FLXtra: ELEVENTH EDITION! – Heart & Hands for Riesling (and the Truth about Bald Eagles)

The small Heart & Hands winery just outside Union Springs on Cayuga Lake that was established by Tom and Susan Higgins, pictured above, in 2008 rightly has a serious reputation for Pinot Noir red wines. They have elegant dry tannins that far too many FLX Pinots are sorely lacking). However, Heart & Hands is still far too little known for the winery’s excellent dry and medium-dry Rieslings. Even I fell into that trap, and was seriously surprised when I was finally confronted with those wines. This made the almost three hour cycle ride from Geneva to Heart & Hands essential, but that also introduced me to a stretch of FLX country I’d never seen before including the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the northern end of Cayuga Lake. But more about that in just a moment.

The Higgins’ Estate Vineyard lies only a few hundred feet from the eastern bank of Cayuga Lake and is one of the most beautiful vineyards I’ve seen in the FLX. This beauty isn’t only optical, the product of its considerable grade and the way the slope has been partially terraced, but also the result of the precision with which it is being cultivated according to principals very different from FLX mainstream vine growing. The most important aspects of this are the fact that the canopy hasn’t been hedged yet although the vine shoots are already several feet above the top wire, and the planting cover crop of clover between the rows, but I could list many other things. Although only about 8% of the vines that the Higgins planted here in 2010 are Riesling (the rest are Pinot Noir), with the first vintage the wine from them has established itself as one of the high points of their Riesling range. The Heart & Hands 2013 Estate Riesling has intense floral aromas that are unusual in this region, is juicy and vibrant, and though technically medium-dry is a great food wine. Can I taste the Onondaga limestone soil (in the background of the photo below) that dominates in this site, or the shale outcrop in part of the Riesling parcel in the upper block of the vineyard? Maybe, but mineral character isn’t something I expect from the first vintage of a new planting.

If you want proof that FLX Riesling can have a pronounced mineral taste, then try the Heart & Hands 2013 “Paul’s Legacy” Riesling from the Hobbit Hollow Vineyard. Cool and delicate with tart peach and fresh herbal aromas it is sleek with a brilliant interplay of acidity and aromatic sweetness, from which an intense mineral freshness emerges like sun after rain. It’s also the first interesting wine I tasted from Skaneateles Lake to the east of Cayuga. From the opposite (i.e. western) bank of the Higgins home lake comes the equally impressive drier 2013 Patricia Verona Vineyard Riesling with enticing notes of blossoms and white fruits, is quite rich and positively textural with a long elegant finale that is also quite mineral. Slightly simpler in flavor, but even more powerful and generous in style is the 2013 Dry Riesling. At first I underestimated the Higgins 2013 Nutt Road Riesling from the western shore of Seneca Lake, but this wine also has a lot of character and some real elegance. Finally, the slightly sweeter Heart & Hands 2014 Riesling is a deliciously succulent and pristine wine that suggests this is also an outstanding vintage for my favorite grape at this winery. I can’t wait to taste their other 2014 Rieslings!

Tom kindly drove me back to Geneva after the tasting and as we set off he explained about the troubled relationship between some of the Native Americans of the Hauendosanee, or Iroquois Confederacy, and White America. Then he was on to how the local Onondaga limestone (named after one of the Five Nations of the Iroqouis Confederacy) over great distances by Native Americans as a material for arrowheads axes. White America was also excited by the special qualities of this stone and used it as a construction material in New York City and elsewhere. Then Tom was on to the native fauna and flora of the region, which I have been observing since I arrived here on June 20th, but often failing to identify because it is frequently very different to that in Europe.

Tom suggested a stop at the first lock of the Seneca-Cayuga Canal where he pointed out a bald eagle, the national bird of America and an important emblem of the US,  in a nest at the top of a disused electricity pylon. He explained that the bird guarding the young in the nest was a male and that it is the female bald eagle who does all the hunting. What would Tea Party supporters think if they found that out? That sight reminded me that on my ride through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge I’d seen even bigger mega-nests on electricity pylons that looked like something right out of Jurassic World. Tom told me that often ospreys – another beautiful raptor – occupy abandoned bald eagle nests and as we passed those mega-nests he felt pretty sure that this was the case there. Tom and Susan Higgins used to live in New York City and were in computing so they are now also occupying a nest someone else had previously used. They are not strangers in this land which is still a bit strange to me though, rather their intense involvement with this land – involving their hearts and hands – has made them natives of it.

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FLXtra: TENTH EDITION! – The Chateau Frank Sparkling Wines Celebrate 30 Years and US Declares Independence from Champagne

Although the Dr. Frank winery on Kueka Lake celebrated the 30th anniversary of their Chateau Frank sparkling wines today, the 5th of July rather than the 4th, a rumor circulated at the celebration that the US had just declared independence from Champagne! More seriously, Fred Frank (right), the grandson of Dr. Frank founder Konstantin, announced that the Department of the Interior had added Chateau Frank to the National Register of Historic Places. Although the imposing house amongst the vineyards made of local stone acquired it’s present name back in 1985 when the first Chateau Frank sparkling wine was produced, it was built as a winery in 1886. On the left in the photo is Fred’s daughter Meaghan, the fourth generation of the Frank family to work in the winery. She has a strong feeling for the family’s rich traditions, but is determined to, “put my own spin on it.” Her very recent marriage was an additional reason to raise our glasses a few times, which we did in the pursuit of complete enjoyment of the beautiful day.

