The Finger Lakes region in central New York is a cool-climate region – a fact that is very obvious for those of us that live here, especially in the winter.
This kind of a climate is great for many grape varieties including those used for sparkling wines. Our climate is somewhat similar to that of Champagne, France. Okay, technically speaking, we are a bit warmer in summer, a bit cooler in winter and we get about 10 more inches of rain a year, but relatively speaking, not that much different. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we can make great sparkling wine here. We can and we do.
A 2017 study by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation reported that New York produced 3.1 million gallons of sparkling wine. That’s across the entire state, but a lot of it is here in the Finger Lakes. That’s a lot of bubbles!
What sets sparkling wine apart from other wines? Bubbles of course! To create the best bubbles, you first ferment the base wine, put it in a bottle and ferment it again. This is the traditional or “Champagne” (méthode champenoise) method. This second fermentation traps the CO2, a byproduct of fermentation, and that’s how we get bubbly wine.
Besides the bubbles, there are a few other things that set sparkling wine apart. One of these is the high level of acidity that forms the backbone of their ability to age for many years in the bottle. Another is lees contact. Lees are the dead yeast, (which die off when all the sugar is digested). Aging the wine in contact with the lees improves the mouthfeel and complexity of the wine as well as the flavor characteristics typical of quality sparkling wines (including Champagne) such as brioche, biscuit, toast, bready notes and/or just plain yeasty.
These characteristics are what sets these wines apart.
So in the nature of fair play, I chose to blind taste many of the available Finger Lakes sparkling wines made in the traditional method with varying amounts of lees contact. Some of these were made with the traditional classic sparkling wine grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and others not.
Without further ado, it was a tough assignment, but someone had to do it. I tasted through 18 wines with the help of a few lucky friends and a variety of appetizer-style foods.
We tried several of the sparkling wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank, who is noted as the “Father of Vinifera” in the Eastern United States. Four generations of Franks have been producing some of the finest wines in our area. They were the first in the Finger Lakes to make a traditional method sparkling wine with vinifera grapes, and more specifically the three classic French Champagne grape varieties.
All the grapes for these sparkling wines are from their Keuka Lake estate. These vineyards were planted by Willy Frank (2nd generation) in the late 1970s with the sole purpose of producing quality sparkling wines. For these wines, they use only the Cuvée press (the juice that flows from the first gentle press).
The 2014 Blanc de Noir is made from a blend of 95% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. It had great fruity notes of berries including strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, as well as sour cherry, caramel, earthy, mineral notes, pear, pineapple, and a nice long apple-y finish. Beautifully balanced, with complex layers, and great body. One of the fun descriptor that came up was a cool fall rain. I loved that and the wine.
The 2014 Blanc de Blanc is made with 100% Chardonnay. The wine is 7.5% barrel fermented in used French oak, with 0.8% RS and a minimum of 4 years lees contact in their underground cellar. Lots of tiny persistent bubbles, with a creamy mouthfeel, bringing you notes of brioche, raw honey, ginger, shale, crisp apple, lemon curd and lime zest. We found that this went great with a variety of cheeses we tasted and surprisingly well with a cake with a buttercream frosting (had to have something sweet to eat). Proving that sparkling wines are very versatile and go well with lots of different foods.
We tasted a 2016 Brut, made with 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier. A small amount, 2% of the Pinot Noir juice is barrel fermented in used French oak. This wine had a minimum of 2.5 years of lees contact. It had a good mouthfeel with steely, metallic notes, pears, apricots, lemons and apples. Excellent with all cheeses, especially aged cheddar.
Toasted notes of brioche, tart green apple and rich yeast fills the nose when sampling the 2016 Sparkling Riesling Nature, 100% Riesling. This wine spent a minimum of 2 years aging on the lees. Rich yeasty notes and a smooth but tart apple finish. The bracing acidity ensures it will go well with lots of dishes. “Nature” means that no dosage, (juice/sugar added at the finish of the aging process) has been added to this wine and you can tell with the bone dry, but rich finish.
Hermann J. Wiemer was also a pioneer of growing vinifera in the Finger Lakes, specifically Rieslings, bringing with him a family history of more than 300 years of winemaking experience from Germany. In 2003, Hermann’s apprentice Fred Merwarth took charge of winemaking and vineyard management. In 2007, Hermann retired and Fred partnered with Oskar Bynke, a Swedish agronomist to carry on Hermann’s legacy.
We tasted the Brut Rosé 2014, which had a lovely light salmon color and great depths of flavor with notes of apples, fresh berries and toasty yeast with a touch of spice. Great bubbles and a creamy mouthfeel. It went really well with cured meats and cheeses, especially a local Snow Farm Creamery that makes a great Gouda style (Dream Street) with cumin seeds, creating a new depth of character to them both, delicious. This wine is made with 100% Pinot Noir, from a single estate vineyard, with no fining (clarification) or filtering.
Then there was the 2014 Brut, a light straw color with an abundance of tiny bubbles. Lots of great aromas including ripe melon, citrus, lime, zest, mineral, grapefruit, honey, caramel, and tropical fruit, as well as yeasty, and mineral notes.
Ravines Wine Cellars 2012 Brut Rosé, made by Morten Hallgren, has lots of depth and complexity with aromas of yeast, notes of lemongrass, ginger, strawberries, raspberries, mango, papaya, pineapple, lime zest, honey, honeysuckle, and mineral notes and a slightly funky aroma of mushrooms and forest floor. It enhanced the nuttiness of the cheeses we enjoyed and reminded me the most of French Rosé champagne. This wine is 100% Pinot Noir and spent 5 years aging on the lees.
