Having been forced by the pandemic to avoid traveling to New York State last year, I eagerly drove to the Finger Lakes in early June. It was a good time to check out the wine scene; the “classic” 2019 vintage was still widely available but the great 2020 vintage was starting to come in.
Everyone in the industry I spoke with spoke of the 2020 vintage as “great”, possibly the greatest in living memory, surpassing 2010 and 2001, so at least the best in 20 years. There was rain during the summer, but then September had warm, dry weather all month long. The result was fresh, lively whites and Amazing! Reds. I was given barrel and tank samples of 2020 reds by Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards and Chris Stamp of Lakewood Vineyards (both on west Seneca Lake), and we were all amazed at the fragrance, freshness and forward fruitiness of these Finger Lakes red wines before they were even in the bottle. Fruit was vibrant, tannins were ripe and smooth, but the wines were still elegantly balanced. Most impressive were Lakewood and Fox Run’s Pinot Noir samples. After decades of disappointment, this could be the vintage that wakes up the world to the potential of Finger Lakes Pinot Noir in a year like this.
Most of the 2020 reds will be bottled over the summer, so fans of Finger Lakes should check in with their favorite wineries and order wines to be shipped when it cools down in the fall, but you read it here first: barrel and tank sample tasting notes from the best vintage of Finger Lakes red wines I’ve tasted in 22 years. Meanwhile, the 2019 vintage was a solid “classic Finger Lakes style” vintage, with vibrantly fresh Rieslings and reds with good maturity and balance.
Tasting Highlights: West Cayuga Lake
• **Cabernet Franc ’20:
Vines for this wine were planted 30 years ago. Nose: a bit of spice and vibrant red cherry. Palate: closed, but still stylish, zesty and fresh, with ripe red/black cherry, smooth tannins and no “veggies”. A fine example of contemporary Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc in a great vintage.
• **Lemberger ’20: Nose: lovely fruity/fragrant, no evident oak (it was fermented in neutral French oak). Palate: fresh, lively, excellent varietal style, young but will hold another 2-3 years (even in great vintages, Lemberger doesn’t age long).
• **Riesling ’19 (0.6% R.S.): Still tight and young but broad texture; green apple and lime, long finish, a fine dry style.
• **Naomi sparkling Riesling (2% R.S.): Nose a bit tanky/tight. Palate: bright pineapple and peach with zesty green apple acidity. Lively and fun, with good fruit/acid balance. Good value at $16.
Thirsty Owl Wine Co.
• **Pinot Gris ’19 (0.1% R.S.) Nose: subtle, elegant hint of cantaloupe. Palate: rich mid-palate texture, then very lively and fresh Finger Lakes acidity. Subtle flavors of white peach. Very stylish, very good typicity for a cool climate version of this grape and for this region.
• ***Riesling “Appalachian Bottom Dweller” ’20: Named after a bedrock layer of shale in a shallow vineyard, this is a great example of “terroir.” A very German middle-Mosel aroma of white flowers and fresh apricot poured over crushed slate. Palate: dry (0.8% R.S.), fresh apricot, flint/shale, with electric acidity, and a long dry finish. A winner either short (two years) or long (lay down for 10+ years).
• **Pinot Noir Rosé ’20: pale Provençal color. Nose: delicate and fresh, pure white/red cherry. Palate: dry, fresh, delicate, sexy!
• ***Meritage ’19 (89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec). Vibrant, dark ruby color. Nose: ripe red and black cassis with toasty oak, some boysenberry from the Malbec. Palate: big dimension. Lively ripe cassis, smooth tannins, with fresh lively acidity on the finish. This wine shows that in 2019 you could ripen Cabernet Sauvignon in the Finger Lakes, and have an integrated palate with ripe fruit, tannins and vibrant acidity. Could drink soon or lay down for a decade.