Dr. Frank was the first winery in the FLX (Finger Lakes) that I visited on my first visit to the region in October 2004 and the vertical tasting of dry Rieslings that Fred poured for me that day made a big impression upon me. Although we also tasted a couple of the Chateau Frank sparkling wines it was some years before I realized that they were some of the best products of this category in the region and the US, period. It’s easy with hindsight to say that the region was predestined to produce sparkling wines, because of the crisp, light and aromatic personality of the FLX wines, but if we turn the clock back more than 30 years this was not obvious to the region’s winemakers. It was a daring move by Willi Frank, Fred’s father and Konstantin’s son, to begin the production of Champagne style sparkling wines using the three vinifera grape varieties planted in that region: the white Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Although we sadly couldn’t taste that first wine, the 1999 Brut was still in pretty good shape for a sparkling wine of 15 years age. However, I think the current vintages of the Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir plus some Pinot Meunier), 2008 and 2009 are considerably superior to it and a genuine alternative to some elegant Champagnes costing up to double the price.

This is also the work Eric Bauman, the Chateau Frank winemaker since ten years to the day, pictured above in the historic cellars. His precision during a production process that stretches over several years is a no less important factor behind the quality of these wines than the excellent fruit the Dr. Frank vineyards give. Eric used to work for a major sparkling wine producer in Sonoma County, California and in that climate sparkling winemakers often have to add tartaric acidity (the most important of the natural grape acidities) to get suitable base wine. As Fred joked, “at his previous position Eric had to carry a lot of 50 pound sacks of acidity around winery. The cool climate here results in high natural acidity, so after he moved here Eric’s back recovered immediately. The acidity in the Chateau Frank sparkling wines is all natural.”

Although it is the largest production run at Chateau Frank and has won stacks of gold medals at major wine competitions, the Célébre sparkling Riesling is still not nearly well known enough. The reason for this is perhaps, that it is not “Brut”, that is it has more than 15 grams per liter / 1.5% unfermented sweetness, and the wine scene wants “Brut”, better still the even drier “Extra Brut”. The idea that the drier a sparkling wine is analytically the better it is  is one of the international wine scene’s deeply ingrained prejudices. The truth is that if a sparkling tastes as good as Célébre does (those juicy but delicate white fruit aromas and flavors!) then it does so because it has enough, but not too much, sweetness. The racy acidity of FLX Riesling demands more sweetness (and less aging on the yeast) than the sparkling wines made from the Champagne grape varieties do. It is extremely attractive in an entirely distinctive way, and this special balance is part of that. Another prejudice of the wine scene is that sparkling wines must imitate Champagne if they are to be any good. A glass of Célébre is the best argument I know against this prejudice!


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FLXtra: NINTH EDITION! – Fred Merwarth of Hermann J. Wiemer in Depth with Quotation Marks

When I first visited the FLX (for new readers, the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York) back in October 2004 the most exciting wine tasting was my last one at Hermann J. Wiemer on the western bank of Seneca Lake. During that tasting Hermann introduced me to quite a shy young man called Fred Merwarth and it was clear to me that he was Hermann’s potential successor. Since 2007, with the help of Swedish-born Oskar Bynke Fred has built on Hermann’s considerable successes in a way that is both systematic and creative. One day soon Oskar will get his own blog posting, but this one belongs to Fred and is composed largely of quotes from him during my tasting at Hermann J. Wiemer yesterday afternoon. There was nothing shy about him then, and the following is an in depth look at the perfectionism with which he crafts these great FLX Rieslings.

The 2014 Dry Riesling from Wiemer is a very elegant wine with the kind of finesse a lot of FLX producers struggle to get anywhere near to achieving. 65% of the blend was made from grapes born in the home HJW vineyard, 23% came from the Josef vineyard and 12% came from the Magdalena vineyard, the latter both in a warmer site some miles to the north of the winery on the western side of Seneca Lake. “We shoot for three bottlings per year of this wine and they’re very similar to one another. The only real difference is that each lot is filtered immediately prior to bottling, so the later bottlings have more character from the yeast. Because we keep them so cold we manage to hang onto all the natural carbon dioxide in the wine.” This sounds like details, and for some winemakers it is no more than a detail which can be ignored, but that carbons dioxide gives this wine more brightness and liveliness. I could have sat with it all afternoon, but I had to taste all the 2014 Rieslings with Fred.

As he poured the next wine, a cask sample of the dry 2014  HJW Vineyard Riesling Fred explained, “this is collection of 15 different pickings harvested between October 12th and November 8th. The moment I know that the HJW Riesling grapes are ready is when the taste changes from tart lime to ripe lime.” The wine has a pristine yellow apple and tangerine bouquet, it tastes super-racy and this is balanced by a discrete pithy quality that underlines it’s understated power. “We had to walk the line on that pithiness as a textural component. The late-picked lots didn’t have it and by themselves came off a little heavy as a result. So we needed to put the best of the early-picked lots from this site in the blend.” The word “blend” is something a lot of wine geeks and somms don’t like to hear in connection with single-vineyard wines, because it suggests that somehow they’re not pure or authentic. However, the truth is that even if a single-vineyard wine starts life as one lot of grape juice putting that into two vessels to ferment always results in two slightly different lots of wine. So blending is almost inevitably an important skill for the maker of single vineyard wines.

