A Riesling Takes Its Time

EdibleManhattan-2.36“It wasn’t a nail-biter—it was a disaster.”

Thomas Laszlo, winemaker for Heron Hill Winery in the Finger Lakes, doesn’t say this for dramatic effect or to seek sympathy from a rapt listener. He says it because if you’re making wine in New York State, it’s just part of the day-to-day, the year-to-year. The so-called disaster he’s referring to is the 2005 vintage of the estate-grown Ingle Vineyard Riesling, but in the glass it’s about as far from failure as one could get. It smells floral with an exciting, spicy tickle of star anise and pear. On the tongue it has a sultry, lush quality balanced by tingly, long-lingering acidity—”Perky stuff!” offers Laszlo—with the taste of ripe cantaloupe and something gently wild, like clover honey. It’s so pretty that it graces lists at New York’s best and brightest eating and imbibing destinations: Le Bernardin, Terroir, Anthos, BLT Fish and Prime, the River Café, and on and on. This doesn’t smell like disaster. And if you consider the devastating frost that struck the vineyard in spring ’05, killing grapevine buds and cutting that fall’s harvest by more than half, it begins to smell like a downright New York–centric triumph.

Laszlo and owner John Ingle credit two “let’s take it slow” practices with this surprise success. While many Finger Lakes Riesling growers pick in mid-October, they believe in late-harvesting around Halloween, sometimes into November, which adds to the wine’s concentration but doesn’t diminish its bracing acidity.

“We’re on a cooler site and we ripen a week to 10 days later. We’re able to hang onto the grapes longer and not have the acidity go away, not have the wines turn into simple wines to be consumed young. In my opinion, a wine like that easily has a 15-year life span.” Renowned wine expert Jancis Robinson agreed when she tasted Heron Hill’s Rieslings in September 2007. “That’s what she was clocking in,” says Laszlo. “Six years old is when Ingle Vineyard starts to get really interesting. I wouldn’t have touched the 2005 two years ago—it would have been too acidic.”

The other timing technique Laszlo employed gave the wine that plush mouthfeel and balanced acidity. “A lot of guys just ferment [their Riesling] and separate it off the lees—the spent yeast cells and other particulate matter,” explains Laszlo. “They clean up their wines quite early. In 2005, I started much more extended lees contact, not filtering it right away and bottling it in July. You get more interesting, fuller flavors. It puts on a little more weight in the mouth and balances out that acidity, creating longer-lived wine with more aging potential. It requires a lot of attention, and ’05 was a breakaway year in terms of taking it to the limit.”

This year will be Laszlo’s eighth vintage, and since the frosty ’05 he seems to have caught a bit of a break by Finger Lakes standards—the last three years brought in above-average yields. But he knows that risk comes with the territory. “We’re in a cold climate and we don’t know when the next major weather event is going to come through,” he reasons. “I had offers to go to Sonoma, but that’s not interesting to me. I like underdog regions.”

Photo courtesy of Heron Hill Winery.