Southeast Seneca Lake
• ***Dry Riesling ’19, Sunrise Hill Vineyard, Cayuga Lake From a single vineyard on the west side of Cayuga Lake. Nose: lime and green/yellow apple notes. Palate: fine zesty acidity like a freshly cut apple. Long finish with crackling acidity and bright apple flavor. Has both a single vineyard and Cayuga Lake singular character; stylish.
Silver Thread offers a five-label flight of their Rieslings.
• *Riesling Estate ’20 Shallow shale-based soil. Nose: faint lime notes. Palate: nice mid-palate red apple flavor. Still young; drink in one year or lay down.
• **Riesling Semi-Dry ’20 (2% R.S.) Nose: fresh, with hints of apricot, pineapple and peach. Palate: juicy but zesty and bright with balancing acidity. Can drink now but best in a year or to lay down.
• ***Gewurztraminer ’20 Nose: lovely rose and lychee but delicate, classy and refined. Palate: juicy but not sweet or heavy. Could benefit from another year of bottle age. Elegant and a good expression of the Finger Lakes.
• **Sauvignon Blanc ’19 An elegant Loire Valley style expressed in the Finger Lakes. Nose: lemon/lime with dill hints. Palate: bright peachy fruit with lemon/lime, broad palate, then high acid on the finish. Stylish! Long finish, clean, a great food wine.
• **Riesling Homestead Reserve ’19 dry Nose: lean, tight with lime and slate. Palate: good mid-palate definition, fleshy with lemon/lime flavors and zesty acidity. Drink by October or lay down for a decade plus.
• ***Cabernet Sauvignon ’17 Impressively dark color. Nose: closed, but a hint of cassis. Palate: ripe, smooth tannins, ripe black fruits, no “veggies”, very fresh in a good Finger Lakes interpretation of the grape. Impressive varietal and regional style, still needs time to fully develop.
Chateau Lafayette Reneau
• **Dry Riesling ’19 Nose: subtle and elegant lime/mineral notes. Palate: wow—solid green and yellow apple, impressive depth of flavor, with juiciness despite being dry.
• **Semi-dry Riesling ’18 Nose: white flowers, lemon/lime hints. Palate: Mosel-like apple and peach flavors but with 12.5% alcohol, fresh despite 2-3% R.S. Stylish, elegant considering the poor vintage.
• *Pinot Noir Rosé ’19 (off-dry; 1% R.S.). Nose: hints of cherry. Palate: juicy! Ripe Pinot fruit has a Riesling-like fruit character. Zesty pink cherry flavors, off-dry but stylish and easy to drink.
West Seneca Lake
• **3 Generations Riesling ’20 (0.2% R.S.) Nose: Austrian style, non-fruity, subtle lemon/mineral. Palate: very dense, rich, full-bodied, not fruity now, drink in one year or worth laying down for a decade.
• *Dry Riesling ’19 Nose: flinty, subtle, hints of green apple and lime. Palate: dry but pleasing, plush mid-palate, could drink now or lay down.
• ***Riesling “Classic” ’19 (semi-sweet, 2.6% R.S.) Nose: fragrant white flowers, fresh apricot. Palate: juicy, fresh apple, white peach. Seems sweet at first but finishes dry, with a long finish!
Tank samples, 2020 reds:
• Pinot Noir: Nose: like Volnay Burgundy; violets! Palate: juicy, wonderful! Ripe fruit and fresh acidity.
• Cabernet Franc, Miles Vineyard: Nose: nice clean leafy cherry notes. Palate: juicy, ripe, clean, great varietal style.
• Cabernet Franc, Morris Vineyard: Nose: light, hints of leafy/herb black cherry. Palate: large volume, full ripe cherry and big tannins!
• Lemberger: Nose: fragrant, ripe briar fruits. Palate: full-bodied for the varietal, ripe with big tannins on the finish. Very impressive for the varietal, especially from a tank sample!