“It took three trials to decide on the blend of the 2014 Magdalena Vineyard Riesling. Then I decided to try out all the other alternative blends I could think of, but I rejected them, because this just sings. There were 12 pickings of the Magdalena and we ended up using six of them for this wine.” As usual for this site, this is a much riper (peach, tart apricot and tangerine) bouquet and the vibrant acidity is married to a much more ample body than the HJW. Everything about this wine from the aroma to the aftertaste of this is broader than that of the HJW.  ”How broad we can go, but bring it elegantly back at the finish is always the question.”

Yet more generous and succulent is the 2014 Riesling Reserve, which is packed with ripe yellow fruits and has less prominent acidity than the other dry 2014 Rieslings from Wiemer. “Sunday, Monday and Tuesday we put all of these wines up on the bench to taste them as a group. It’s a body of work and they each have very individual identities. This is a much more textural wine than the Dry Riesling, even if that also has some textural qualities.” At the opposite end of the scale is the crisper and sleeker 2014 Semi-Dry Riesling with its effusive apple, pear and citrus aromas, great freshness and a lightness that is reminiscent of a German Riesling Kabinett. You could analyze it, or just lie back and enjoy it!

The two 2014 Late Harvest Rieslings are both marked by noble rot of the blest kind (every vintage Botrytis develops differently, marking the wines made from nobly-rotten grapes differently). The regular bottling is succulent and elegant with a near-perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. “This has to go into the bottle perfectly balanced. If it is too sweet or too acidic at that point bottle-ageing isn’t going to change that.” The 2014 Josef Vineyard Late Harvest is perfectly golden in aroma and an even more stunning harmony. “There were four possible blends of this and it was really hard to decide, because they all really had something.” I would add – with great British understatement – that all the 2014 Rieslings from Hermann J. Wiemer really have something and that it was a joy to taste them, as it will be to drink them during the coming months and years!

PS Space and time are too short to describe the other 2014 wines from this producer, but just as Oskar deserves a posting to himself, so do the Cabernet Franc reds!

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FLXtra: EIGHTH EDITION! – Breaking Boundaries at Boundary Breaks in 2014

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy cycling, because you experience the piece of town or country you move through so very differently from when you’re traveling in a car, but there has to be a really good reason to make me spend hours on a bicycle. Yesterday afternoon I cycled the 24 miles south from Geneva along the eastern side of Seneca Lake to visit the small Boundary Breaks vineyard that NYWC (New York Wine City) exile Bruce Murray began planting his 18 acre vineyard in 2008. Nearly all my colleagues and the top somms will tell you that young vines cannot give great wines, but I always said the wine is as good as it is, no matter where or when it grew.

I cycled at a fair clip and struggled to keep my bike upright in the blustering wind for two solid hours in the hope that the 2014 wines from Boundary Breaks would at least be up to the same level as the first vintages. After all, this young producer’s 2011 198 Reserve was one of my top Riesling discoveries of last year, and the 2012s and ’13 Rieslings had all been good to impressive in quality. That’s quite a track record  for such a young producer who was previously in market research!

Bruce produced just three wines in 2014, the dry 239, the medium-dry OLN and the medium-sweet 198. Or rather, I should say that, with the very considerable help of vineyard manager Kees Stapel and his assistants, and of winemaker Kelby Russell, he has produced three FLX Riesling masterpieces. I’m now getting a clear picture of the 2014 in this region, and it divides into two contrasting groups of Riesling wines. The first of this is the wines made from grapes picked at the beginning of the long period of fine weather in the fall – picked then because rot was developing and it wasn’t possible to wait any longer – which are quite lean, have high acidity and apple-lemon aromas.  Then there are those that were picked at the end of those weeks of fine weather, which are richer, more harmonious with much riper yellow fruit and floral aromas.

All the Boundary Breaks’ Riesling grapes were picked in late October and belonged to the second group. They were significantly riper than this producer has so far picked, and when wine producers suddenly see unfamiliar numbers – every wine producer is looking at those number even if they’re also looking at, feeling and tasting the grapes – they nervously ask themselves what this means. For example, it was certainly conceivable that the 2014 Boundary Breaks grapes might have given Rieslings that were too rich or lacked elegance, but that isn’t the case at all.

As you can see from the picture above, all three of the 2014 Boundary Breaks Rieslings are pale in color with a greenish tinge, which is not the way Riesling made from over-ripe fruit usually looks. In fact, I consider this the ideal appearance for young, high-end Riesling wines. Because they were bottled just a month ago all three are a little bit shy in the nose, but they got plenty of time to aerate in the glass as Bruce and I talked and they slowly blossomed. That’s exactly how it should be with wines made to retain their youthful freshness as long as possible, and for long aging beyond the first effusive phase of their lives.

The 198 Reserve is the most exotic (fresh pineapple, passion fruit, papaya) and floral of the trio with a great succulence that then twists into a dazzling citric freshness that not only kept drawing me back to the glass, but was also uplifting in the way that the great Riesling Spätlese wines from the Mosel and Nahe in Germany are. Not surprisingly, Bruce, Kees and Kelby are all great fans of these wines, and had them in mind. With its white peach and honeysuckle aromas the OLN is a very charming and elegant wine, the long mineral and vibrant acidity at the finish taking me by surprise. The dry 239 is the most reticent of the trio, but as a very delicate peach and fresh herbs character, is intense and concentrated, yet silky, ending with a bright lemon freshness and a salty mineral touch. I’m sure all of these wines will show even better when they are released in a few months time.

