Part I: Keuka Lake

As is my habit in summer, I make an annual drive up to the Finger Lakes of New York to see old friends and taste new wines and vintages.

I had been anticipating this trip for a year, because at my last visit, Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards and Chris Stamp of Lakewood Vineyards both gave me, unprompted, barrel or tank sample tastes of red wines from the recent, and great, 2020 vintage.

Assessing Recent Vintages Here

I had never had Finger Lakes reds at that infant stage, nine months or so before bottling, taste so exquisite, ripe and yet poised. I was amazed, so I was anxious to see what had transpired in the year since I first saw the potential of the ’20 Finger Lakes red wines.

I was not disappointed. First, though, I should mention the 2019 reds. Many of you will have found out that the 2018 vintage in the Finger Lakes, as in Virginia, was “the pits,” as we say in the wine business. However, even in bad vintages, a few fine Rieslings could be found. While 2019 was not as statuesque as was 2020, it was not to be dismissed or put on a par with the poor 2018 reds.

The 2019 vintage was “classic” for Finger Lakes Riesling; ripe yet with vivid acidity, bright fruit and a long finish. I would say 2019 was also solid, and somewhere between B+/A- for the red wines, for the most part. I found ripe fruit with varietal character, but also firm acidity and smooth tannins; less tannic reds can be enjoyed soon, while the more tannic ones still need some time, but 2019 could be the best red vintage in the Finger Lakes between the fine 2016 and the great 2020 vintages.

But what of the white wines? I have to honestly say, that from my visit this year and last, I just don’t find much to say about the 2020 Finger Lakes white wines. Perversely, the 2021 vintage was possibly worse here than the 2018 vintage, yet what little I’ve tasted of 2021 Rieslings makes me think they are better Rieslings that almost all the 2020 vintage Rieslings, besides reserve single vineyard labels. That’s likely because 2020 brought uncharacteristically warm, sunny weather which ripened red grapes but which gave 2020 whites kind of a flabby and ho-hum palate.

It was a strange year for tasting white wines; the fine 2019 vintage was almost sold out, the 2020 vintage wasn’t promising for most white wines, and the 2021 vintage, which was more promising, had not yet been released (except for a couple of exceptions) when I visited in late June. The good news is that between 2020 reds and the now-newly released 2021 whites and rosés, there’s a bounty of great Finger Lakes wine.

West Keuka Lake

In recent years, my annual Finger Lakes highlights blog has seemed to only lightly include Keuka Lake, so I decided to Go Deep this year, covering east, west and even north (?) sides. I began my tour at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vineyards on Keuka Lake. I had emailed General Manager Meaghan Frank, a fourth-generation member of the family business, that I would be coming; I got an auto-response saying she was on maternity leave. When I reached the winery, I was told that her father Fred was waiting to give me a tasting. I congratulated him on his becoming a grandfather, and he told me Meaghan gave birth to a baby boy two days before! Congratulations, Meaghan, on bringing the fifth generation of Keuka Lake Franks into the world! We then went to his late father Willy’s Champagne House, a stone house built in 1886 which became known as Chateau Frank.

Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, west Keuka Lake

The winery parking lot was full for a Monday, as it was Juneteenth, and it was great to see so many people choosing to visit New York wineries that day. I was grateful to Fred for taking us to a quieter and more scenic location, where I had a view of Keuka Lake and the bluff of the “Y” intersection of the lake’s two forks. Fred pointed out that the Champagne House had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and now has a marker, with an iconic view of Keuka Lake behind it.

Dr. Frank Wines: Tasting Highlights

Dr. Frank produces a lot of labels, so I chose a select few to sample. Here are highlights:

*+ Celebré Riesling NV

This fine Riesling sparkling wine was 18 months on the lees, and all from one vintage, produced in the classic sparkling wine methode champenoise. Nose: fresh lemon/lime zest, mineral hint like fine German sekt. Palate: very smooth, round, semi-dry, nice peachy mid-palate, juicy, finishes a bit short but overall stylish.

*+Dr. Frank Rkatsiteli ’21 (12% alc.)

