FLX: Finger Lakes Extravaganza – Part I

22 05 2016

If you’re a fan of stage-setting or want a little more background info about what the Finger Lakes are all about, start here with this intro post.  Otherwise read on for the first breakdown of what went down over our four days of visiting and tasting in FLX, NY.

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We ironically spent our first actual tasting in the Finger Lakes trying New York State wines from anywhere but.  We disembarked at the beautiful New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, on the northern shores of the lake of the same name, which featured a built-in tasting classroom, professional learning kitchen, bistro and wine shop. There we tasted and were educated about a variety of wines from two other major New York AVAs, the Hudson River region due north of NYC and the Long Island AVA on the eastern half of Long Island.  Two winery representatives made a long early-morning trek to guide us through their wares.

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Juan Micieli-Martinez, Martha Clara Vineyards

We started with a series of wines from Long Island’s Martha Clara Vineyards, as narrated by General Manager and Winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez.  Most of the bottles centered around Chardonnay (both oaked and unoaked) for the whites and Merlot (likely LI’s best-known grape) for the reds, but the one that stuck with me was Martha Clara’s 2014 Estate Reserve Viognier, which was clean, friendly and highly gulpable.  It turns out that Viognier was actually the first varietal planted at Martha Clara, a seemingly odd choice explained by the fact that the owners of the estate are massive Condrieu fans.  The decision paid off, as this barrel-fermented expression combined rounded mango, peach and apricot fruit, cinnamon spice and a lush but not overdone mouthfeel.  I feel somewhat confident in saying that I’m the only one in my circle of friends who has had a Long Island Viognier.

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Philip Dunsmore, Brotherhood Winery

Working our way in from the eastern tip of the state, we were then guided through the lineup of the Hudson River’s Brotherhood Winery by its VP of Sales & Marketing Philip Dunsmore.  Based on its story, the winery certainly has something to sell and market.  Brotherhood is America’s oldest continually operating winery, having been established in 1839 and in business for 177 straight years.  They skated through Prohibition and kept their consecutive-vintages streak alive by making sacramental wine, and they have almost equal longevity with the creation of sparkling wine:  Brotherhood actually has the longest underground cellars (they would be called “caves” in Champagne) in the US!  We tried a couple of sparklers, a rose, a pretty and nervy Riesling made from Finger Lakes grapes and a Cabernet Sauvignon, but my favourite Brotherhood wine was a crushable yet Old World-inspired Merlot crafted from Long Island grapes.  The 2012 Brotherhood Merlot only retailed for $15ish US and came across soft and supple, chocolatey and dusty, with a delicacy to the cherry, sunbaked earth, cola and underbrush flavours.  Not remotely bombastic but still so approachable, it was unlike most North American Merlots I’ve ever had – I hope to see it in market soon.

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The everything-but portion of the FLX tour ended with a broad sampling of bottles from Palmer Vineyards, located on the North Fork of Long Island.  The red we tried was somewhat pitchy and volatile, but the whites were gorgeous, including a creamy, raspberry-iced-tea-and-peach-flavoured Pinot Blanc and a 2015 Albarino (of all things) that may have been my wine of the morning:  lemony, juicy, minty and tropical, with razor-sharp acidity and a hint of texture on the finish.  I had seconds.

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After lunch we headed out to the Finger Lakes in earnest, 45 minutes south from Canandaigua (note:  in FLX, basically every drive from or to anywhere takes 45 minutes) and halfway down the western shore of the wishbone of Keuka Lake, where we had a date with a legend.

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My first contact with the Finger Lakes years ago was an academic one, when I learned about Dr. Konstantin Frank, Ukrainian immigrant turned godfather of New York State wine.  Konstantin came to the United States in 1951 armed with a Ph.D in viticulture and convinced that vitis vinifera grapes (that species of grape from which almost all quality wine is made and to which all the top wine varietals in the world belong) could successfully grow in the cool New York climate.  This was considered lunacy at the time, when the few wineries in the area all grew only indigenous North American non-vinifera grapes (which made harsh, foxy, skunky wines) and when every vinifera vine that had ever been planted had died.  Frank showed that it was the lack of proper rootstocks and not the climate that had doomed those prior quality grapes, was the first in the Finger Lakes to graft vinifera vines to winter-hardy and disease-resistant North American rootstocks (a practice now followed virtually everywhere) and proved the quality and viability of an entire region.  This is why the full name of his winery is “Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars”:  as it turns out, that qualifier, and his ingenuity, are why the Finger Lakes are now on the world stage.

