Sweet on Finger Lakes Dessert Wines

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All photos by Amy Miller. 

The Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York may be gaining a reputation for fine dry Rieslings, but the area is also home to a surprising variety of delicious dessert wines. While ice wines steal most of the spotlight, producers are also making exquisite late harvest, noble rot and fortified wines. Amounts may be minuscule compared to dry wine production but the best of these sweet styles show remarkable complexity and finesse.

The forces of Mother Nature play no small role in winemaking in this cool climate region. If not for the tempering effects of the long, narrow lakes, grape growing would be near impossible. Carved by glaciers during the last ice age, the lakes' deep waters retain heat in the winter and cool the surrounding vineyards in summer. Cold, snowy winters, however, are the norm and can threaten the very life of the vines, while wet weather in the fall can bring on unwanted rot and severely reduce yields. It is precisely these challenging conditions, however, that play a crucial role in making some of the most highly prized dessert wines.

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ICE WINE

Making wine from grapes frozen on the vine has been a long-standing tradition in Germany, where it's known as Eiswein, but in cool wine growing regions such as the Finger Lakes and Ontario it has become a popular if not defining specialty. To say that making them is a challenge is a serious understatement. Grapes are left on the vine until well into winter and are harvested only when temperatures have plunged below freezing, usually in late December or early January. By then many grapes have either succumbed to rot or have been eaten by birds so yields are severely reduced. The remaining grapes are pressed while still frozen, which removes the ice/water and leaves behind a concentrated must. A wide array of grape varieties is used including Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles. Ice wines aren't made every year, but when conditions are right and the stars align, the resulting wines can be thrilling.

Wines to try:

Sheldrake Point 2014 Riesling Ice Wine, $60, 375 ml.  This is an outstanding wine, showing lush tropical fruits and orange marmalade with a tart streak of acidity.

Idol Ridge 2014 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, $50, 375 ml. From the owners of Montezuma winery comes the region's newest label. Established in 2013, Idol Ridge already has a hit on its hands with this luscious ice wine. This is a bright and vibrant wine with a lovely concentration of silky ripe apricots, mangoes and pineapple.

NOBLE ROT

The same gray fungus responsible for the great dessert wines of Sauternes can also be found in the Finger Lakes. It's that combination of misty morning fogs and sunny afternoons that provide the perfect conditions for Botrytis cinerea to do its magic. By burrowing its tiny tendrils through the grape's skin, the fungus causes the water inside to evaporate, concentrating the flavors and sugars, while adding its own distinctive honey-like notes. These are risky, difficult wines to make but for those producers with the right vineyard sites and nerves of steel, the payoffs can be exhilarating. Not surprisingly, these wines are a rarity and expensive, but they offer a remarkable depth and complexity that can age well.

Wines to try:

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Magdalena Vineyard 2012 BA, $85, 375 ml. Made in the German style of beerenauslese (BA) where individual grapes are picked with ultra ripe must weights, this is a gorgeous, complex wine with a dense concentration of passion fruit, honey, peach jam with hints of botrytis.

Anthony Road Martini Reinhardt Selection 2008 Vignoles TBA, $75, 375 ml. One step beyond the BA style is trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in which the grapes are left to raisinate before being picked and are always affected by botrytis. This is an rich, intense wine with a deep amber color and layers of apricot jam, candied orange and caramel, kept aloft by a vibrant acidity.

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LATE HARVEST

Late harvest wines, as the name suggests, are made from grapes left to hang on the vine late in the season, usually until the end of November. This extra ripening time helps develop richer fruit flavors and increases the sugar content, producing a fuller bodied, more flavorful wine. Riesling makes an ideal candidate for this style as it retains its high acidity, a necessary balance to any residual sugar.

Wines to try:

Hermann J. Weimer 2013 Late Harvest Riesling, $24.50, 750 ml. From one of the region's top producers comes this beautiful spätlese style wine. It leans toward the lighter end of the late-harvest, dessert wine spectrum with a medium sweetness and rich ripe apple and pear notes that make it utterly delicious.

Boundary Breaks 2012 Late Harvest Riesling. $29.95, 375 ml. This wine falls at the other end of the richness scale. It was made from grapes that were hand picked at the end of December and included some that were frozen. A more concentrated, sweeter wine is the result. Although the color is deceptively light the wine abounds with honey, candied lemons and apricot jam.

FORTIFIED

Though not produced in great quantities fortified wine has a long history in the Finger Lakes. Port style wines, in particular, were an early staple of the area's oldest winery Pleasant Valley Wine Co., which was founded in 1860. Fortifying wine was then a common practice as the increased alcohol acted as a preservative, no small matter for transporting wine over long distances in the days before refrigeration. The sweetness in a fortified wine comes from having a distilled spirit added midway through fermentation, halting conversion to alcohol. Today, you can find not just port style wines, but also sherry, madeira and vin doux naturels. The best of these examples are real labors of love for the winemakers and their passion comes through in the glass.

Wines to try:

Bellangelo Muscat vin doux naturel, $25, 375 ml. Crafted after the great sweet fortified wines of southern France. Bellangelo's Muscat vin doux naturel, is a first for the Finger Lakes. Co-owner Chris Missick and his wife, Laure, were inspired during their travels through her native country and fell in love with the wines of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. Since their winery was already growing Muscat they decided to try and recreate the fortified dessert style. The first bottling was released in 2013 with beautiful results. It's lighter and less concentrated than the ice wines and has a higher alcohol content ~15%, but Muscat is a particularly aromatic variety, lending a wine beautiful floral and grape notes.

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Fox Run Fine Old Tawny, $40, 375 ml. Fox Run's winemaker Peter Bell fell in love with port as an oenology student in Australia in the 1980s. When he joined Fox Run in 1995, one of his side projects was to produce a port-style fortified wine. His model, however, was not the famous wines from Portugal, but rather the Australian tawny style, which exhibits more rancio flavors from the wine's exposure to heat. Bell makes three types of port: a white port using Traminette called Hedonia, a bright and fruity ruby style, and this Fine Old Tawny, by far his most impressive. The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) and spends at least seven years aging in neutral oak barrels stored in a special hot, dry room. It is a dark, rich, lusciously sweet wine redolent of dried figs, damson jam, caramel and burnt sugar.