While the 2021 vintage was possibly worse here than the 2018 vintage, in white wines there were some surprises, including this wine from the Georgian Rkatsiteli grape, pioneered here in North America by Dr. Konstantin Frank. Dr. Frank knew this variety was cold-hardy from his experience with it in Ukraine, and his grandson Fred explained that it holds up well in wet seasons due to its thick skins; it was harvested in November. Nose: impressive cool climate subtlety, with a scent of evergreens and elderflower. Palate: fresh, broad, fleshy, clean, fresh, a fine and original appetizer wine.

***Dr. Frank Dry Riesling ‘21

The 2021 vintage of dry and semi-dry Riesling was just released at the winery tasting room, but will take awhile to work down the supply change in other areas/states. Nose: elegant cool vintage style; clean lemon/lime Mosel delicacy, racy with mineral hints. Palate: apple flavors, firm acidity, hint of white peach, juicy mid-palate but crackling with acidity; great varietal and regional typicity, a fine long finish.

***Dr. Frank Dry Rosé ’21 (Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Blaufränkisch/Lemberger)

A darker than usual pink color. For a rosé from a poor vintage, this was much higher than my expectations. Nose; fresh, cotton-candy notes, clean. Palate: juicy, fresh, clean and dry, reminds me of dry Chambourcin rosé with its juiciness and fresh, delicate fruit.

**+Dr. Frank Saperavi ‘19

Dark red color. Nose: bursting with briar fruits, some oak and spice. Palate: firm tannins! Good oak to support that, solid briar fruit flavors, very smooth texture and integration of all elements. Impressive now, will improve with a few years of age.

***Dr. Frank Blaufänkisch ‘19

Nose: fresh, bright, delicate briar fruits, some nice vanilla/oak notes. Palate: juicy! Fresh, but still has bright acidity. Elegant, with great varietal and regional character, with nice spice on the finish. Good now, will improve for a year or two.

Azure Hill Vineyards, close to Dr. Frank Vineyards on West Keuka Lake, is a fairly new operation by Keuka Lake standards (just 16 years old), and also a small, artisanal operation specializing in a range of Riesling, cool climate reds, and Saperavi. This year, they opened an outdoor deck with a roof facing Keuka Lake for tastings.

View of Keuka Lake from Azure Hill Vineyards

*+Azure Hill Riesling Brut NV

Proprietor Joe Sheehy makes sparkling Riesling using the cuvée process as they do in Champagne, where older wines are blended with the younger before being bottled, which is unusual for aromatic varieties like Riesling. The cuvée in this release dates back to 2013 from estate grown grapes, all processed on site. Nose: lively yellow apple, lots of minerality. Palate: complex, multi-dimensional, with a VERY long finish. Very high acidity, can lay down for ages. Unique tasting experience, but not as fruity as most Riesling fans may expect.

*Azure Hill Zweigelt ’20 (residual sugar 0.9%)

Nose: fresh red cherry and cranberry, forward and bright. Palate: impressive; intense fruit/acid tango. Big tannins, could go the distance; needs a couple more years to integrate.

Point of the Bluff Vineyard is a relatively new addition to west Keuka Lake. The winery’s name comes from its vineyard site, the steep point of the “Y” on Keuka Lake, called “the only south-facing vineyard in the Finger Lakes,” so you could call this the “north” side of the lake. Many (not all) of their grapes come from this vineyard, including Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Industry veteran Mike Countryman shows consistent attention across the product line, but the quality of the vineyard site also helps shine through the wines.

Point of the Bluff makes four different rosés which are all popular as well as a “Blau” (Blaufränkisch) nouveau. Their sparkling wines are “hugely” popular.

**Point of the Bluff Unoaked Chardonnay ‘21

Nose: fresh, light, reminds me of Mâcon, with hints of lemon and pear. Palate: dry but refreshing, round, clean, an excellent versatile style, light lees stirring was just enough. A fine Finger Lakes style, especially for a crummy vintage.