The author (right) with long-time Glenora winemaker Steve DiFrancesco (left)
• ***Semi-dry Riesling Humphreys Vineyard ’19 Nose: wow! Ripe apricot with racy lemon and red apple. Palate: wow; juicy with very lively acidity, has impressive singularity and big flavor now. Drink or lay down.
• ***Wild Yeasts Riesling Humphreys Vineyard ’20 Nose: complex, some cheesiness but also depth and dimension with ripe red apple. Palate: juicy, rich, round with ripe white peach and red apple, sweetish (2.9% R.S.) but nicely balanced, very hedonistic, drink in the next year or lay down.
• **Riesling ’19 (3.6% R.S.) Nose: juicy apricot. Palate: wow –rich dimension and depth, peach/apricot flavors with acidity to match, forward. Drink now to Thanksgiving.
Fox Run Vineyards
• ***Unoaked Chardonnay ’20 I didn’t taste this at the winery but enjoyed several glasses with steamed clams at the Village Tavern in Hammondsport. This is not a rare or complicated wine, but it’s so hard to find a Chardonnay that give this kind of finesse while expressing regional character so well that it deserves three stars. Nose: fresh, subtle lemon and cream hints. Palate: bright, clean, fresh and smooth, dry finish, with lemon and a hint of cream. Acidity and lees contact make the wine elegantly balanced. I wish this wine were boxed so I could pour it from the fridge all summer.
With apologies to winemaker Peter Bell, I didn’t have time to taste through his bottled wines in the tasting room, but he was kind enough to give me tastes of barrel samples of highlights of the 2020 vintage:
• Lemberger: Nose: clean and fresh briar fruit; lively. Palate: fresh bright briar fruit. High acidity on the finish but plump mid-palate, a forward, fruity but balanced wine; stylish.
• Merlot: Nose: juicy, fruit-forward, ripe black fruits, hollow mid palate typical of Merlot at this stage, but a fresh finish. Ripe fruit, very promising so far.
• Cabernet Sauvignon: dark ruby color. Nose: juicy ripe black fruits. Palate: ripe black fruits and ripe tannins! No veggies, great combo of ripe black fruits and tannins! Forward for a Cabernet in barrel.
• Cabernet Franc: Floral notes, ripe briar fruits. Palate: wow—great fruit/acid balance, wonderful briar fruits, unusual for the varietal here; very seductive, esp. in the barrel! Smooth tannins and fruit-forward.
• Pinot Noir: Impressively dark hue. Nose: closed but clean, ripe black fruits. Palate: wow! Ripe black fruits, lots of tension, integration, finesse, smooth tannins. Very classy for Finger Lakes Pinot; especially this early. Promising!
• Ruby Port: Fans of Fox Run port will be glad to know that Peter Bell has kicked it up a notch with the regular NV Ruby Port. It has always been clean, fresh and forward, but with the ’19 vintage (bottled as a non-vintage blend) he has included some aged components which bring in a complexity and spice element which helps give dimension to the fruit-driven fresh style. His “fine old tawny” label is also back in perfect balance!
Keuka Spring Vineyard on east Keuka Lake has a well-deserved reputation for quality, and under current winemaker Lynn Fahey is continuing to make classic Finger Lakes vinifera wines while doing some original blending.
• **Dry Rosé ’20 A fun, original blend of Lemberger, Cabernet Franc and Zweigelt, an Austrian red grape like Lemberger. Nose: closed (young). Palate: Intense fruit/acid tension and volume, flavors of white cherries and cranberries. Very zesty, fresh, dry and refreshing!
• ****Dry Riesling Humphrey’s Vineyard ’20 (0.7% R.S.) This vineyard is located on west Seneca Lake. Nose: lovely floral and white peach aromas. Palate: dry but lovely white and yellow peach flavors tapering to a dry shale-like finish. Elegant and outstanding, probably needs another year but could lay down for 15 years.