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I have always loved that story, so imagine how I felt when I got out of the bus and was greeted by Meaghan Frank, winery General Manager, 4th generation proprietor and Dr. Konstantin’s great-granddaughter.  It was history come to life; I still get worked up thinking about it.  Meaghan led us through a comprehensive tasting of 11 different wines, ranging from regional standard-bearers (Riesling, Lemberger, Cab Franc and traditional-method bubbles, for which the winery was an FLX pioneer) to understandable extensions (Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and happily for me, Gruner Veltliner) to true left-field varietals from old Soviet republics (Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, anyone?).  I will go through a few of my highlights below, but on the whole, I left the trip thinking that Dr. Frank was still a benchmark for the entire Finger Lakes region:  every single one was clean, balanced, well-made, varietally correct, characterful, interesting and highly drinkable.  It is emphatically not easy for a cold-weather winery with a large selection of offerings to avoid the occasional dud, but Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars is as consistent and dependable as you can get.

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Meaghan Frank, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars

Some specific wines of interest, which I am hoping find their way here at some point:

2010 Chateau Frank Blanc de Blancs:  Chateau Frank is the sparkling wine house forming part of the winery.  This traditional-method 100% Chardonnay wine sat on the lees for 4 years before disgorgement.  Toasty lime and matchstick aromas lead to burnt apple, biscuit and white flowers constantly guided by clean, powerful acidity.  The finish just goes.  91-92 points

2015 Dr. Frank Gruner Veltliner:  Some grapes don’t make sense in a Riesling-dominated cool-climate region; other grapes are Gruner Veltliner.  Not as overly wacky or peppery as Gruner can be, but bath salts, celery salt, brine and lemon-lime notes still create a compelling symphony, particularly when paired with a luxurious round texture and slicing acid.  Friendly yet complex.  88-89 points

2014 Dr. Frank Semi-Dry Riesling:  25 grams per litre of residual sugar are held in impeccable balance by precise acidity, making each element appear less noticeable.  About as textbook as off-dry Riesling can get, lime and slate, lemon curd and peach blossoms.  88-89+ points

2014 Dr. Frank “Eugenia” Riesling:  Eugenia was Konstantin’s wife and a driving force behind the winery.  This single-vineyard Riesling (343 cases made) starts off reductive with matchstick, Sharpie and Astroturf aromas then explodes into a chorus of blackcurrant, citrus and grapefruit riding a torrent of raging acidity.  The flavours last forever on the finish, for well over a minute after swallowing.  Bone-dry, this wine is just a baby – I brought one home to open in a decade or more.  91-92+ points

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2013 Dr. Frank Cabernet Franc:  Every sub-$20 US Cabernet Franc should compare itself to this one to see how it’s doing.  Juicy and bright, mid-weight, linking exuberant cherry, raspberry and rhubarb fruits with punchy acid and a sublimely clean texture.  Herbal sage and anise notes linger on the edges but don’t steal the show.  89-90 points

2013 Dr. Frank Saperavi:  Both Saperavi and Rkatsiteli are Georgian varietals and some of the oldest wine grapes around.  My first tasting note here is “PURPLE” – the utterly impenetrable colour of this wine comes in part from the fact that Saperavi is a teinturier grape, meaning that its pulp is also coloured in addition to its skins (not usually the case).  There is a sweetness to the flavour profile despite the wine being utterly dry, fruitcake and cherry, grape and blueberry, with peppery undertones.  A big red that actually works in the region.  87-88 points

More to come soon – our next winery visit was one of my favourites and brought us face to face with someone destined to become a driving force in the region.  Stay tuned…

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