All three of these 2014 Rieslings are big wines in the traditional FLX context, but already have a delicacy that is literally breathtaking.  Boundary Breaks now belongs in the first league of FLX and North American Riesling producers. These wines will sell for $19 to private customers at the cellar door, which is a steal. Both because of the quality and that price I’m expecting NYWC and the rest of the nation’s wine scene to jump for them, and I will therefore be placing my order early.

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FLXtra: SEVENTH EDITION! – Daring & Innovation at Bellwether / Quiet Perfectionism at Sheldrake Point

Although I visited both the wineries that are the subject of the Seventh Edition of my FLXtra yesterday, and both lie on Cayuga Lake to the north of Ithaca, that is not the reason that they’re together in this blog posting. Rather, the contrast of approaches and wine styles says something important about the development of this region in the new wine century. No longer do the FLX need worry that stylistic diversity might confuse the consumer and dame sales, because both the quality and market acceptance (particularly in NYWC have recently increased above a crucial threshold. Now diversity is a positive thing that is opening doors for the FLX, influencing people and wining new friends for the region and its wines.

“We started back in the fall of 2011 with just one tank and a few bins,” Kris Mathewson, the winemaker of Bellwether in Trumansburg, said to me. Back then he was just 30 years old and the assistant winemaker of Atwater on Seneca Lake. The 600 bottles of Pinot Noir he made that year was something of an experiment designed to answer the question in his and his wife’s mind: should they go to work in the Oregon wine industry for some years, or commit to their home region right away. Kris is simultaneously excited and slightly dazed by how quickly production expanded to the roughly 25,000 bottles he made in the 2014 vintage. This would never have been possible without his determination from day one to make very different wines from the FLX norm, (although he doesn’t dismiss the bright, fruit-driven, crisp style that is dominant in the region as is sometimes assumed). Making the wines in his father-in-law’s hard cider company (founded in 1999) seems to have actively encouraged him to try a bunch of unconventional winemaking techniques. That every Bellwether wine isn’t spot on is the modest price Kris has paid for a degree of experimentation and innovation that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. No doubt other young winemakers will soon be following his example.

His 2012 A & D Vineyard Dry Riesling shows very well what I mean. It spent half a year on the full lees (yeast deposit) under carbon dioxide pressure from the fermentation, which is certainly not normal practice here, or in any other region where Riesling is produced. That enables it to still taste almost ridiculously fresh for its age. This kind of extreme lees contact enables Kris to harmonize the pronounced natural acidity of the region’s Rieslings without the help of sweetness, and results in wines that are sleek, but with a complex mouthfeel impossible to achieve with conventional winemaking at just 11% alcoholic content and a properly dry balance. Although some of his best wines, like the vibrant and elegant 2013 Sawmill Creek Vineyard Dry Riesling, have been made in the fashionable egg-shaped vessels, Kris has no problem with using regular cellar kit. “We primarily use stainless steel, and I really like stainless steel,” he told me.  The point is that he never allowed the fact that he often uses conventional winemaking vessels to turn him into a convention-bound winemaker.

I was expecting to taste some tank samples of his 2014 Rieslings yesterday, but he suggested I wait, “because I haven’t prepped any of them for bottling yet.” The most important thing that the leading pack of FLX Riesling producers have in common is that they’re giving their wines a lot more time, and not hurrying them off the lees. However, Kris pushes this, like everything else, another mile. In spite of his considerable achievements with his first four vintages, I am sure that this story is really just beginning. Many more surprises and the best are surely still to come.

I first met Dave Breeden, the winemaker of Sheldrake Point estate winery, seven or eight years ago at one of the first Riesling Rendezvous events in Seattle (the next one takes place July 16th thru 18th, 2016 – watch this space for further information!) Sheldrake point was established back in 1997 and a few days ago one of the founders, Bob Madill, opened a bottle from the winery’s early years. I was seriously amazed how well preserved and elegant the 2001 Pinot Noir pictured above was, and blind I would have guessed it to be from a cool corner of Burgundy in a regular vintage. I’ve had a few similarly impressive dry Rieslings from the early years of Sheldrake Point too, so, right from the beginning they were doing some things right. However, it’s a long and stony path from making a few good wines to top quality across a range like this producer’s, because if they’re all your own grapes (as is the case in this instance) it means realizing something close to the full potential of a vineyard site. Dave Breeden never made a big noise about what he was doing, but his quiet perfectionism has often payed off during the last years, and sometimes in ways he really didn’t expect.

Two of Sheldrake Point’s best wines are it’s biggest sellers, the Pinot Gris and Dry Rosè (100% Cabernet Franc). These are brilliant regular wines with great fruit, charm and a spot-on balance for this category. The 2014 Pinot Gris manages to effortlessly hide 13.9% alcohol and outdoes Oregon Pinot Gris at its own game (due to the greater freshness!) The 2014 Dry Rosé, of which almost 18,000 bottles were made, has a similar balance but weighs in at 12% alcohol. In spite of this it can handle quite spicy and substantial food without any trouble, and is one of the best wines in this rapidly growing category in the FLX. Even more stunning is the 2014 Dry Riesling with its effusive tangerine, passion fruit, yellow peach and lime aromas, wonderful succulence and a hint of gooseberry freshness in the long aftertaste. Daring to wait until November 12th to pick those grapes has resulted in the best Riesling Dave Breeden ever made and it will be great value at under $20 per bottle when released.

