A Neighborly Report: Because NJ Drinks NY, Too

Posted March 19, 2016

Stacy Brody


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I don’t always spend entire afternoons tasting wine. When opportunity knocks, I welcome it in and set a place at the table.

I recently got a loud knock from our neighbors in New York. It was the annual NY Drinks NY event, just a train ride away in New York City. I am always on the lookout for a great wine to add to our Wine Library selection, so of course I went!

While the tasting part is all well and good, with almost 40 wineries represented and tables full of delicious NY-grown goodies to snack on, I fall in love with wines at the seminars. Fortunately, there were two at this event. Plus, there was an hour in between, so I could enjoy the amazing treats, i.e. chevre on a small pie shell topped with shaved beets and herbs.

The first seminar was Finger Lakes Riesling across vintages. Soapbox alert: Too often, I have to defend Riesling. Riesling?! A noble grape variety and it needs lowly, little me to defend it! Well, I do what I can for the good of the cause. One of my colleagues here at Wine Library sampled a Riesling at Wine Talk Wednesday without revealing the variety until after attendees tasted. Brilliant. No preconceptions there.

Like Riesling, Finger Lakes wines don’t have the glowing reputation they deserve. The quality has come an amazingly long way, and people much more famous than I are really pumped about the wines. The panel discussion and vertical tasting of Rieslings was led by none other than the sommelier at The NoMad, Thomas Pastuszak. You might have heard of him, one of the top somms as named by Wine & Spirits Magazine, a figure to watch, says Forbes. Pastuszak is a former resident of the Finger Lakes, so perhaps a bit biased. There is something to the romance of a region, how one can fall in love with the place and the people. Not so biased, though, that he couldn’t become a somm at a well-recognized establishment like The NoMad. There, Finger Lakes wines join a list with world-class selections. These wines can’t be all too shabby.

We tasted through 6 Rieslings, from vintages 2009 to 2014, from 6 different producers. We were led in our tastings by either the vineyard manager, winemaker, or winery owner.

Riesling is bit of a funny grape in that it is capable of making phenomenal wines in what are often thought of as sub-par vintages. It seems that vintages are judged based on how good they are for red wines, i.e. was it warm and dry? I the case of Riesling, remarkable wines can be made in cool, even rainy vintages. In these years, the acidity is so racy, so laser-sharp, that the resulting wines are extremely age-worthy. In this seminar, Finger Lakes Rieslings proved to be quite capable of longevity. The 2009 still showed beautifully, proving the region’s inherent capability of yielding great grapes and demonstrating the quality of the winemaking.

All the Rieslings we tasted had pH levels that would make your dentist grimace. This low pH makes these wines bright, super food-friendly and versatile and also gives them that potential for longevity. It’s that cool-climate freshness factor.

Keep in mind that for Finger Lakes Rieslings, there is no accepted definition for dry. It varies winery to winery. Some make their own judgment. Others base their decisions on the International Riesling Foundation’s Taste Scale which takes into account not only residual sugar, but other factors, such as acidity and pH, which influence the way we perceive sweetness.

Wine is all about taste, not numbers.

Riesling is the flagship white for the Finger Lakes, and these wines are being spearheaded by wine lovers like myself as well as wine industry celebs like Mr. Pastuszak. I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I’m just telling you all the cool kids are drinking Finger Lakes Riesling.

And Cabernet Franc from across New York state. The second seminar of the day was led by Wine Enthusiast Magazine contributing editor Anna Lee Iijima. Cabernet Franc is at once a forgiving and an unforgiving variety. In the vineyard, it is a bit easier to work with than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, a bit more resistant to the dangers associated with humidity, with a bit of a shorter growing season, so more reliable ripening. The quality of NY-grown Cabernet Franc has only improved, especially since Cornell research showed that leaf removal can significantly reduce the amount of pyrazines.

English, please?

Leaf removal. In cool, humid, less sunny regions, grapegrowers remove leaves from around the fruit to increase sun exposure and air flow, which promotes even ripening and reduces the risk of disease.

Pyrazines. Chemical compounds responsible for green, herbaceous flavors, also present in Sauvignon Blanc and the offspring of Cabernet Franc x Sauvignon Blanc, the more well-known Cabernet Sauvignon.

I love Cabernet Franc and enjoyed tasting the range of styles from rose to table wine to ice wine (in the Finger Lakes, at least). Some winemakers use barrels, while others emphasize the freshness and purity of fruit by opting to use only steel or cement. Whatever style, Cabernet Franc is the perfect food wine, great for picnics and bistro fare. In our northeast winegrowing regions, producers can really play on the freshness and hint of fresh herbs that really makes this one for the table. In epic years, they can make riper, bigger wines that still hail to the terroir with uplifted acidity.

Cabernet Franc is another noble variety, one of the key Bordeaux varieties and the major red variety in France’s Loire Valley. Still, like Riesling, it does not get the respect it truly deserves.

NY is really fighting for the underdogs (Mets fans?) and makes a great showing, bringing us beautiful wines worthy of the grapes’ history and heritage.