Now that winter has finally given way to summer (?!) on the East Coast at least, we start to re-acquaint ourselves with white wine classics: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, sparkling wine and riesling.
Most Americans not well-acquainted with wine still think riesling is always sweet. In Germany, almost all sweet riesling (aside from the rare icewine) is exported to the U.S., while Germans themselves drink only dry riesling.
But there’s room for all palates in the world of riesling, and I was happy that winemaker Howard Bursen of Sharpe Hill Vineyards in Pomfret, CT sent me three different dry rieslings he makes, all from the same vintage. It was fun and instructive to taste and contrast them, and so I’ll share my impressions for you.
The justified giant of Riesling in Eastern North America is the Finger Lakes of New York. For some 30 years, pioneers in the area have persevered with a cool climate grape variety which was disappearing from the scene in California at the same time. As the Golden State discovered ripe and low acid chardonnay, riesling was poo-pooed as being flowery, containing residual sugar, and associated with the polyester and disco bad taste of the late 1970s.
Despite riesling’s sudden lack of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, no other grape, in any species or color, was able to maintain a classic style and consistency of quality across a wide variety of vintage character in the Finger Lakes. As time went on, more vintners realized this, and more critics also took notice.
Today there are two giants of riesling in North America by reputation: the Finger Lakes of New York, and the Columbia Valley of Washington State. However, other cool climate regions in North America have also reliably produced consistent quality riesling with consistent terroir quality; the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Northwest Michigan, and even Monterey County which makes 70% of California’s riesling.
However, other areas make quality cool-climate riesling across North America which lack the high-profile of these other regions. Some of these include northern Ohio, Colorado, Idaho, but there are regions on the East Coast worth seeking out as well.
These include the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Long Island, the Warren Hills AVA of New Jersey, and southeastern New England which is in fact a multi-state AVA of the warm coastal regions of Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
Here are tasting notes on the three Sharpe Hill dry rieslings from 2012:
Sharpe Hill Dry Riesling 2012 Finger Lakes
More Alsatian than German in style; a subtle, non-fruity nose with lemon/citrus minerality and faint yellow apple fruit. On the palate, the hint of yellow apple is joined with pear, but the dominant theme is high acid and minerality; a typical if less fruity expression of Finger Lakes terroir, with racy fresh acidity in the finish. Refreshing, dry and food-friendly.
Sharpe Hill Dry Riesling 2012 Southeastern New England
Strikingly different from the Finger Lakes version, the New England riesling has a rich viscosity and texture reminiscent of Alsatian pinot gris, but the fruit character is just as dramatically different from the first wine. This is ripe peach and apricot fruit on the nose and the palate. Despite the dense palate, the wine is well-balanced with firm acidity and a long finish. This is a ripe, rich and balanced wine and a welcome expression of terroir which is seldom tasted outside New England and deserves more notice, at least with this grape.
Sharpe Hill Dry Riesling 2012 Estate Vineyard Reserve South Slope, Connecticut
This single vineyard riesling is a bit backward at this point and takes awhile to emerge. It is the most subtle and Alsatian of the three rieslings. The nose is subtle pear with a hint of spice. The palate is surprisingly smooth and a bit low in acid, without much fruit, but takes time to emerge.
Even in a cool climate, three different dry rieslings from the same vintage can show very different characters and flavors. Dry riesling is very food-friendly, with the acidity cleansing the palate, and delicate racy citrus, apple and peach fruit complementing a wide range of cuisine. You can pick a riesling to match your sweetness level, but the high acid is a hallmark of the grape, and balances the sweetness well. Dry riesling is great with Swiss cheese, seafood, and cilantro. If you think dry riesling is too dry to enjoy sipping alone, try pairing it with chicken, seafood or semi-soft cheeses.
Cellar Gem Feature: Miles Cellars Riesling 1997
Since 2001, when I attended a 25th anniversary tasting at Glenora Wine Cellars on west Seneca Lake, and found that most of my favorite rieslings were 15 years old or older, I have laid down Finger Lakes (and a few other) rieslings every year. I now have a vertical collection of Finger Lakes rieslings going back to 1998, and can finally start drinking the oldest ones.
Last November I shared the oldest, a 1997 semi-dry riesling from Miles Cellars on west Seneca Lake (the largest of the Finger Lakes). The winemaker at the time was Peter Bell of nearby Fox Run Vineyards.
1997 was a “classic” year for Finger Lakes riesling with well-balanced fruit and acidity, but with a 16-year old riesling stored in my basement, what could I expect? I was amazed: the wine was bright and clear with green and yellow apple aromas and lively fresh fruit and acidity on the palate. Hats off to Doug Miles (owner/grower) and Peter Bell! I wish I had more, but am glad I still have a bottle of the same label from 1998, and about 5 more cases of some 15 vintages of Finger Lakes riesling.
Could you do the same? You need to have a “cellar” that is between 50 and 65 degrees F and dark and free from vibration. Then you need to have the patience to sit on your hands and wait 15 years. For complex biochemical reasons I won’t go into, you either need to drink riesling in the first 2 years or wait until it’s 10 years old or older to get the most from it, but you have to use cool-climate, high-quality rieslings; Yellow Tail or other bargain rieslings won’t cut it.