Hammondsport, the town in Steuben County on the southern edge of Keuka Lake, has a long-standing wine history. Gold Seal Vineyards (while it was still in business) proudly held the status “U.S. bonded winery #1” and posted this on the side of one of its buildings, after the Repeal of Prohibition. The large Taylor Wine Company was also headquartered in Hammondsport, and the property they originally held, Bully Hill, was bought by Greighton Taylor and his son Walter in 1957 to start Bully Hill Farms, which today produces over 300,000 gallons of wine annually.
View northeast of Keuka Lake from Hammondsport
North of Hammondsport is Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars, founded in 1962 by Dr. Konstantin Frank with the aim of successfully growing the classic European vinifera grapes and making high quality wine from them. Today there are around ten wineries, from tiny boutique operations to giants like Bully Hill Vineyards, around Keuka Lake.
At Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars Fred Frank, Konstantin’s grandson, kindly poured tastings for us. The methode champenoise sparkling wines introduced by Fred’s father Willy, have always been a fine way to showcase vinifera wine in the Finger Lakes with a classic cool climate model. Fred takes pride that the winery produces the largest commercial volume of the Austrian white grape grüner veltliner of a U.S. winery, and is therefore able to put it in distribution (most other U.S. wineries who make grüner sell it all at the winery).
It’s rewarding to check in with Frank Wines at least once a year since they are continuing to innovate and try new twists on old classics, even with the winery at 57 years old. For example, they have released a blend of grüner and riesling, and have made their rkatsiteli in an amber “orange” style following a one month long cold soak. They have also introduced a new proprietary red reserve, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, the red Ukrainian grape saperavi, cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir.
**Blanc de Noirs 2013: methode champenoise blanc de pinot noir. Nose: classic bright red cherry, with smoke, mineral and toast hints. Palate: broad, smooth, creamy, ripe zesty red cherry throughout, dry but ripe, Finger Lakes zesty citrus on the finish, long and creamy texture. Classic and stylish, and consistent year to year. $35
Grüner Veltliner – Riesling 2014 (85/15% blend). A very interesting blend of barrel-fermented grüner blended with 15% riesling. Nose: rich and spicy, green fruits with an almond hint. Palate: round and full-bodied but with bright riesling acidity on the finish, also some white pepper from the grüner. A complex, richly textured wine varietally true but with an original twist. $30
Grüner Veltliner 2017 Nose: classic wax bean and white pepper, delicate but racy. Palate: racy, lively Finger Lakes acidity pairs well with this grape for a lively focused wine. The 2017 vintage makes the green gauge fruit softer than usual and more forward and juicy. Easy to quaff in the summer, versatile with food. $15
*Sauvignon Blanc 2017: Again, the ’17 vintage was more fruit-forward than others, and this wine was much better (or more approachable) than when I tried it two years ago. The nose is zesty with fresh and lively lemongrass and mineral notes. On the palate, broad, not as acidic as you’d think, with citrus and lemongrass flavors and a great zesty Finger Lakes-style finish. An elegant French style (Bordeaux or Loire) instead of the New Zealand in-your-face style. $20
Eugenia Dry Riesling 2016 (from a single Keuka Lake vineyard): The nose is subtle, with racy lime, green apple and mineral notes. On the palate, broad and solid core of ripe green apple with a zesty mineral finish, dry but with a fine fruit/acid balance and a long finish. 0.2% residual sugar, stylish but needs time. $30
Dry Riesling 2017: Newly released. Nose: much like the ’16, racy lime and green apple, mineral, petrol, ripe red apple. Palate: broad, nicely fruity, red apple and peach, will age well over the next year. $16
Riesling Reserve 2016 (from special sites and older vineyards): Nose: elegant German-style aromatics, Mosel-like peach and apple. Palate: juicy but very lively fruit, ripe apple and peach flavors, lively finish with some botrytis hint of apricot. $25
*Blaufränkisch 2016: Vibrant ruby hue. Nose: black raspberry and boysenberry with a hint of pepper. Palate: ripe spicy plum and vivid red berries, lively acidity but fruit-driven, great fruit/acid balance, just a hint of oak in the background. A great way to showcase a Finger Lakes style for this Austrian grape. $22
Just a couple of miles north of the Dr. Frank Winery is a relative newcomer, Azure Hill Winery, a tiny but inspiring operation under the joint ownership of Leslie Knipe and Joseph Sheehy (Joe is winemaker). Tastings are now done in their basement (where the winemaking is also done). They have planted five acres of vines to riesling, saperavi and the Austrian red zweigelt, and the vineyard is now a little over two producing acres of vines.