• ***Riesling Wiltberger Vineyard ’20 semi-sweet (4.4% R.S.) Nose: elegant, subtle white peach. Palate: juicy ripe white peach, fresh apricot, zesty/lively acidity balances the rich fruit and residual sugar. Stylish.
• ***Classic Gewurztraminer ’19 (0.7% R.S.) This is Keuka Spring’s most popular Gewurztraminer even though they make drier and sweeter versions. Nose: lovely German style aromatics, pineapple and tangerine. Palate: juicy, nice texture, drinks dry but with zesty fruit/acid balance. This label has won the New York Governor’s Cup and even national medals.
• ***Blaufrankisch ’19 (a k a Lemberger). A regional blend with 35 year-old estate vines’ fruit. Nose: lovely fresh, fragrant boysenberry and briar fruits. Palate: vibrant, lively fresh briar fruits and acidity balanced. Great cool climate and Finger Lakes style, no obvious oak, stylish, fresh and zesty!
• ****Miller’s Cove Red ’19 An original, likely unique blend of the Georgian grape Saperavi, Lemberger, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Color: very dark! Nose: fragrant black briar fruits! Palate: smooth tannins, long finish, mid-palate kind of closed but full dimension. Needs at least another year but distinctive and original, a Finger Lakes blend worth waiting for. It reminds me of a cool climate Zinfandel with more tannins and less alcohol.
Weis Vineyard: German native owner and winemaker Peter Weis, from the Mosel Valley, decided he had found the ideal home in the New World to make wine when he discovered the Finger Lakes. He and his wife and partner Ashlee harvested their first crop in the outstanding 2016 vintage. Until very recently, his tasting room was in a cute small schoolhouse; now it’s the top floor of his winery/cellar complex, in clean modern architecture with a breathtaking view of Keuka Lake and Bluff Point (the base of the fork in the Lake’s ‘Y’).
• ****Dry Riesling ’20 (0.5% R.S.) Nose: complex, flinty, hints of white peach. Palate: WOW! Dry but very juicy, with Mosel-like floral peach flavors. Very fruit expressive; could drink in the next year or lay down. Very forward and lovely now.
• ***Riesling ‘K’ Winzer Select ’20 (1% R.S.) ‘Winzer’ means ‘vintner’ in German, and ‘K’ stands for Kabinet, the basic level of German quality wine that has not been chaptalized (had sugar added to raise alcohol). Nose: closed/young. Palate: juicy but very intense acidity to balance, with white peach and loads of slate in a classic Mosel style; very expressive.
• ***Dry Rosé of Zweigelt ’20 (0.5% R.S.) Dark pink color. Nose: complex; red cherry and rose. Palate: juicy fruit, zesty high acidity, bright and bursting fruit/acid balance. I recommend decanting it for a few minutes before enjoying (which I did last night, with ahi tuna).
• ***Unoaked Chardonnay ’20 Nose: fresh, lively, just bottled so a bit tight. Palate: lovely Finger Lakes style, steely acidity with fine lees to soften, a hint of lemon, a bit fuller texture than others but both lively and rich.
• ***Semi-dry Riesling ’19 (1.7% R.S.) Nose: bright lemon and ripe white peach, some complex yeast aromas. Palate: juicy, nice zestiness, ‘lieblich’ (the German word for ‘lovely’ given to juicy and forward but balanced white wines). Could drink by fall or lay down.
• ***Blaufrankisch ’19 (12 months in French oak). Nose: smoky, with red briar fruits. Palate: lively fruit/acid balance, nice bass touch of oak adds complexity with ripe briar fruits. Stylish!
Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery was established in 1962, and the founder Dr. Frank spent some time and effort to prove that the classic European Vitis vinifera grapes such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir could be grown and survive the winter in the Finger Lakes, as well as make world-class wine. Today, the winery continues into its fourth generation, with Meaghan Frank as General Manager. In 2019, Dr. Frank Winery made Wine & Spirits magazine’s Top 100 Wineries list.