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for the 2014 vintage of the wine pictured above, but assistant winemaker Julia Hoyle has crafted a serious wine from this grape that so frequently disappoints in the FLX. It will probably be bottled before the coming harvest and then age in the bottle for at least 6 months.

Namu Amida Butsu

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FLXtra: SIXTH EDITION! – Riesling Oregon says Hi to Riesling New York (Part 1 UPDATED!)

When I retasted all the wines described below two days after they were opened (something I frequently do with young wines to see how they develop through contact with the air) I found some of them very changed. I’ve therefore UPDATED this story with some additional comments in italics.

 What do the Rieslings of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest have to do with those of New York State in the Altantic Northeast? At first glance the question might seem pretty stupid, because Riesling is the Number One Vitis vinifera grape grown in New York and in Oregon Riesling is a speciality occupying a tiny part of the vineyard area that Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris dominate (together more than three quarters of everything!) However, on the crucial level of taste there are many similarities. Both types of Riesling can be very high in acidity and are often modest in body, although Oregon Rieslings tends to be a little bolder than their cousins from New York (probably because of the rather warmer, drier summer). Turn back to the statistics and look at the number of acres planted rather than those percentages and they really aren’t so far from one another: at the last count 1,034 acres of Riesling in NY and 700 acres in OR when New York last counted (2011). Look at the picture above and you might think that I tasted the 2014 dry Rieslings from the Brooks, Chehalem and Trisaetum wineries in their native Oregon, but actually I did so in a garden in Geneva, FLX where the above picture was taken.

Yesterday was a perfect dry here in Upstate New York, or as I’m starting to call it the Wild West of the Northeast. A beautiful still evening followed the warmth and sunshine, and with the aid of light jacket it was entirely possible to taste outside. That’s something I normally avoid because the wind can whip all of the aromas out of your glass leaving you with the impression that the wine has no nose, or that you don’t. The eleven 2014 Rieslings I tasted were all recently bottled and are all made to be able to age for some years, in the case of Brooks with a decade or more of aging potential built in. And the 2003 Brooks Riesling (regular quality) I tasted in Oregon last summer proved that this really works. This means they were all a bit on the shy side, and in need of aeration or bottle age. However, that’s as it should be at this early phase in good Riesling wines’ life.

The first thing that the wines proved is that 2014 is a remarkably ripe vintage for Oregon Riesling, although the level of ripeness was far from uniform, some wines being exotic in their richness for this context, others fitting into the “norm” for the state fairly easily. In spite of this none of the wines were low in acidity, however far you stretch of that term. The second striking thing was the radical differences in style between the wines of the leading trio of Oregon Riesling producers (for that is what they unquestionably are). I promise that even if you are rather inexperienced wine taster, if you had tasted with me and at the end I’d presented you with one of the wines blind then asked you to identify the producers you would have managed this! I like that, because in my book the beauty of wine is a many-faced creature.

To my mind 2014 Wichmann Dundee Estate Riesling from Trisaetum is the most beautiful wine James Frey has ever produced, and in 2013 he produced a string of beautiful Rieslings! It reminded of the hauntingly beautiful face painted on a wall in Downtown Portland, OR pictured above. Here is a wine with a stunning combination of intensity and delicacy, of fruity charm and savory depth that unhesitatingly said, DRINK ME! Sadly, there are just 1,800 bottles of this beauty. I’m less sure of the dry 2014 Estate Reserve, because of the obvious oak aromas, but time will perhaps help integrate them better. I certainly prefer the forthright apple, raspberry and floral aromas of the 2014 Coast Range Estate to it, because this wine is at once juicy and crisp. At least there are more than 4,000 bottles of this one!

Freshly opened the dry 2014 Ribbon Ridge Estate from Trisaetum wasn’t very exciting, but two days later it had literally blossomed showing some lovely floral and spicy notes. It also tasted much more juicy and vibrant, and this is a real crowd-pleaser that is easier to understand than the more austere and powerful wine from the Dundee Wichmann Estate.

Chehalem’s 2014 Rieslings are all precisely balanced in the more succulent style that winemaker Wynne Peterson-Nedry has developed since taking over from her father Harry (who’s wines were more steely and austere, but often developed very well). The 2014 Corral Creek Vineyard is the brightest of them, and although still very youthful it is bursting with white fruit aromas (pear, apple and peach). At once exciting and delicious, this is a wine with a great future that I hope to also experience. The 1.1% / 11 grams per liter unfermented grape sweetness are seamlessly integrated, and together with the lively acidity and 12.5% alcohol (it tastes like a bit less than that figure) they make it an extremely flexible wine for the dining table. The 2014 Ridgecrest Vineyard is almost as impressive and the 2014 Three Vineyards blend is slightly more juicy and direct, as a regular bottling at a more modest price should be. In short, these might well be Chehalem’s best Rieslings to date.

With two days aeration the balance of the 2014 Corral Creek Riesling from Chehalem had got even more impressive, and the aftertaste was even longer. This is one of the stars of the vintage in Oregon and America. 