***Estate Dry Riesling 2017: Brilliant clarity on the nose, lovely bright fresh citrus notes from lime to kumquat, with some white flowers and mineral notes with some yellow apple. Palate: dry, very racy and taut, high acid (wine pH is below 3.0), but balanced, with exotic citrus (kumquat, tangerine) some peach flavors, very intense, vivacious, brilliant acidity and minerality, a “First Growth” style quality.
*New York State White Blend 2016: A fun, dry, refreshing blend of pinot blanc and chenin blanc from Long Island, and tocai friulano from the Hudson River Valley. Nose: a fun Loire Valley/Northern Italy blend of citrus/lemon and tangerine on the nose. Palate: vibrant, vivacious with lots of acidity, lemon zest and fresh apricot flavors. Very stylish, versatile and a great food wine.
** Sparkling Riesling Brut (from 2014 but will be labeled a non-vintage). Methode champenoise and all hand-produced, including riddling. This was aged for a year in tank, then bottled in 2015, where it was on the yeast (en tirage) for 15-16 months before being disgorged. Nose: vivid green apple and mineral, white flowers, creamy/smoky toasty lees. Palate: ripe, bright pear and apple flavors, vivid acidity, excellent fruit/acid balance, creamy on the finish but balanced with crisp apple and lime acidity. Brilliant and bone dry.
Hans Peter Weis, founder of Weis Vineyard on west Keuka Lake, like other Germans who decided to settle in the Finger Lakes when they saw that the terroir and the climate were suitable to fine German-style wine, worked for the Frank family from 2005 to 2008 and only just started his eponymous winery on Memorial Day weekend 2016. He has 14 acres of vines just north of Dr. Frank winery and buys from select growers.
Originally from Zell in the Mosel Valley, he has a natural focus on riesling but is on the trend of diversity in the Finger Lakes, with grüner veltliner, dry rosé, two chardonnays, lightly sparkling wine, varietal and blended reds, and top-quality dessert wines.
*Gewürztraminer 2017: Bright nose of classic markers; spicy lychee, rose, and nutmeg. Palate: zesty acidity, solid fruit core, young, impressive spicy texture mid-palate, will age more than most, delicious now. $19
Dry Rosé 2017: (pinot noir and merlot). Nose: strawberry and watermelon. Palate: juicy! Strawberry and white, red cherries. Fresh and bright but not too acidic. Stylish, original. $19
*Chardonnay 2017 (lightly oaked in 20% French oak): Nose is complex and needs air, but shows lemon cream and a touch of almond. Palate: just enough oak rounds the acidity and gives this wine Burgundian complexity.
*Semi-Dry Riesling 2016: Nose: Austrian or Rheingau hints of apricot, lemon and limestone: taut. Palate: juicy but bright, with peach, apple and a hint of apricot flavors. Stylish and will age well.
Heart of the Lake 2017: This is the first time I’ve tasted the Cornell hybrid now called NY81031517, whose parents are riesling and cayuga white, an attempt to improve cayuga’s flavor with riesling elegance while improving riesling with cayuga’s cold-hardiness and disease resistance. The 2016 vintage of this wine won Best of Class in the New York State Governor’s Cup competition. Nose: melon/honeydew, then racy apricot and peach. Palate: zesty bright melon, then peach and apple with bright riesling acidity on the finish. This new hybrid has lots of potential! A stylish introduction.
*Perle 2017: named after a lightly sparkling style, this is a blend of riesling, chardonnay and some of the “heart of the lake. Nose: white peach and apple notes in a fresh Finger Lakes style. Palate: LOADS of peach, semi-dry but with great fruit/acid balance; excellent.
*Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Seneca Lake) Great depth of color! Nose: pure clean black cassis and blackberry with smoke and baking spices. Palate: a tight core of ripe blackberries, then smooth ripe tannins, firm grip with lots of finesse and not too much oak, could drink in another year but will hold for a decade or more.
***Riesling Icewine 2017: Nose: wow! Apple, peach and apricot, all very fresh. Palate: butterscotch, peach and apricot, pineapple, and mango flavors; rock on! Fantastic fruit/acid balance lovely delicacy; outstanding.
Rating Scale: * = Very Good. ** = Excellent. *** = Outstanding.
The author lived in the Finger Lakes from 1999-2001, and is pleased to report that Wegmans carries many of the wines mentioned in his blog.