FLX: Finger Lakes Extravaganza – Part VI

29 05 2016

Well, we made it.  When I started this trip recap I wasn’t thinking it would be a 15,000-word Greek epic, but that’s what happens when an area has so many stories to tell that so many people may not have heard.  To retrace your steps:

Finger Lakes Intro & Conclusions
Part I – Long Island, Hudson River, Dr. Frank
Part II – Keuka Spring, Chateau Lafayette Reneau
Part III – Red Newt, Knapp Winery
Part IV – Hermann J. Wiemer, Lamoreaux Landing
Part V – Boundary Breaks, Anthony Road

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Our last winery visit was probably also our most anticlimactic, but only because it felt for many reasons like Fox Run Vineyards had been with us all along.  In many ways Fox Run was the catalyst for our whole trip, the Finger Lakes producer with the deepest and most established Alberta presence, to the point where its unoaked Doyle Vineyard Chardonnay was recently selected as the official on-venue house white of the 2016 Calgary Stampede.  A key piece of the winery had literally accompanied us on nearly every stop of our grand FLX winery bus tour:  Sales Manager Dan Mitchell had given us the scoop and filled in the blanks about the region and the wineries who hosted us, never once seeking to undermine any one of them in favour of his own employer, delivering honest yet community-minded feedback that gave us a better sense of what the Finger Lakes were all about than any tasting room.  Winemaker Peter Bell was almost a mythical figure, his impact and his protégées spread across the entire region, his reputation eagerly preceding him even though he is certainly not the kind of person who would revel in it.

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The night before we attended our formal Fox Run tasting appointment, we were invited to the winery for an exquisitely simple, harmonious, farm-fresh dinner; like most FLX producers, their facility was situated close enough to the water that I was able to walk down and put my hand in a Finger Lake (Seneca – very cold).  They were kind enough to pull a couple of bottles from their library to give us a sense of how the grapes of the area handled a bit of age; they were two of the most fascinating bottles I tasted all trip.  I expected the 2007 Fox Run Dry Riesling to be in decent shape but was thrilled to find the tertiary diesel-y, rocky, rubbery aromas I love so much in older Rieslings met with still-bright and lively acidity on the palate.  What I did not expect was for it to be outdone by the 2008 Fox Run Lemberger, which had aged impeccably and was graceful, elegant, savoury, silky and herbal, a massive internal recalibration for me of the potential of this grape.

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We had been advised/forewarned of Peter Bell’s propensity to speak in a direct and unvarnished manner regardless of which sacred cow topic on which his opinion was sought.  We got a sense of this early at dinner when the issue of terroir came up and was rather swiftly dismissed, not as being unimportant, but as often being employed as an empty catch-all:  “Nobody can deny that it’s all about terroir — which renders it meaningless.  Sorry.”  Bell’s style in the cellar is clean, correct, true to the varietal and free of tricks; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  His remarkable 21 years at Fox Run mean that he has seen and lived the aging curve of the region, a complete exception to the multiplicity of stories of new, previously inexperienced, millennial FLX winemakers we had seen over and over in our week in the area.  With that experience came gravitas, although he would probably swear at me if I suggested that to his face.

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Bell explained to us how he and other Finger Lakes winemakers had learned to address the prevalent problem in their (and other cold-weather regions’) Cabernet Franc:  an overly herbaceous, vegetal, green pepper flavour that never seemed to ripen away in an FLX growing season.  The flavour is caused by a chemical compound in the Cab Franc grape called isobutylmethoxypyrazine (yes, I wrote that down the second I heard it so that I could transcribe it properly).  Pyrazines are well known in the world of wine for their distinct vegetal contribution to the aromas and flavours of Sauvignon Blanc (as especially emphasized in New Zealand), but this particular type of pyrazine is responsible for the bell pepper flavours that can plague Cabernet Franc and make it seem underripe.  As it turns out, this compound can dissipate if producers perform severe early canopy management in the main growing zone of the Cabernet Franc vine, letting light, heat and breeze get through to the young grapes quickly.  The number of 12% alcohol Finger Lakes Cab Francs I tasted on the trip with almost zero herbaceousness suggested that the strategy was working, an absolutely crucial plank towards establishing Cab Franc as FLX’s signature red.

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I felt bad returning to Fox Run basically on the way to the airport, without the time to give their arranged formal tasting the due we would have liked, but I would have held them in my upper echelon of Finger Lakes producers even if we hadn’t had the opportunity at all.  Even an expedited tasting of a portion of their lineup vaulted them higher than that in my esteem, for three reasons:  the Geology Series of Rieslings, the best FLX Chardonnays I had tried by a mile, and Port.  Yes.  Port.  Here are my tasting highlights from Fox Run:

2012 Fox Run Riesling 11 Hanging Delta Vineyard:  The Fox Run Geology Series is a quartet of Rieslings from two of the winery’s estate vineyards:  the Hanging Delta Vineyard (primarily sand-based deposit closer to Seneca Lake) and the Lake Dana Vineyard (a higher-elevation site at the top of a hill, on loamy slate soil).  Each year, two single-vineyard wines are made from each site, one (known as the Riesling 12 due to the winery lot number associated with the batch) using standard commercial yeasts and the other (the Riesling 11) using the pied de cuve method, meaning that in lieu of yeast, still-fermenting wine from another tank is added to the grape must to kick off the fermentation process.  The result is the scientific method in a bottle:  how much of a wine’s flavour profile is the vineyard soil, location, weather and how much of it is what happens after it’s picked?  Well, find out for yourself.  