**Point of the Bluff Semi-Dry Riesling ’20

Nose: nice aromatics, hints of ripe peach and pineapple. Palate: ripe vibrant peachy/apricot fruit, firm acid on the finish. Stylish, ripe, great for a vintage in which Riesling doesn’t shine.

**** Point of the Bluff Pinot Noir ‘20

Yes, this Pinot Noir from the fickle and rainy Finger Lakes rates a rare four stars. An A-grade site, combined with an A+ vintage and a world-class grape variety, plus attentive winemaking, made it work, with a classic Burgundian alcohol level of only 12%.

Nose: fresh, clean, a bit closed still, since it was just released in May; reminds me of Savigny Les Beaune from Burgundy. Palate: full, round, vibrant fruit/acid balance, good tannins for a Pinot Noir; intense, vibrant, lovely cherry and strawberry flavors, a great Finger Lakes Pinot in a Burgundian style.

**+Point of the Bluff Blaufränkisch ‘19

Dark vibrant ruby color. Nose: fresh red and black briar fruits, some oak, all with acidity in fine balance. Stylish.

*** Point of the Bluff Blaufränkisch Reserve ’20

Nose: fragrant briar fruits, more black than red, nice spice hints. Palate: juicy, round but then acidity and bright red fruits come in on mid-palate. Full, big volume, smooth and ripe tannins, great potential.

**+Point of the Bluff Cabernet Franc ’20

Nose: leafy/herbal. Palate: large volume, punchy black pepper, volume keeps growing with big tannins, some fruit behind the acidity. Promising potential, needs time.

*** Point of the Bluff “Blau” ’20 (nouveau-style Blaufränkisch)

The Rooftop Reds winery in Brooklyn, the City’s only rooftop vineyard, commissioned this wine as one that could be enjoyed either room temperature or chilled for summertime pleasure. This carbonic maceration nouveau-style varietal wine from Blaufränkisch is a treat, and earns a star for both originality and brilliant execution. Color is vibrant, light ruby/dark pink. Nose: just like someone crushed fresh boysenberries into your glass. Palate: juicy but then the nice acidity comes in. Fresh, lively, juicy but dry, and balanced. Only 100 cases made, and it’s flying off the shelves at $30/bottle!

Hunt Country Vineyard in Branchport is one of the more established wineries on Keuka Lake. The Hunt family has been farming the land for seven generations. The winery business was begun by Art and Joyce Hunt some fifty years ago, but is now also in the forefront of sustainable practices. I was most impressed with red wines from the two Cabernet grapes when I visited, both from the great 2020 vintage.

Seen in the Hunt Country gift shop

***Hunt Country Cabernet Franc ‘20

Nose: leafy and herbal vegetal hints, some smoky oak and a hint of red cherry. Palate: strawberry, red cherry and black pepper, lively and intense, fruit and acid-driven, needs some time. Promising, great illustration of Finger Lakes terroir with this grape.

***+Hunt Country Cabernet Sauvignon ‘20

It’s rare to see me rate a Finger Lakes Cab Sauv this highly, especially if the grapes don’t all come from southeast Seneca Lake, but in this vintage, it can happen. Nose: mostly closed, but clean with just a faint hint of ripe black fruits. Palate: lively and fresh, with smooth, ripe tannins and ripe black fruits that will eventually emerge, but needs time. A triumph of good grape growing, careful winemaking and Finger Lakes terroir in a great vintage; needs 7-10 years of patient cellaring.

East Keuka Lake

Driving south on Rt. 54 from Penn Yan, you enjoy the view of the lake on your right side, and in a short five minutes you’ll reach Keuka Spring Vineyard on the left. This vineyard and winery operation was founded by Len and Judy Wiltberger in the early 1980s, and has long-standing ties to local growers, who often get their vineyard names on the labels of exceptional wines. Keuka Spring has a long-standing and impressive list of awards, including the New York Governor’s Cup for Miller’s Cove, their proprietary red blend (which changes grape varieties and percentages).