For the 2014 harvest Brooks moved into their new winery and also started bottling some of the wine from each vineyard they source their blended Willamette Valley Riesling from as single-vineyard wines. About half of those bottlings were in this tasting, and the other half are in the tasting of medium-dry and medium sweet 2014 Oregon Rieslings that will follow in a few days time. Even this first half of that group of wines proved conclusively that moving into a beautiful new facility hasn’t in any way changed winemaker Chris Williams (pictured above) commitment to the powerful and austere style of Riesling that Jimi Brooks developed. The 2014 Orchards Fold Vineyard Riesling is a good introduction to this unique style (in all of North America) because the wine isn’t too steely and has a lot of lemon and apple character. Both the 2014 Sunset View Vineyard Riesling and 2014 Yamhill Vineyard Rieslings push into new territory for the winery, these dry wines weighing in at 13.7% and 14.3% alcoholic content! For me, the bottling from the Yamhill Vineyard, i.e. the one with the highest alcoholic content, is the more impressive at this stage. I love the candied pineapple aroma and the rich, complex mouthfeel, followed by a seriously (salty) mineral tasting finish. I never had an Oregon Riesling with anything even vaguely resembling this balance before. To experience this new continent of flavor you will have to be quick after this wine is released, because there are just 900 bottles of it for the whole of Planet Riesling.

Of the 2014 Brooks dry Rieslings that from the Vitae Springs Vineyard had tasted austere to the point of severity when freshly opened. However, two days later it tasted more weighty and positively textural with a note of ripe pear and I ended up drinking a big glass of it with considerable pleasure. Then it was also apparent that the 2014 Yamhill Vineyard wine owes some of its considerable richness to noble rot. That sometimes exerts a negative influence on dry Rieslings making them taste bitter and or heavy, but this wine has neither of those problems. It will be fascinating to see how this dramatically contrasting quartet develop during the coming months and years!

And what is the conclusion to be drawn from all this for FLX Riesling winemaking? I think it is, that in spite of all the challenges winemakers here face, balancing wines with high alcoholic contents is not one of them, in fact given the standard of viticulture the top producers have reached balancing the FLX Riesling wines isn’t that difficult if you accept the principal that a wine with 0.9% – 1.2% / 9 – 12 grams per liter unfermented sweetness could be harmoniously dry. The other night Red Newt’s ravishingly beautiful 2013 The Knoll Riesling showed what is possible here if you start with ripe clean fruit and are relaxed about the analytical figures for dry wines can do for the balance of FLX Rieslings.

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FLXtra: FIFTH EDITION – Peter, You Can Ring My Bell

This is Peter Bell, the winemaker of Fox Run winery in the FLX as very few people see him, but I promise you this wasn’t the only photographs of him I took this afternoon in his lab-office which looked this way. And just after I arrived there at 2pm he told me that, “this morning somebody who will remain nameless referred to both of us as loose cannons.” That’s almost exactly the opposite of his image as the friendly senior professor of FLX winemaking through who’s “school” many then aspiring and now more or less  established winemaker have passed.  Every region needs wineries of this kind where standards are high across the board and there’s an openness about all the work that was necessary to reach this standard, because they both radiate a culture of excellence and propagate the knowledge of how this can be done. In Peter Bell’s case he did that without trying to indoctrinate his”pupils” about the “right” methods, although he he never left them in any doubt about what he thinks is right. The man is an open book and he has a heart of gold…

Then there’s the “bad” Peter Bell pictured above who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is totally focused when the winemaking chips are down. I would have got all this much earlier, if my first experiences of the FLX wines just over a decade ago hadn’t included so many green and aggressively tannic red wines (because it’s ancient history I won’t bother to say who produced them). Certainly it’s easier to make good white wines in this climate (today it was warm and humid, felt like it would rain any time all afternoon, and it did rain a lot during the last weeks) than it is to make good reds, but I took a view that was too narrow.

The Cabernet Francs and Lembergers from Fox Run were some of the wines that convinced me that in future I would have to take the FLX reds much more seriously. Not “getting” the reds properly meant I missed the field of winemaking endeavor where Peter Bell is perhaps the greatest talent in the entire region. Every single red wine he poured for me this afternoon was impressive, and he knew exactly what wasn’t perfect about those that missed the bullseye. In particular, I have to recommend the 2012 Cabernet Franc & Lemberger, a perfumed red with ripeness and a dry elegance; great value for around $20. As he so aptly said about it, “the different tannins of these two grapes agree with each other nicely.” The barrel samples I tasted suggest that 2014 is another excellent vintage for the Fox Run red wines.

Riesling is Peter’s other love and the Fox Run 2013 and ’14 Rieslings are all spot on in the house style, which means medium-bodied with bright aromatics and a lot of freshness, but nothing funky at all. There are about 24,000 bottles each of the Fox Run  2014 Dry Riesling and 2014 Semi-Dry Riesling so these are not unimportant wines for the region, and I promise you that part of me always mentally calculates what the quality x quantity of a wine is in estimating it. 2,400 bottles of slightly better quality wine is not nearly as significant out there in the RWDW (real wine drinking world) as ten times that quantity! However, in the limited production category Peter also has an amazingly vibrant sweet 2014 Riesling in what I call “Spätlese style (after the German category of the same name), called Hanging Delta.  This grew on what geologists call a hanging delta, which means a river delta that was left high and dry by sinking waters (in this case the sinking waters of Seneca Lake). Even the terroir septic Peter Bell had to admit that the special soil of this site (sandy and gravelly) must be a factor contributing to the racy excitement and effusive (fresh pineapple!) aromatics of the wine.

Sorry wine geeks of the western world, but I have to agree with his terroir skepticism , because as he said, “You can take one lot of grape juice, split it between two tanks and ferment each with a different yeast and the wines will turn out very different. And that difference will be permanent!” That’s a painful winemaking truth many producers who are considered seriously “cool” by the wine scene don’t want to publicly admit to, but as I pointed out in Edition Two truth is the whole point of this blog.


