Part I: Keuka Lake
Summer isn’t complete for me without a visit to the Finger Lakes of New York, one of the best places in the East for world-class wines from dozens of grape varieties including non-vinifera ones.
I judged in the New York State Fair in both amateur and commercial levels, and continue to be impressed at the diversity of wine quality. The top two wines in the amateur competition were both fruit wines, a cranberry and a pear wine, proving that fruit wine can be as good, or better, than grape wines. In the commercial competition, a late harvest vidal won the Best of Show but was competing with excellent finalists including riesling, cabernet franc, sparkling diamond, a cranberry wine and my personal favorite, a currant melomel or fruit wine/mead blend.
The visit to the area began in Hammondsport with a stay at the cozy yet modern and comfortable Champagne House run by Hammondsport Lodging A pleasant surprise awaited at the Village Inn and Tavern, now under the management of Suzanne Geisz, serving excellent cuisine with a carefully chosen beer and local wine list. The oysters Rockerfeller were the best I’ve had!
Former Tavern owner Paul Geisz and fellow State Fair wine judge joined me and we met new Dr. Frank Cellars’ General Manager and fourth generation heir, Meaghan Frank, to taste through the current wines in the newly renovated tasting room with photos and major medals highlighting over 50 years of the winery’s history. Paul and I have met with Meaghan and Fred Frank in the past for such tastings, and we both agreed that they continue to raise the bar every year.
The main varietal series has been given a fresh look with a re-design that brightens the label and sharpens the text. The newsletter spoke of high ratings for their 2014 rieslings, but we just had word that Robert Parker had given over 90 points to three of their red wines including a varietal saperavi, the great Georgian red varietal. It’s nice to see that years, perhaps decades after those of us who cover the Eastern scene regularly and have been singing the praises of its wines, Mr. Parker finally wakes up and acknowledges what’s been in his back yard all this time.
Here are the highlights of each winery’s tasting notes. Anything listed here is noteworthy; starred items are exceptional.
♦♦Chateau Frank Blanc de Noirs 2009 Finger Lakes: 100% pinot noir, five years en tirage. Nose: bright lemon and yeast with light cherry notes. Palate: creamy smooth, great finesse, firm acid but rich red fruits balanced with creamy lemon. Very vibrant, lively and stylish.
♦Pinot Gris 2015 Finger Lakes: Nose has HUGE spicy pear, classic for the “gris” varietal style. Palate: broad, round texture with bright spicy pear flavors. Very stylish!
There is now a single vineyard “Women’s Series” of rieslings from Dr. Frank which began with Margrit’s riesling, named for Willy Frank’s wife. Eugenia is a new addition, named for the winery founder Konstantin’s wife. It’s from 35 year old vines on the estate.
♦Eugenia 2014 Riesling dry: very Saar-like, tastes like a blue-green shade of color, with smoky shale hints. Palate: dry but smooth and delicate, like the music of Chopin, with flavors of white peach and pear. Plump texture, round and smooth to balance firm acid. Very fine, can be enjoyed now or age for a decade.
♦Margrit 2014 Riesling dry: barrel fermented in four year old French oak. Nose: delicate, elegant yellow apple, some honey, and a hint of pineapple. Palate: smoky honey and yellow apple. Young but promising and richly textured, a unique style with the oak influence.
Dry Riesling 2015 Finger Lakes: Nose of bright lemon and ripe red and yellow apple. Palate: dry but solid ripe fruit, a versatile wine with generous fruit.
Dry Riesling 2014 Finger Lakes: Nose: faint lemon/lime. Palate: fine acid with impressive length, will age well but needs more time.
♦Semi-dry Riesling 2015 Finger Lakes: fermentation stopped in the German style, instead of back-sweetened, at 2.6% residual sugar. All Seneca Lake fruit. Nose: nice German Rhine fruitiness of red apple, apricot and peach. Palate: juicy, with lots of ripe fruit! Well-balanced with a lively finish.
♦Gewurztraminer 2014 Finger Lakes: was on the skins for 48 hours pre-fermentation. Nose: spicy with lychee and rose. On the palate, great spiciness, clean with a nice hint of bitterness to balance the lack of acidity on the finish. Less than 1% residual sugar. A fine versatile food wine.