Ravines Wine Cellars 2011 Brut, was one of my favorites! Lovely depth of character and complexity, layered yeasty brioche flavors, lemon and lime, honey, ginger, minerals, cinnamon, nutmeg, subtle fruit aromas of apple and pear and really smooth. Made with a roughly equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vines that are over 30 years old. Spent 72 months aging on the lees, 4 grams RS. It went excellent with some of the cured meats and roasted cauliflower we were tasting.
Mark Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing is the third generation of grape growers on the shores of Seneca Lake. It was a treat to taste his 2007 Blanc de Blanc. A lovely wine made with estate grapes and 12 years aged on the lees. This wine is 100% Chardonnay with notes of clementine, tangerine, apple, grape blossoms, delicate pear and lemon flavors, toasty and mineral notes, complex with a lingering creamy finish with notes of caramelized sugar. It went really well with cured meats and cheeses. As Mark has told me in the past, “in the Finger Lakes we never have a problem with acid” and this wine that has aged over 12 years shows that the acid levels can allow for graceful aging of the wines produced in the Finger Lakes.
The Lamoreaux Landing 2014 Blanc de Blanc had notes of apple, pear, toast, lemon, grapefruit, mushroom, mineral notes and aromas of almonds. It went together really well with olives and stuffed grape leaves, and very enjoyable with a variety of food.
Damiani Wine Cellars has a 2012 Brut with strong apple and yeasty aromas, subtle florals, grapefruit and lime, mineral, slate notes. It has a great depth of flavor and mouthfeel. A blend of 63% Chardonnay and 37% Pinot Noir, resting on the lees for six years. Tasted amazing with the stuffed grapes leaves bringing out the lovely herbal notes.
I had never tasted a sparkling Gewürtztraminer before, so it was a pleasant surprise to taste the Atwater 2013 Sparkling Gewürtztraminer. This was produced with 90% Gewürztraminer and 10% Chardonnay, finishing with 1% RS, 5% barrel fermented, with a minimum of 4 years, 5 months lees contact. This wine was bursting with aromatics featuring honeysuckle and rose floral and spice aromas. Some notes of yeast, white pepper, apple, tangerine, lime, peach, kiwi, and slate. A great mouthfeel full of the aromas continuing into the flavor. Pairs well with many foods and can handle some spice.
The 2017 Sparkling Gewürztraminer from Bellangelo was also a delightful surprise, beautifully aromatic with spice and florals, including rose, honeysuckle, white citrus flowers, lychee fruit, and spices including allspice, nutmeg, and cardamom. Some petrol, pear, mango, and apple aromas. Great mouthfeel and ends on a slightly sweet note. Very food-friendly, pairing deliciously with cured meats and cheeses, and foods with a bit of spice.
We had the opportunity to taste the just about to be released Bellangelo 2018 Sparkling Gewürztraminer. It had also lots of great aromatics, including spice, florals, aromas following through into the flavor, notes of pear, apple, petrol, floral, spice, excellent with hard to pair feta with capers, spicy meats, and tapenade. Nice mouthfeel, nice finish, ending on a slightly sweet note. Both of the Bellangelo Sparkling Gewürztraminer’s were made in the Modern Method, the fruit picked a bit riper and to start up the secondary bottle fermentation, new yeast is added but no additional sugar source, only the grapes natural sugars in the wine.
Bellangelo 2016 Sparkling Riesling was also a lovely surprise, notes of minerals, petrol, citrus and ginger, great creamy mouthfeel and went very well with a multitude of foods, including cheeses (including with cumin seeds), grape leaves, roasted vegetables, and even candied nuts. Not surprising as both Riesling and Sparkling wines are really food-friendly choices.
Bellangelo 2014 Brut was made with 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir. It had strong yeast notes, pear and apple, a touch of cinnamon. As well as mineral, apple, fall leaves, earthy notes, and caramel apples. It spent 4 years with lees contact and a second disgorgment at six years. The wine is full-bodied, well-balanced, with a bit of reduction. Very food-friendly as well.
The 2017 Hosmer Blanc de Noir, had tropical fruit aromas, kiwi, strawberry, berries, apple, and pear, as well as some diesel and reductive qualities. It went great with a vanilla cake with butter icing and berries. It was voted as a great summer wine for “by the pool” enjoyment.
Another Hosmer 2017 sparkling wine, was made from 100% Cayuga White, (hybrid developed at Cornell University, a cross of Schuyler and Seyval Blanc varieties). This wine had aromas of yeast, (reminded me of fresh-baked croissants), white peach, apricot, bay leaf, lemon, and ginger. It was great with stuffed grapes leaves, meats, cheese, bringing out the nuttiness of the cheese.
Sparkling wine goes really well with a multitude of food, textures and flavors. That makes it the perfect beverage as a starter to any event that may start with a sampling of appetizers. Also, let’s be honest, there are few among us who wouldn’t smile when being handed a glass of bubbly, it makes us smile and brings an air of festivity to any occasion.
I am excited about the progress of quality that I have seen with sparkling wines of the Finger Lakes. They are really good and “improving with age.”
With experience, trials, and determination, producers are creating some truly world-class sparkling wines. Because of the high cost involved in producing these wines, many winemakers will tell you that creating these wines is truly a labor of love. They make these wines because they love them and believe in them. I believe in them as well.
The Finger Lakes region, like Champagne, is making quality sparkling wines that must be tasted and enjoyed as part of life’s special moments and for everyday enjoyment. I’d like to finish with one of my favorite quotes, seamlessly replacing the term champagne with sparkling wine…
“I only drink champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.” –Lily Bollinger, former manager of the Bollinger Champagne house