A cold sky over Keuka Spring Vineyard, east Keuka Lake

Tasting Highlights:

**+Keuka Spring Humphrey’s Riesling ‘21

This single vineyard wine is sourced from Seneca Lake. Nose: complex; not fruity, but has ripe peach hints. Palate: juicy, concentrated with high acidity. Young, needs time., multi-dimensional, elegant fruit/acid balance (0.9% residual sugar), good to taste in a year or more.

Blaufrankisch, a rising red star in the Finger Lakes, in a stylish incarnation by Keuka Spring Vineyard

**Keuka Spring Blaufänkisch ‘20

Nose: juicy, fresh-crushed briar fruits; wow! Palate: juicy, broad, big volume but not tannic, still fruit-forward, light/medium-bodied, drink in 1-3 years.

*Keuka Spring Miller’s Cove ’20

(Not the usual red Bordeaux blend due to a crop shortage; DeChaunac, Foch, Baco Noir and Blaufränkish). Nose: not bad; complex floral notes, black fruits and earth elements. Palate: juicy, forward, ripe; a lot like Dolcetto. Fun, good for the near-term and surprisingly good for the odd blend of grapes, but then ’20 was a great vintage for Finger Lakes reds.

Weis Vineyards

View of Point of the Bluff on Keuka Lake from Weis’ tasting room

Peter Weis is the rare stereotype of a hard-working, earnest German in the Finger Lakes wine industry, who at the same time never seems to stop smiling. When I visited on my next stop south on east Keuka Lake, his Bauhaus-style tasting room with windows facing northwest to Bluff Point, was full, but he soon came and took me on a speedy tour of his production facility, showed me the steep slope behind the winery where he planned to expand for gravity-flow processing, then showed me videos on his smartphone of his one (or two?) year old son “helping” him on the bottling line! It was the real deal! This kid will be “Yuge” (in a good way) some day, like a baby John Henry in training. Peter also let me taste the ’22 vintage Riesling right from the line on its way to the tank! I only wish someone had taken a picture of me doing that I could share with you.

Tasting Highlights

At Weis, it’s hard to pull out just a few; there just aren’t any mediocre wines here, everything is good in one way or another. Here, I’ll rate by the number of stars.

***Sauvignon Blanc ’21 (wine club only)

Nose: almost like a Finger Lakes Riesling, fresh  bright lemon, dill/herb notes. Palate: solid varietal fruit character of citrus and herb, dense, concentrated, and lively with Finger Lakes acidity. Great length; outstanding for this varietal in this region.

***Semi-Dry Riesling ’20 (2% residual sugar).

Big acidity up front, but delicate fresh white peach on the palate that keeps growing. Could drink or hold. Intense fruit/acid balance, long finish of white peach flavor.

***Chardonnay ’20 (10 months in mixed oak).

 I normally don’t like really rich Chardonnays, but this one was like a well-endowed Brunhilde, spear in one hand, singing the Wagnerian equivalent of Aretha Franklin’s “What you want/you know I got it!” I paused and listened. On the nose, rich butter and malolactic notes. On the palate, bright, brilliant, rich malocactic flavors of yeast, butter and new oak…BUT with high acidity to balance the whole, and a moderate Burgundian alcohol level of 12.5%. Both the 2018 and 2019 vintages got double gold medals at the San Francisco International wine competition. The only reason I didn’t give this wine a rare four stars is that the finish was a bit too heavy/bitter for my palate, but any malolactic style Chardonnay that gets three stars from me is pretty darn good. Hit it, Brunhilde baby….

**Dry Riesling ’20 (0.7% residual sugar)

Nose: not fruity but elegant, fresh, light. Palate: firm acidity, but delicate white peach and red apple flavors, with racy brilliant acidity. Stylish for the generally flabby vintage.

**Winzer Select Riesling “K” ’21 (1% R.S.)

Nose: young, taut, delicate but racy. Palate: juicy but vibrant acidity. Needs time. White peach core of fruit mid-palate. One percent residual sugar and great finesse and balance. (The “K” is a tip of the hat to the German “Kabinett” ripe and off-dry style of Riesling).

Coming Soon: South Seneca Lake Highlights