In case you missed the previous chapters of this tale, check out the Intro & Conclusions from my Finger Lakes trip here and Part I of the tasting journey here.
After leaving the western shores of Keuka Lake and the bar-setting wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank, we did a loop around the lake and landed at our only other Keuka stop, the aptly named Keuka Spring Vineyards. If Dr. Frank was a reverential nod to the Finger Lakes’ past, Keuka Spring was a thrilling glimpse at its future, primarily thanks to its young, supremely talented and boundary-pushing winemaker August Deimel. We were fortunate enough to have him lead us through a tasting of both current releases in the front of the house and experimental tank samples in the back, throughout which the only sound other than August’s compelling narrative was that of paradigms shifting.
Keuka Spring first opened in 1985 but first planted grapes four years earlier; its estate vineyard is still the source of some of its wines but it also brings in grapes from all over the Finger Lakes. Deimel has been the head winemaker since 2012 and has taken the winery to the next level. He is articulate and engaging (maybe partly due to his prior acting classes), thoughtful and analytical (aided by a philosophy-based liberal arts education) and unafraid to emphatically curse in front of a crowd of visitors when asked about the continued use of barrel treatment for red wines (“F___ that!!”). In addition to the standard FLX lineup of Riesling, Cabernet Franc and rose, Deimel gave us tastes of out-of-the-box lab-test luminaries like barrel-fermented Gewürztraminer, skin-fermented dry Riesling and a tank sample he called “Carbo Chard”: a Chardonnay made via carbonic maceration, an anaerobic winemaking technique where fermentation is induced within the berries of each individual grape prior to crushing by blanketing them with CO2. It is most often used in Beaujolais, sometimes in the Cotes du Rhone and elsewhere, but never in my experience with whites. Until now. My palate was thoroughly and gloriously confused.
Keuka also stands out for being a Gewürztraminer house, something you don’t see much this side of Alsace. Gewurz is Deimel’s pet grape and it shows: each of the three Gewürztraminers we were poured radiated care and precision, which comes from being the showcase and not the afterthought, a position the varietal is surely not used to on this continent. Here are a few highlights from Keuka Spring’s lineup, which I urge you to seek out wherever you can find them:
2015 Keuka Spring Gewürztraminer: The winery’s entry-level Gewurz, this is a precise yet easy introduction to the grape, made without use of barrels and coming across eager and floral but not overwrought, with peach, honeydew clove and tropical flavours. It is sufficiently deft that you could easily down a bottle of this without palate fatigue. 88-89 points
2015 Keuka Spring Dynamite Vineyard Gewürztraminer: This upper-echelon single vineyard bottling is actually available in Alberta right now, and may be the most compelling Gewurz you’ll find on a retail shelf. Dynamite Vineyard is so named because blasting work had to take place on parts of the site’s shale base in order to pound the posts for the vines, so the soils are not kidding around for mineral content. The wine is 24% barrel fermented and made completely bone dry, without a trace of residual sweetness; the barrels lend generosity and roundness that might otherwise have been provided by sugar. Dynamite is a leaner, tauter version of the standard Gewürztraminer flavour profile, with some of the juiciest and most prominent acid I’ve seen on the famously low-acid Gewurz. Traces of the textbook notes of lychee and roses are there, but they are joined by a panoply of other flavours, from honeydew and juniper berry to quartz and nutmeg and raspberry marshmallows. The finish is impeccably clean. This is a trend-setting bottle of Gewürztraminer. 92-93 points
2013 Keuka Spring “Umlaut” Gewürztraminer: And now for something completely different. Deimel makes an experimental strain of wines he calls his R&D Series, whose minimalist labels look simply like strips of electrical tape (which is how the tank sample bottles are identified in the cellar). Umlaut is a barrel-fermented and -aged Gewürztraminer, released a couple years older than Keuka’s other Gewurzes. Barrel fermentation adds body, flavour and creaminess to white wines, three characteristics that you would not normally say Gewurz needs, but somehow it all works, creating a soft blanket of a wine that is lush and languid but far from lifeless. The palate is billowy, oily, round and exceptionally spicy but not remotely heavy, a textural anachronism. Flower petals, butter, Vaseline, char, matchsticks, cantaloupe and papaya swirl in little eddies of flavour on the tongue. Who says all Gewürztraminer has to be the same? 90-91+ points
