, rounding off its edges and making it entirely uncharacteristic of the varietal, but still delicious.
There were two standouts here for me.
The first was the 2016 Magdalena Vineyard reserve cabernet franc.
Cab franc is widely grown in the Finger Lakes, and the resulting wines are somewhat different from other expressions of the varietal. I tasted cab francs at Hermann J. Weimer, Dr. Frank’s, and Ravines, and none of them had the prominent green pepper notes you generally associate with the grape. Instead, the red fruits shone through, especially on the palate.
Nowhere was this more the case than at Hermann J. Wiemer. I tried the 2016 cabernet franc and the 2016 cabernet franc reserve, and the typical green, pyrazine-driven aromas and flavors were almost undetectable in both. I have no problem with pyrazines, but it was fascinating to see cab franc in this whole new light.
The 2016 reserve is particularly lovely. Made using grapes from one specific block in the Magdalena Vineyard, it showed chalky red fruits, almost like sweet tarts. It hasn’t been released yet, but it will be soon.
Then, there was the 2006 late harvest riesling.
Sometimes, when you taste a remarkable wine, you stop writing tasting notes and start writing adjectives. After the first sip of this library wine, I wrote, simply, “ridiculous.” As in, ridiculously good.
The wine has plenty of acidity to balance its sweetness. It has notes of petrol on the nose and honey on the palate. And it makes your eyes roll back in your head. It was great with the stash of pistachios I had in my bag, and I imagine it would also be great with blue cheese.
This is a library wine, so it’s not for sale, but you can buy one of the current release late harvest rieslings – I liked the 2015 Josef Vineyard – and lay it down for nine or ten years. If it’s anything like the ’06, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Standing Stone: Standout Saperavi
My last stop of the day was Standing Stone Vineyards, almost directly across from Wiemer, at a spectacular site on the east side of Seneca Lake.
It was appropriate that I visited these two wineries sequentially because just a few months ago, Standing Stone announced it was being acquired by Herman J. Weimer. The transition is already underway, and it will be interesting to see what changes might be in store.
For now, the operations remain separate, and I was pleased to try a number of excellent wines in Standing Stone’s light and airy tasting room overlooking the lake, which sparkled in the late afternoon sun.
The standouts here were made from another Georgian grape, saperavi. This is one of the few grapes to have red flesh as well as red skin. Apart from a few Finger Lakes producers (including Dr. Frank’s), I can’t find evidence that it’s being produced anywhere else outside Georgia.
Standing Stone has become well known for its saperavi, and it’s easy to see why. I fell in love with the 2015 reserve, made with grapes from vines that are about ten years older than those used for the standard 2015. The reserve also spends more time in oak. The result is a well balanced wine with red fruits and plenty of tannin and acid but without any harshness.
I wished I’d had time to buy a bottle and a cheese plate, sit out on one of the winery’s sunny picnic tables, and soak in the views, the sun, and the sumptuous flavors.
Another piece of news: Standing Stone plans to release a rosé of saperavi, probably in the spring. I can’t wait to try it.
I ended the day back in the quaint lakeside town of Watkins Glen, where I watched a nearly-full moon rising over Seneca Lake while regretting the brevity of my visit.
That said, I knew this trip was just a preview to get the lay of the land. There’s much more I want to do – more wineries, restaurants, hiking, and relaxing. I’ll definitely be back.
Cheers, Finger Lakes. I’ll see you soon!