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FLXtra: FOURTH EDITION! – Alsace & Austria Rieslingtest

The idea of tasting Alsace and Austrian Rieslings next to each other blind has a compelling logic – both are full-bodied dry wines from rather warm and dry climates – but for some obscure reason, or no reason at all, it’s years since I did that. So, I was delighted when the FLX winemakers’ tasting group organized by Peter Bell of Fox Run winery (more on him soon!) invited me to join their blind tasting of those two categories. This also had the effect of announcing to the FLX wine industry (some of whom never read this blog) that I’m here for a while, and allowing me to get an idea of how this community sees Riesling and how its members communicates internally about wine in general. I promise you that they aren’t as chaotic as the tasting table looked towards the end, when I took the above picture!

I wasn’t surprised that the seven dry Austrian Rieslings in the tasting were generally well liked by the group, because they generally had a freshness and clarity that fit the FLX white wine context, but also a ripeness grape growers here are often challenged to achieve, sometimes can’t achieve and long for. The highest rated wine of the tasting was the rich and succulent, 2013 Hochrain “Smaragd” from Franz Hirtzberger in Spitz, Wachau which brilliantly managed to carry a touch of noble rot due to its lively acidity. However, just a whisker behind it for the group (I expressed opinions, but did not give numerical ratings) was the 2010 Gobelsburger Riesling from Schloss Gobelsburg that costs just $19, or less than a third of the Hirtzberger wine’s price, and we could clearly see why this medium-bodied wine with a great balance of freshness and ripeness  (and an attractive grapefruit note) is so popular. I’d agree that it is a great value for this price.

Three things surprised the group on the winemaking front, and their surprise says some important things about the regional perspective. Firstly, they found it hard to get their heads around the fact that, in warm years when high alcoholic content is a danger, many Austrian winemakers bring in part of the crop early enough that they get some wines with “only” about 12.5% alcohol. The effects of climate change in the FLX are clear to everyone who sat at the table today, but they were faced with the serious danger of picking grapes for dry Riesling that were so ripe the wines could have ended up with way too much alcohol. Secondly, many in the group were surprised by how long (3-6 months) the Austrian winemaker leave their dry white wines on the full lees (deposit of dead yeast) after fermentation, because this is not traditional in the FLX. It is, however, being adopted by more and more winemakers here with generally very positive effect for the harmony of the drier wines.  Lastly, there’s what you can see in the glass pictured above, the natural carbon dioxide retained by all of these wines that accentuated their freshness and liveliness. Screw caps, which effectively seal the carbon dioxide in the bottle, meant that even the 4+ year old Gobelsburger had those tiny bubbles.

From the early 1990s Alsace went through a long phase when many winemakers had lost touch with the consumer’s demand to know where they are in terms of sweetness, and for some years too many wines that looked like they were dry from the label were too just too sweet for most savory food. Thankfully, during the last five years there has been a major course correction back in the direction of the region’s tradition for full-bodied properly dry Riesling. This lead to the amount of noble rot and over-ripeness in those wines being dialed back and my excitement was rekindled as a result. It was fascinating to follow the group discovering these things for themselves and pictured above are the four wines they more or less unanimously went for.

Of these the 2010 Grand Cru Osterberg Riesling from Kientzler was the most controversial, since it was high in acidity and quite austere in style (normal for this site and producer), but the freshness for this age amazed everyone at the table. The more exotic aromas (mango and ginger) and richer texture of the 2011 “Calaire” Zind-Humbrecht garnered a lot of praise, even if the wine struck some as slightly corky. For me, the 2011 Grand Cru Rosacker from l’Agapé was the most mineral wine of the entire tasting and had a delicate peachy aroma too; a charming and characterful wine. Yes, modern Alsace Riesling can also do charm! It was rather amazing how the 2012 Grand Cru Brand from Albert Boxler carried its 14% alcohol, the apple and lemon notes being anything but opulent, the finish clean and bright in spite of the power.

For some obscure reason, or no reason at all, I failed to get a picture of the last wine, although I brought the bottle of the 1997 “Cuvée Frédéric Emile from Trimbach with me from NYWC (New York Wine City). This polarized the tasters, some feeling it was too developed, but to be fair almost none of them were aware of the wine’s age when they tasted it. There was quite some astonishment when it turned out to be 17+ years old. To my mind it had an attractively toasty mature character, was powerful and succulent, yet dry and elegant. I don’t think there are any dry or medium-dry FLX Rieslings of comparable age that matured this well, but I can imagine that some of the best wines made here in recent years might do so. That is if someone can resist drinking some of them for that long!

All of this leaves me wondering how different would have been the perspective of a group of NYWC somms on the same wines have been…

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FLXtra: THIRD EDITION! – A Land Shaped by Water

The thunderstorm which broke just after 5am in the FLX region  - I’m often awake around then, being a light sleeper – reminded me that this isn’t just a region dominated by water – I’m staying in Geneva at the northern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest body of freshwater here – but it’s also a piece of land that was shaped by water in its solid form. During the many glacial periods of the last two and a half million years the ice sheets covering much of North America gouged ever deeper trenches in this part of what is now Upstate New York that filled with water each time the glaciers melted. During the current interglacial periods it continues to form this landscape, water from the high ground between the lakes draining into rives and streams that have cut (and continue cutting) deep ravines into the lake banks, particularly where they are steep. Often these rivers cascade over slate cliffs creating spectacular waterfalls, but I never managed to get a satisfactory photo. The truth is that I never tried that hard, because every tourist goes for that one and I never wanted to feel like I was one of a herd.