2014 Keuka Spring Cabernet Franc: This was the first limited-oak example of Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc that we tried, and it left an impression. Deimel has since dropped the use of oak barrels altogether for his reds as of the 2015 vintage, but this bottle of ’14 saw a touch of time in oak to round it out. It remained fully transparent in the glass, bursting with redness, cherry Nibs, raspberry and cranberry, laced with pink grapefruit citrus and eucalyptus herbalness, with a textural smoothness and a slight hint of oatmeal cookies being the only trace of barrel time. A hint of a future regional trend, I suspect. 89-90 points
2015 Keuka Spring Lemberger: I don’t have any tasting notes for this wine because I left my notebook in the tasting room when we slipped back to the cellar for a tank sample, but I include a mention of it because it was probably the single wine that generated the most conversation and excitement amongst my travel group – and it wasn’t even in bottle yet. It was sitting in a large polyethylene cube called a FlexTank, a fermentation vessel that does not impart flavours to the wine (unlike oak barrels) but that is still slightly permeable and allows some oxygen to interact with it (unlike stainless steel tanks). These tanks were Deimel’s replacement for oak in his reds; he made the change because, to his palate, oak barrels tended to bring his wines farther away from those he wanted to make. The oak-free Lemberger was a live wire in the mouth, coiled and juicy and herbal with a slight gamey tinge to it and roiling acidity. There was serious (albeit wishful-thinking) discussion amongst my travel cohorts about acquiring the entire contents of the FlexTank and shipping them to Calgary. I guess what I’m saying is: if you ever have the chance to grab some of this wine, I strongly urge you to take it before an Alberta wine professional beats you to the punch.
Thanks to August and to Keuka Spring owner Len Wiltberger for letting us behind the scenes and into the cellar and for planting a spark of inspiration in us all about what the Finger Lakes can achieve with the right winemaking touch. One of those afternoons that makes you want to drop everything and enroll in enology school (note to my employers: not actually doing this).
The next morning we were up bright and early for a visit to eastern Seneca Lake and Chateau Lafayette Reneau, which featured a gorgeous wooden-beam rustic tasting room with a drop-dead view of the lake beyond; it is worth a visit for the scenery alone. There is also an inn/guest house on the property with a massive private lakefront deck that justifies whatever price they might decide to charge for its use. Marketing Coordinator Christine McAfee led us through a tasting of CLR’s offerings, which were all very accessibly priced at $12-$22 US. The wines all delivered for their price point, including the winery’s best-seller, a conversation-starting Seyval (70%)/Chardonnay (30%) blend, a stainless-steel-fermented hybrid/vinifera mix with a touch of residual sugar that was bright, musky and easy-drinking, tasting remarkably of watermelons along with pear, cantaloupe and flowers. The 2013 Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay was slightly more serious, barrel-fermented and matured 11 months in oak yet still coming across sleeker, more linear and deftly balanced, with luxurious golden apple, ginger snap and creme brûlée flavours.
I very much enjoyed the 2014 Lafayette Reneau Dry Riesling, ripe but clean, with juicy, crunchy lime, peach and orange peel fruit along with a public pool/bath salts/chlorine note on the edges and a tight mineral finish. And I would be remiss not to mention my very first encounter with Finger Lakes Syrah: CLR’s 2013 Syrah was an Old World throwback, lean and transparent and peppery, combining tart cherry and raspberry fruit with a citrus/gamey flavour almost like Peking duck and plenty of earth and undergrowth on the finish. It was highly distinctive and an eye-opening peek at the possibilities of cool-weather Syrah in this area.
This portion of the trip was an intriguing look beyond the FLX’s signature grape and into its other vinous possibilities, but our next stop took us squarely back into the world of Riesling and brought us in touch with another young, dynamic, show-stopping winemaker (about whom global Riesling auteur Stuart Pigott has just written an e-book, with his face hand-drawn on the cover). More on that shortly.