FLX: Finger Lakes Extravaganza – Part III

24 05 2016

In case you missed the prequels, click here:

Finger Lakes Intro & Conclusions
Part I – Long Island, Hudson River, Dr. Frank
Part II – Keuka Spring, Chateau Lafayette Reneau

We remained on eastern Seneca after the morning views of Chateau Lafayette Reneau, taking a quick jaunt north to one of the best-known new-era Finger Lakes wineries, Red Newt Cellars Winery & Bistro.  I first read about the growth of Red Newt’s legend around the same time it experienced its greatest tragedy, in 2011, when co-founder and executive chef Debra Whiting was killed in a car accident.  Her husband, Red Newt founding winemaker David Whiting, forged on, turning the winery into one of the few in the Finger Lakes with an international reputation.  He remains in charge as Red Newt’s president, but has recently turned the winemaking reins over to a cerebral, unassuming twentysomething who might already be one of the best Riesling winemakers in North America:  Kelby James Russell, a homecoming son now squarely on the global Riesling vanguard.

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David Whiting and Kelby James Russell, Red Newt.

Russell was born and raised in and around the Finger Lakes area but found a good reason to leave:  Harvard.  He graduated with a major in Government (poli sci grads unite!) and a minor in Economics but then sought a job in orchestra management to soothe an ongoing passion for music.  A trip to Italy ignited a love of wine, however, and Russell returned home to work a harvest with Fox Run Vineyards in 2009.  After three years there and an equal number of off-season harvests in the Southern Hemisphere (Marlborough, Tasmania and Barossa), he moved to Red Newt to assume the head winemaker mantle at the venerable age of 25 and almost immediately started pushing the boundaries of New World Riesling.

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Russell is the Clark Kent of Finger Lakes winemakers:  likely to blend into a crowd on the outside, but imbued with keen and surprising ability on the inside.  He was friendly yet understated when he graciously led us through a tasting of eight (!!) different Red Newt Rieslings, among other winery offerings.  Red Newt brings in fruit from a variety of FLX locations and vinifies everything in separate batches, blending to create their non-single-vineyard lineup only after each wine is made; at the time of our tasting they had over 30 tanks of different Rieslings sitting in their cellar (if you need me, you know where I’ll be).  Russell’s intellectual nature and quiet focus is a perfect match for my favourite grape:  I realized in the Finger Lakes that what I value most in Riesling is precision, in texture, flavour, acid, finish.  When it’s at its best it’s like a grandfather clock, with each element of the complex machine doing its part and enabling the other interdependent parts to do the same.  Perhaps not as romantic as other wine metaphors, but just as beautiful to me, and fitting what little I know about Russell’s personality to a tee.  Here are a few Riesling (and other) highlights from Red Newt Cellars:

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2013 Red Newt Circle Riesling:  Red Newt’s answer to Dr. L and the like, this medium-sweet (30 g/L of residual sugar) everyday drinking Riesling sold in the tasting room for $13 but was almost addictively crushable, with approachable peach, mango and pink grapefruit flavours and comforting rounded sweetness overlaying vivid acidity and an almost powdery texture that many good FLX Rieslings shared.  This is value wine to the extreme.  88-89 points

2013 Red Newt Dry Riesling:  The next step up the quality ladder but still only an absurd $17, this core bottling popped from the get-go, marrying crystallized lemon, key lime, currant, Wine Gums, smoke, diesel and Astroturf on a third rail of acid.  That textural fuzziness comes through in spades here and adds a new layer of intrigue.  I would be happy drinking (and smelling) this every day.  We also got to taste a tank sample of a batch from the 2015 harvest that just finished fermenting in February and is destined for the Dry Riesling of that vintage; it still smelled slightly yeasty (an aroma that will dissipate with time) but underneath it was all razor lemon and tennis balls, a citric and pure monster.  90-91 points

2012 Red Newt Sawmill Creek North Block Riesling:  Red Newt’s single-vineyard and single-parcel Rieslings are held back and released later than their general offerings because they tend to be rather shut down when first bottled.  This bottle is amazingly available in Alberta, and I opened my only one just before my trip to celebrate the impending voyage; while texturally weightless and delicate like gossamer, it was still in the phase where it was only offering up a fraction of its true self.  At the winery, the wine was slightly more expressive, with its considerable sweetness (69 g/L, Spatlese style) knife-edge balanced with its equally remarkable acid, pulsating with inner life and energy.  If you see this on a shelf, please please buy it; there’s not much of it.  92-93 points

