Riesling is a German grape that grows very successfully in the Finger Lakes. Our cool climate is moderated by the deep glacial lakes, which help keep the vines from getting too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. As a result, the area Rieslings are winning international attention and competitions. The first successful planting of Vitis vinifera grapes (of which Riesling is one) came about under the direction of Dr. Konstantin Frank in 1962. Riesling is a very versatile grape and can be made into wines that range from bone dry to a dessert wine and everything in between. Here in the Finger Lakes we are still defining ourselves and able to experiment with many of these styles.
Wine is made when yeast digest the sugars in the grapes and produces primarily alcohol and carbon dioxide. Winemaking is both a science and an art, and there are many different directions that winemakers can take in the making of wine. I met with several winemakers in the Finger Lakes who are doing new and different things with their Rieslings. Some of their approaches include not adding sugar (chaptalization), aging the wine on the lees (which is the dead yeast and grape solids that fall to the bottom of the tanks), battonage, (stirring up the lees for contact with the fermenting juice), pressing whole clusters of berries (rather than de-stemming) and hand picking the grapes, rather than using a mechanical harvester.
Kris Mathewson is bringing wine to the Bellwether Cidery with his Rieslings. He has worked at several local wineries and realized his passion was in winemaking. He believes in paying for his grapes in a by-acre contract so that the farmers have a sense of personal value in the grapes produced. Quality versus quantity is a large factor in the finished product. Kris loves German wine, and his goal is to make different wines from different blocks of grapes in the vineyard. The terroir of an area is influenced by the soil, slope of the land, amount of sun and precipitation, each block of a vineyard can have its own terroir and mesoclimate. That produces grapes with different levels of ripeness, flavors, and aromas. Kris realizes the potential of these nuances in producing wines that are dry. He views his style as a German post-modern style.
His great love is Trockenbeerenauslese, (or TBA for short), literally meaning “dried berries selection.” TBA is a German term for medium to full bodied dessert wine. The grapes are affected on the vine by Botrytis (noble rot), reducing the moisture content of the grape and concentrating the sugars. It’s a very labor-intensive process, and the wines are priced accordingly. Eight to 90 percent of his wines are sold in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They received national attention before they got regional recognition.
Another type of Riesling wine that Kris is making is called “Pet Nat,” which stands for petulant naturel. This is bottled during the primary fermentation. It is a naturally sparkling wine with no sulfur added (which can kill wild yeast), no fining (for clarification of the wine), no filtering (for clarification and removal of yeast), and no additives. Kris is the second or third largest producer of Pet Nat in the U.S. The process produces a wine with a bit of volatility, kind of an intersection of beer, wine, and cider. Good with a hot dog, fun summer fare.
Nathan Kendall of Villa Bellangelo is also from the area. He wanted to learn as much as he could about cool-climate wines especially Riesling, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines, and bring that knowledge back to the Finger Lakes, so he packed his bags and worked harvests around the world.
He creates many different styles of Riesling wine from dry to sweet dessert wines He uses new and traditional styles including a Georgian-style Riesling, which is how they made wine thousands of years ago, white wine fermented and aged on the skins. Nathan also takes each vineyard and splits it up into multiple fermentations to determine the best representation of that vineyard. He explores the qualities of each, with some wines remaining stand-alone representatives of the vineyard, while some will be blends of wines from several vineyards. It’s an opportunity to see if they play well together or are unique on their own, all part of the Riesling Experience offered by Bellangelo.
Steve Shaw of Shaw Vineyard started making wine after planting his “Gold Seal” clone Chardonnay vines in 1981. It was “garage wine” (made in the garage; there was no winery at the time). He made about 15 gallons of wine that year.
Steve started paying attention to wine culture and wine making during his teen years. He was influenced early by friendships with the early vinifera pioneers Dr. Frank, Charles Fournier, Hermann Wiemer, Guy DeVaux, and Walter Taylor. He found the Old World cool-climate wines that those men introduced him to be something he really enjoyed.
Steve has focused on late-harvested, dry Riesling and off-dry Rieslings. All of his Rieslings are estate grown in shale heavy, flinty, clay soils that are well drained. Steve loves what Mother Nature provides to him from his vineyards. He grows in a sustainable way and appreciates Botrytis. All of his vinifera varieties are hand picked, and he likes a wild-vine style of growing. He also uses whole cluster, light pressure pressing, with extended lees contact in stainless steel. Steve prefers releasing his Rieslings as older, aged bottles, proving how well our Rieslings can age.
Steve has been working with lower alcohol styles and spontaneous fermentations (wild yeast), which seem to lead to a fatter mouth feel and more complexity. Some of these fermentations are taking six to10 months (a long fermentation) at fairly low temperatures. He works with the land to create Rieslings into a truly elegant, grand and powerful wine. §