Lemberger 2013 Finger Lakes: Nose: fruity and delicate with bit of spice (partly aged in Hungarian oak). Briar fruits with an original character and spice. Palate: good fruit/acid balance, excellent oak, fruit and rounded acidity; stylish.
♦Cabernet Franc 2013 Finger Lakes: Nose: amazing spice and bright red fruits, very stylish. Palate: ripe red fruits, crisp finish, smooth tannins and fine oak integration. A classic example of fine and elegant cabernet franc.
♦Saperavi 2013 Finger Lakes: the second varietally labeled Dr. Frank vintage of this giant of Georgian red grapes. Color: very dark. Nose: smoky plum, black fruits and truffles. Palate: black cherry and plum, big volume from smooth ripe tannins, original and stylish. Can be enjoyed this fall or laid down for 5-10 years.
♦♦Meritage 2012 Finger Lakes This label is a selection of the best barrels from the warmest vintages, only sold in the tasting room. Nose: again, like the music of Chopin: elegant, with ripe red fruits and perfumed spice reminiscent of Margaux. Excellent balance of oak and fruit. Palate: smooth, ripe, round, firm tannins, great finesse and integration. Young but well-knit. 13.5% alc. Interestingly, this wine is 40% petit verdot, the red Bordeaux grape that is changing the meritage equation in Virginia. I had thought this grape wouldn’t ripen or over-winter well in the Finger Lakes, but then Meaghan told me this is grown in southeast Seneca Lake, the region’s “banana belt.” Other grapes: 20% each both cabernets and merlot. Only two barrels. Not just stylish but world-class.
Late Harvest Wines
♦2015 Gewurztraminer Finger Lakes (30% botrytis, 4% residual sugar): Nose is closed at first, then some spice. Palate: tastes dry from concentration of botrytis; needs time but worth the weight (heh).
♦2014 Reserve Riesling Finger Lakes (8.5 g/l TA, 6% residual sugar): Nose: can pick up the 50% botrytis from smoky apricot. Palate: dense, rich, high acid and sugar, but both finely balanced. Will need years to come around but worth the…
♦2013 Late Harvest Riesling Finger Lakes 12% alcohol, 28% sugar at harvest. Nose: layered apple and apricot aromas. Palate: Wow-juicy, rich, layered peach/apricot. Rich but still elegant.
This very small winery is the first one you reach driving up the steep hill towards the larger, more famous Bully Hill, Heron Hill and Dr. Frank wineries; if you blink you’ll pass it. Still, it’s worth the visit and tasting. There are a number of fine, dry single vineyard rieslings, as well as brilliant Loire Valley-style fruit-driven cabernet francs from 2013 and 2014. The house specialty though is the sister seedling of the French hybrid Marechal Foch: the obscure but very worthwhile Leon Millot. How worthwhile? Well, the 2010 vintage from Keuka Lake won the New York Governor’s Cup award in 2011, beating out scores of rieslings and red vinifera wines from all over the state. I tasted that wine, and the award was appropriate.
2014 East Side Dry Riesling: Nose: a bit of spice but tight. Palate: dry, elegant but tastes like whole cluster-pressed, light and subtle with a fine texture and high acid and crisp finish.
Cabernet Franc 2013 Finger Lakes: Nose: fragrant red cherry fruit. Palate: nice ripe red cherry with lively acid, still very young.
♦Cabernet Franc 2014 Finger Lakes: Nose: mature, ripe and fragrant perfumed black cherry. Palate: lively, fresh, fruit-driven varietally correct. A great Finger Lakes interpretation with great fruit/acid balance.
Leon Millot “Fils de Fournier” 2014: Now the famous Leon Millot vineyard that produced the Governor’s Cup wine in 2011 was planted by Charles Fournier in 1957 or so and as you can appreciate is low-yielding and also sold out. Owner Mel Goldman took cuttings from this vineyard, grafted them and planted a new vineyard on east Keuka Lake named “Fils de Fournier”, and for young vines, this red French hybrid has a lot going on, showing the pedigree of its parent vineyard. Color is very dark ruby. Nose: fragrant cherries and plums, red and black, reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais. On the palate, juicy, solid firm black fruits, some malic acid tartness. Fragrant cherry and plum flavors. Young, needs time but promising. For Wine Club members only.
I had to drive on to Syracuse to judge in the New York State Fair Wine Competition and sadly didn’t have time to visit more favorite wineries on Keuka Lake, but another time…