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2013 Red Newt Lahoma Vineyard The Knoll Riesling:  The Knoll is a distinct subsection of the highly regarded Lahoma Vineyard that produces exceptional Riesling grapes.  This bottling may be Red Newt’s top Riesling, a mostly dry (roughly 9 g/L of residual sugar), dusty, delicate yet powerful white with an aging curve that I would measure in decades.  In a one-paragraph tasting note I wrote “huge life ahead” twice.  It is a chorus of green at the moment, lime (a prevailing FLX Riesling flavour for me), honeydew, basil, mint with a powdery icing-sugar edge.  A frozen rope of acidity carries everything home.  91-92+ points

2015 Red Newt Lahoma Vineyard The Knoll Riesling (Tank Sample):  This hasn’t even been bottled yet (and is actually still resting on the lees at the winery), is not remotely ready for consumption and was still my favourite wine of the tasting.  Post-fermentation aromas came across as grapefruit Radler beer but did little to tamp down the hyper-expressive cavalcade of blackcurrant, mango, limeade, brine and white flowers, with absolutely raging acidity and a finish that almost took me all the way to the next tasting.  If the 2013 The Knoll is ice, the 2015 is fire.  92-93+ points

2012 Red Newt Cabernet Franc Glacier Ridge Vineyard:  Yes, yes, OK, we actually tried stuff that wasn’t Riesling too.  This single-vineyard reserve-level Cab Franc stood out for the depth of fruit and complexity of flavour it offered, above and beyond most other Cabernet Francs we sampled, with cherry Halls and raspberry meeting smoke and salumi and granite on a layer of dusty cocoa.  Energetic yet contained, smooth yet vibrant, it was a standout through and through.  90-91 points

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I saw renditions of this story again and again on this visit:  even without much prior experience, aspiring winemakers seem to be able to develop their skills and hone their vision in the Finger Lakes.  It’s not simply wanting and chasing a dream; it requires a community that is willing to lend a hand to turn that drive and desire into reality.  For Kelby Russell and many others, that hand came from the revered Peter Bell at Fox Run Vineyards, but the speed of his launch into the stratosphere of Finger Lakes potential also speaks to an innate gift that our market will hopefully soon see more of.

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After Red Newt we trekked out to our third and final Finger Lake, Cayuga, located just east of Seneca and with Ithaca, New York at its southern tip.  On the western edge of the lake we dined and tasted at Thirsty Owl Wine Company, whose in-house bistro churned out an absolutely stunning small-bites-style meal for us.  Thirsty Owl makes and sells an astonishing array of wines and other beverages in its massive and well-appointed tasting room, from craft cider to sweeter reds and whites geared towards casual tourist travellers to expressions of hybrid grapes such as Chancellor to more quality vinifera-based wines.  Their highlight for me was an honest and perfectly tuned bottle of 2015 Traminette that we had with lunch, only the second Traminette I’ve ever had.  As you may have guessed from the name, one of Traminette’s parents is Gewürztraminer; its other parent is a lab name, Joannes Serve 23.416, with which Gewurz was bred for increased cold-hardiness.  The result is a wholly pleasant if slightly soapy, slightly toned-down version of Gewürztraminer that is surprisingly awesome with food.  I was all over it.

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The western Cayuga journey continued to Swedish Hill, a more casual tourist-focused winery with an absolutely hopping tasting room and an array of offerings priced and packaged attractively for visitors.  To stay true to their Scandinavian name, they even produced a Glogg Wine, a Swedish-style mulled wine that tasted like the best alcoholic ginger snap of all time.  Our day culminated in a tasting and dinner at Cayuga’s Knapp Winery, a thoroughly classy yet down to earth facility where we were led through a tasting by both the winemaker Steve DiFrancesco and the vineyard manager Chris King, a brilliant counterbalancing exercise that gave us two separate but equally valuable perspectives on what ended up in the bottle.

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Chris King and Steve DiFrancecsco, Knapp Winery.

Knapp arranged a vertical flight of its 2012, 2014 and 2015 Dry Rieslings, which was highly eye-opening due to the remarkable differences between each vintage:  the 2012 was open and friendly, all red apple and pink grapefruit; the 2014 was leaner, racier and more acidic, with sulphur/burnt match notes; and the 2015 was my favourite of the three, laced with Granny Smith apple, sultana and slate, true and pure and linear.  My top Knapp wine, however, may have been their unoaked 2014 Cabernet Franc, which led to my furiously scribbling a litany of tasting adjectives:  beautiful, juicy, crisp, bright, lean, focused.  Red fruit, strawberry and cherry, was touched with a hint of herbal celery root on a lightweight frame; not your father’s Cabernet.  Dinner was generous and enjoyable, but the tasting notebook was put away so that the company could be better enjoyed.  It was about this time, halfway through our stay in the Finger Lakes, that I realized just how many people had to do so much on this voyage to make us feel welcome wherever we went.  More to come in a few days.

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