Peter Ranscombe explores riesling, chardonnay, and other wine from the Empire State.
THINK New York, think skyscrapers, think Broadway, think Sex and the City.
But how about, “Think New York, think grapevines?”
While Manhatten’s concrete jungle may not be the first place you’d look for vineyards, head inland from the city and there’s a further 54,000 square miles to explore.
Those vast swathes of countryside include 11 regions – or American viticulture areas (AVAs) – that make wine.
Perhaps the most famous AVA is Fingers Lakes, an area near Lake Ontario, one of the five “great lakes” along the border between Canada and the United States.
The warming influence of lakes Ontario and Erie helps to protect Finger Lakes from the harshest ravages of winter.
Yet, like many of New York’s AVAs, the area remains classified as a cool climate.
In the past, that’s made it hard to ripen grapes properly but, as vineyard management and winemaking techniques have improved, the area has started to enjoy more success on the international stage.
With cooler temperatures also comes less sugar in the grapes and less alcohol in the wines – a big selling point for many drinkers.
That cooler climate also means higher acidity, which lends itself beautifully to food and wine matching.
Hybrid grapes varieties were once the order of the day in order to produce ripe fruit in cooler climes.
Yet New York’s surge in popularity has been accompanied by a focus on more recognisable international varieties, like riesling, chardonnay, and now cabernet franc.
Pointing the finger
Those grapes were all on show today during two online tastings organised by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and run by Diana Thompson at Wine Events Scotland, which is hosting two consumer tastings on 30 April.
After New York featured in my “12 Wines of Christmas”, it was great to keep at least one of my new year’s resolutions by finding out more about the state’s wines.
Red Newt Cellars winemaker Kelby Russell said Finger Lakes’ soil map was “pure chaos” and likened it to the mixture of soils found in Alsace.
When that patchwork of soils is coupled with the variations between vintages caused by the weather, it’s hard to pin down a “house style” for Finger Lakes.
Yet Russell pointed to way the acidity in Finger Lakes’ rieslings re-emerges on the “finish”, the final taste of the wine.
That characteristic was definitely on show in his 2016 Red Newt Cellars Dry Riesling (£26.95, St Andrews Wine Company), which has benefited from being aged in the winery’s cellar, producing much richer lemon, lemon curd, peach, and light wood smoke aromas, plus a rounder texture on the palate, with complex and concentrated dried apricot, lemon rind, and deeper lemon curd flavours to balance its acidity.
In contrast – yet equally as enjoyable – Richard Rainey’s 2019 Forge Cellars Dry Riesling Classique (2017: £21.99, All About Wine) has a flinty texture and a fascinating minerality in amongst the grapefruit and lemon flavours.
Rainey chalked it up as “saltiness”, adding: “It’s not a riesling like your Grandma used to drink.”
While Russell and Rainey’s riesling each have their own distinctive style, the 2019 Dr Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling is a benchmark, including grapes from the original riesling vines planted in Finger Lakes in the 1950s, with a whiff of petrol on the nose, plus lemon curd and peach flavours to balance its acidity.
It’s imported into the UK by drinks wholesaler Matthew Clark – part of C&C Group, which also owns Tennent’s Wellpark brewery in Glasgow – so look out for it in restaurants.
While riesling may grab the headlines, chardonnay’s cool climate side is similarly shining in Finger Lakes, including in Benjamin Riccardi’s 2018 Osmote Seneca Lake Chardonnay (£26, Woodwinters), which is hands-down the best chardonnay I’ve tasted this year.
It gives little away on the nose, but there’s an explosion of pear, red apple, and cream on the palate, with larger format French oak vessels adding structure without overpowering the fruit.