The pandemic forced the winery to re-think how to serve tastings. The solution was to have a series of theme-specific tasting stations around the public area, each manned by a different employee. First, there’s the sparkling station, then the regular white wine products followed by more esoteric wines like amber whites or “winter ferment” wines, select reds, and finally the “women founders” series of high-end whites named for Frank family women.
I found this format not only original but fun and it was nice to chat with a series of different people giving their impressions and styles to the tasting experience. I was told that the winery had heard back from people that they should not drop this new format after the pandemic but should keep it because it made for such a special tasting experience. Part of this is lots of window space or even outdoor platforms in warm weather with breathtaking views of Keuka Lake below.
• ***Riesling “Nature” ’18 Traditional sparkling German Riesling is not aged on the lees. This one is aged between 2-3 years on the lees, in the “methode champenoise” style, and with no dosage to sweeten it. On the palate, wow—dry, big volume, fresh and zesty Riesling fruit offset by the complexity and dimension of lees. Original, stylish, complex.
• ***Dry Riesling ‘19 Nose: fresh, clean with vibrant green apple notes, also lime and mineral. Palate: zesty, fresh lime and green apple, zinger acidity, young, good now or to lay down for a decade. A great example of Finger Lakes “classic cool climate” style dry Riesling.
• ***Gruener Veltliner ’19 Nose: typical subtle wax bean and white pepper. Palate: very forward, unusual for this subtle grape, fresh with lemon and herb flavors. A great food wine, and much better than the average GV.
• ***Gewurztraminer ’19 Nose: delicate, fresh, cool-climate style with lychee and tangerine aromas. Palate: lovely rich texture, spicy but vibrant and fresh.
• ***Rkatsiteli ’20 Nose: typically subtle, like Albariño without the grapefruit. Palate: surprisingly fruity! Also spicy with white pepper, grapefruit in a big way. Very expressive, much more than usual and like the GV, a great food wine.
• ****Muscat Ottonel ’19 (semi-dry). Many (perhaps most) of those who subscribe to large glossy consumer wine magazines in this country would probably turn up their noses at any wine with “Muscat” in its name, but I’d gladly pass up 1,000 mediocre schlock Chardonnays to enjoy this wine. Nose: fragrant but elegant in a cool-climate style, much like the earlier-reviewed Gewurztraminer. Palate: juicy but with fine balancing acidity, vibrant tropical fruit and zesty/fresh to balance. Very stylish and with a Stelvin cap, can age for a couple of years as well. If anyone hasn’t tried this grape, and you like Gewurztraminer, you should grab this; you’ll thank me at Thanksgiving.
• ***Winter Solstice Gewurztraminer ’20 (0.4% R.S.) This unique wine was fermented in a clay amphora from frozen juice. Nose: rich and floral with tropical fruit, complex. Palate: spicy, juicy, yin/yang, full-flavored, dry, long finish. Distinctive, stylish. Stelvin finished, can age.
• ****Eugenia dry Riesling ’19 (from vines planted on Keuka Lake in 1968). Nose: complex, flinty/earthy, ripe red apple. Palate: Wow! Intense focus and extract (dry solids left after liquid wine has been evaporated), loads of shale minerality, white peach flavors, very dense and concentrated. Needs decanting before drinking, either this fall or in 15-20 years.
• ****Margrit Dry Riesling ’19 (grapes from Seneca Lake) Nose: complex, hints of petrol, shale and peach. Palate: again, loads of concentration, shale and ripe peach. Great depth and length.
• ****Reserve Riesling ’20 late harvest (5% R.S.) All from botrytis-affected fruit. Nose: peach, apple, flint. Palate: tongue-coating but with great fruit/acid balance, loads of pineapple and peach flavors with pineapple on the finish.
Rating scale: * = good, ** = very good, *** = outstanding, **** = exceptional