For me, Peter Bell’s questions about the overexertion of the terroir concept come out in these bottlings, because the pied de cuve process controlled the flavour profile of the wines far more than the sand vs. slate of each vineyard did.  The Riesling 12s were both gorgeous, serious, Spatlese-style examples of top-end FLX Riesling (all of the Geology Series wines feature sub-10% alcohol and 60 g/L or more of residual sugar), but the Riesling 11s were a whole different animal, wilder, more alive and more assertive.  The Hanging Delta 11 delivered petrol, peach and currant at first, but then went one step further with more tropical notes of guava, coconut pulp and candied pineapple.  It was somehow both weightless and creamy on the tongue and was clearly just starting a multi-decade journey of growth.  91-92 points

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2012 Fox Run Riesling 11 Lake Dana Vineyard:  Despite being from the same vintage as the Hanging Delta, the Lake Dana version of the Riesling 11 was a much deeper and more golden colour, with a briny, yeasty edge to its aromas.  Stone fruit radiates from every pore of this wine, but it’s complemented by an utterly wild array of other flavours, from India rubber and caramel corn to blueberries (this is accompanied by a “???” in my tasting notes) and Flintstones multivitamins.  But it’s still unmistakably Riesling, through and through, so it’s not just a fermentation exercise.  I found it thrilling and crazy fun throughout, and I continue to regret not grabbing a full set of the 11s to revisit in a decade or so.  92-93 points

2015 Fox Run Doyle Vineyard Chardonnay:  I feel compelled to mention this due to its commercial success in Alberta to date and the fact that it’s about to overwhelm Calgary come July.  I will confess off the hop that I am not an unoaked Chardonnay guy; I find the grape uniquely suited to a tasteful marriage with oak and think it often comes across as adrift and incomplete without it.  However, Peter Bell smartly helped the grape keep some verve by (1) foregoing malolactic fermentation and allowing the sharper malic acids to remain in the wine and (2) blending it with 8% Traminette (I know, right??) to add just enough flavour and textural wackiness to keep things interesting.  This is clean and lean, Asian pear and honeydew and river water, with juicy acidity and just a touch of the tropics on the finish.  87-88 points

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John Kaiser, Fox Run Vineyards

2013 Fox Run Kaiser Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay:  My views of this Chardonnay may have been influenced by the fact that, around the same time we tasted it, we walked through the Kaiser Vineyard with John Kaiser, Fox Run’s Vineyard Manager of 33 years.  This is Fox Run’s oaked expression of the grape, and it lapped the field of FLX Chardonnays and left no survivors.  Tantalizingly balanced between oak-induced and grape-based flavours, this Reserve melded lemon curd, butterscotch, jasmine, vanilla, golden apple, toast and orange peel, its creamy body and rolling texture offset by zingy acid that propelled it into a lengthy, memorable finish.  This is an absolutely classic cool-climate Chardonnay.  Oh, and did I mention that it was FIFTEEN DOLLARS in the tasting room?  91-92 points

Fox Run Tawny Port:  You will probably not be surprised to discover that this is the only Tawny Port in the Finger Lakes.  Thanks to Peter Bell’s love of fortified wines, Fox Run has a generously described “Tawny Room”, a large plywood box in its production facility earmarked for tawnification.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Lemberger sit in barrel post-fermentation and -fortification for 8-9 years, evaporating by a third and gaining increasing exposure to oxygen as a result.  This 21% abv, 125 g/L residual sugar tawny lives up to its name with a deep coffee colour, lush hazelnut, almond, burnt sugar, treacle, clove and cinnamon aromas and a lusciously sweet palate of mocha, dates, molasses and sultana crackers.  The sweetness got to me right at the finish, but this is absolutely true to form with the tawnies coming out of Portugal for a completely reasonable price tag ($40/half bottle); Fox Run’s ruby-style Port ($20/half bottle) is equally good and a laughable bargain.  91-92+ points

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That is the last entry in my notebook for this trip; as with any feast, it’s probably fitting to end with a killer dessert.  I left the winery thinking that the spirit of Fox Run was the spirit of the Finger Lakes:  real, BS-free, humble, and striving for greatness for both themselves and their neighbours.  Thanks to Peter for his soft-spoken bluntness and his regional legacy; thanks to Dan for choosing to build up his whole community as opposed to just his winery, and for handling a wide array of situations and personalities with effortless aplomb; thanks to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation for a week that I will always take with me.  And thanks to everyone who took the time to read this and hopefully pick up some of my excitement about a region on the cusp that you’re going to start seeing, hearing and drinking a lot more of soon.

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2 responses

30 05 2016
drinkwinetodaybecause

Wonderfully informative reviews!

Like

30 05 2016
petervetsch

Thank you!!

Like

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