The following is a special report from our sister publication, Edible Finger Lakes. Be sure to check out their own fantastic blog, which often highlights one of our state’s great wine regions.
This February Colicchio & Sons got a wine director with a penchant for the flavors of the Finger Lakes: Thomas Pastuszak spent years studying at Cornell, then worked for five years up in Ithaca, namely as the general manager of a place called Stella’s. But before all that, he got his start working at his own grandpa’s bed and breakfast in another wine region–Peconic Lodge on Shelter Island—so rest assured he doesn’t skimp on the rest of the state.
At Colicchio & Sons his goal is to present wines with a sense of place, and the mineral-driven liquids coming out of that cool climate up where he lived and worked does that in spades. Below, he shares what’s really going on up in the Finger Lakes, as well as what to pair with a striped bass cheek, and where to get some schnitzel and a Riesling while touring the wine trails.
What’s going on in the Finger Lakes?
“A recent string of great vintages, older vines, better vineyard management and better technique, and now the introduction of people who have experience working in other wine regions, so there’s more international appeal. There’s also the cool climate factor, when people are looking more and more for food wine, not just big oaky wines to sit in front of a fireplace, but wines that will be good on the table. I think this is the start of great things to come from the Finger Lakes.”
Why you shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the $12 bottle made nearby
“The market controls where the prices go, but there’s also control from the vineyard. If you have, on the shelf, a $10 bottle of Riesling and a $25 bottle Riesling, you can’t help assume that the $25 bottle is going to be better quality because the price is higher, so there are going to be price adjustments by the winery to get their wine into that bracket. But they should be setting a price that both the market supports and is reasonable for the quality you’re getting.
But that $20 bottle of Finger Lakes Riesling in the store will most likely be a better-made wine than the $20 bottle of wine made in Alsace, France, because there are less producers in the Finger Lakes, who are more quality focused and who are making better wine at that price.”
What to expect from a Finger Lakes label
“Whether it’s a red or a white, these are cool-climate wines, which means you’re going to have freshness in the wine, there’s going to be more acidity. And that helps it achieve a better balance and be a better food wine. The acid in the wine helps to clean your palate whether it’s a burger and you’re having a hearty red or you’re having fish fry and you’re drinking a crisp white with it. And the specific terroir that’s coming from the wine—you’re going to be able to taste with cool climate, what type of soil based on the minerality that’s coming through the wine. Certain areas do well with this and the Finger Lakes is definitely one of them, where on the nose, on the palate, the wine speaks of a place because of the climate and because of the soil.”
Other cool climes taking cues
“It’s always funny to me that the Finger Lakes is teaching other people how to grow grapes and how to grow wine, but it’s true—there are a lot of cool climate regions in the U.S., like Virginia, like Michigan and Idaho, that are starting to make wine and want to do a better job of it.”
Labels that’ll always be on his list
Hermann J. Wiemer—”certainly in being the original pioneer and for consistent quality and again really producing wine that speaks of a specific place. Ravines, which is a younger winery but has the Old World mentality.”
Bloomer Creek—”Winemaker Kim Engle worked for Sheldrake for many years, but then he’s also sort of a mad scientist. He’s one of the few that are using native yeast strain—instead of inoculating the wine, he’s using the yeast that is found naturally on the grapes and sort of naturally occurring in the winery to start the fermentation of the wine, which is huge. Also doing late-harvest drop wine, a technique that’s practiced in Germany and in Austria where they’ll let the grapes sit longer on the vine. But instead of making it into a dessert wine, he makes it into a dry table wine.”
What grapes grow best there
“For white: Riesling, Chardonnay—because that’s another grape that really transmits soil and a sense of place very, very well. For red: Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Pinot Noir because it’s a little fickle and doesn’t really do well in warm climates; it prefers more austere climates. And then Cabernet Franc works well in cool climate.
Going into the fall, I’m focusing on Riesling and Pinot Noir from the Finger Lakes because there are more and more better examples being made. So I just picked up three or four Pinot Noirs just from Heart & Hands because they’re focusing on that grape and I think they’re making fantastic wines from it.”
When in the Finger Lakes, where to eat
Mercato “in Ithaca, downtown on Aurora—it’s fairly new, regional Italian, locavore. They pour Italian wines and the only American wines are Finger Lakes wine.”
Dano’s Heuriger on Seneca “has excellent wine at reasonable prices and the view there—I have very fond memories of going there for sausages and schnitzel and drinking fantastic Riesling and watching the sun go down—it’s just a really great place to be.”
Hazelnut Kitchen “They embody that locavore personality when it comes to bringing great food and great wine from the region together. Highly seasonal, mom and pop. They do great work.”
On The Finger Lakes Riesling flight, on offer at Colicchio & Sons till the end of September
“I wanted to put three different wines [listed below] that bring a different kind of character, different quality of the Finger Lakes,” which they pair with an appetizer of striped bass cheek (that melts like foie gras) over braised pork belly and husked tomato in a cayenne-laced tomatillo sauce.
Ravines 2008 Dry Riesling (Argetsinger Vineyard, Seneca Lake):
“Absolutely bone-dry, like liquid stone. All the grapes come from this limestone-rich vineyard on the southeast side of Seneca Lake. Argetsinger’s family has been running that vineyard for over 60 years and the vines are very old—they’re 40 to 60 year old Riesling vines, which is exceptionally old for the Finger Lakes.”
On the palate: “Sour apples, lime, very unripe peach sort of character. Then it’s all limestone—you sort of feel like you just went swimming in the gorge and then you splashed some water on a hot rock and you get that intense aromatic character of the minerals.”
Bloomer Creek 2009 Semi-Dry Riesling (Auten Vineyard First Harvest, Cayuga Lake): “Little more off-the-wall. Kim has vineyards that he makes very miniscule amounts of wine from. He’s very fastidious in the vineyard, does not use chemicals, very natural about his approach. There’s clay with some shale in it—the classic German soil composition for Riesling. In 2009, he made several passes over the vineyard. He harvested first in October, then he harvested second in November. So this wine is from grapes harvested in October.”
On the palate: “Made the traditional German-style with a little residual sugar, but a lot of acidity—it’s extremely fresh. It’s a constant play of sugar and acid, a sort of roller coaster dance on your palate. Aromatically, it’s a much more ripe expression—peaches, golden apple. It’s a better fall, winter Riesling.”
Hermann J. Wiemer 2009 Dry Riesling (Magdalena Vineyard, Seneca Lakes): “Magdalena is actually one of the oldest vineyards that Hermann Wiemer has, and it’s also from one of the warmest sites in the Finger Lakes. They make less than 100 cases of this each year.”
On the palate: “This is classic Wiemer-style—more subtle and graceful. It’s got a little residual sugar but very little; very mineral-driven. It’s a softer, rounder, elegant Riesling. It’s not ferocious; it’s much more mature and has potential for longevity. It has a great balance and can evolve over years, but is a great wine right now.”