I gathered the three objects pictured above on the shore of Lake Seneca, which has a very narrow dark shingle beach. My guess is that they originated in one or more of those ravines where slate (bottom left) and sandstone (right) are exposed, fragments of those rocks were detached through weathering and get bounced around by the fast flowing water which rounded what were originally jagged-edged shards of rock. They reminded me of when the Hyugens probe landed on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan in January 2005 it sent back extraordinary images of a landscape strewn with pebble-shaped rocks (mostly larger in size than pebbles, therefore better referred to as cobblestones). Even as a non-scientist I could immediately see that they’d been shaped by movement in a fast-flowing liquid. By the way, the scientists who studied all the Hyugens data very closely are pretty sure that the rounded rocks on the surface of Titan are mainly composed of water ice and the liquid which shaped them was methane (a gas at FLX temperatures). But back to Seneca Lake, and the largest of the three objects at the top of the picture. It’s a piece of driftwood, but in certain lights looks extremely like a piece of red-brown sedimentary rock with a layered structure. Stuff likes this is rapidly broken down by fungi, other microbes and small fauna once it gets in the soil, but pebbles like these can be found in the soil of many FLX vineyards, even when they are far from the lake shores (indicating they were almost certainly formed during earlier interglacial periods).

This is quite a complex region when it comes to geology and soil types, and to these factors must be added the complexity of site location, most notably exposition and inclination, proximity to the nearest lake and the depth of the nearest part of that lake, surrounding topography (which influences wind exposure and cold air flow), plus many more factors. Deciding what grape variety to plant on what rootstock where in the FLX is a science in itself! I was thinking about all of this as the heavy rain fell this morning and I slowly drifted back to sleep. When I arrived here I was carrying a heavy load of exhaustion with me that I’m still in the process of lightening. Only when I’ve done so will I feel confident to report on the wines in a manner that differentiates between the more and less successful. That’s the reason for this short posting. Please be patient!


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FLXtra: SECOND EDITION! I dwell in Almost Impossibility -

This is how the view out of the window of the room in Geneva, FLX (Finger Lakes) I am staying in looked just over three months ago the last time I was here. In that short time this wine region has flipped from deepest winter to the beginning of high summer. See the photograph below taken just a few minutes ago for comparison.

The change of season and the location has greatly stimulated my mind and I have scribbled many short notes to myself that seem to contain a wealth of possibilities. The subject of possibility and impossibility was already on my mind after last week the social media were full of discussion as to whether a woman’s portrait should appear on the new $10 bill, and if so who it should be. On Twitter I suggested Emily Dickinson, because she was, “a great poet and a better person than Andrew Jackson on $20 bill!” Actually, I feel that for ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Cherokee native Americans Jackson should come off the $20 bill (as important a change as taking down the Confederate battle flag in Charleston, SC) and Emily Dickinson should replace him! Possibly, that idea will get me into more trouble, but so be it, for this is my sincere belief.

Writing that tweet set my mind on a track of which I reach the end (so far as I can tell now) with this posting. My favorite Emily Dickinson poem is I dwell in Possibility – (466), and it inspired the following commentary I’m calling My Prose. My prose is often full of positive energy that might lead to me and/or you to new possibilities, and it sometimes joyfully celebrates those possibilities, but it never does either of those things innocently. Rather, this energy and joy are always hard won, because they must be discovered in these troubled and troubling times.

When I look back to the 1990s I see  ten years (1991 – 2001) when many people were naively optimistic, particularly about what the internet and other new technology would do for the world, but there was also much genuine optimism as a result of the end of the Cold War. With the current partial return of the Cold War, plus the terrible hot wars in Syria, the Ukraine, Yemen, etc, and the very real possibility of much more terrible wars that optimism is necessarily in short supply.  Wikileaks and the still unfolding Snowden revelations and the evil they have exposed in many countries around the world, don’t make me feel confident that some kind of old-fashioned optimism can be regained. I have, of course, only mentioned the bad things that immediately came to my mind, but as the news from Charleston, SC during the last days reminded us all, a megaton of other shit that’s going down right around us.

This is the background to my work, to which must be added the obstacle course I encounter in that work itself, meaning the smoke and mirrors of the wine industry, particularly where prices and margins are both high (one almost always goes hand in hand with the other). Hence the dark tone of My Prose and the cautiously positive note on which it ends:


I dwell in Almost Impossibility -

A far harsher Place than Poetry -

More numerous of Flight and Other Connections-

But superior also for Strife and Disputes -


Of Chambers as the Densest Scrub -

Almost impregnable on foot -

And for a distant Horizon

The Scant Knowledge on the Internet -


Of Visitors – the most daring Colleagues -

For Occupation – This long hard Struggle -

To spread wide my narrow Hands -

To gather the Elusive Truth -


Only after I wrote the above lines did I notice the flag of Harvard University in Cambridge, MA hanging outside the house (my host Kelby Russell is a graduate of Harvard) and on it the motto VE-RI-TAS; truth. That made this “little game” I have played with Emily Dickinson’s astonishing original seem all the more appropriate.

Tomorrow’s edition of FLXtra will return to the theme of what makes this region special, both on the natural and human levels, and in particular how those factors make it special for Riesling.

Namu Amida Butsu


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