October 31, 2012

Appel on Wine: Ravines Riesling from Finger Lakes rings dry and true

By Joe Appel

The Finger Lakes region, south of Lake Ontario on New York's western shelf, is in the midst of a resurgence. The northern Europe of American wine making, a sort of combination of Germany, Alsace and Trentino-Alto Adige, this area has an increasing number of wine makers successfully making good on long-standing hopes for world-class-wine status.

These wines show the pronounced acidity and balanced tones that result from the longer hang time available to thinner-skinned grapes growing in relatively cool climates. Ripening occurs gradually, and fruit and mineral aspects can evolve in tandem. The emphasis is on layered, assertive aromatics, lucid textures and precise flavor expressions.

There's plenty of mediocre wine from the Finger Lakes too. That's because the area has historically been planted to native or French-American hybrid grapes, not vitis vinifera, to produce grape juice and extravagantly sweet wines. Those are still made – the majority of vineyard acreage in the Finger Lakes is still planted to Concord, Cayuga, Seyval Blanc and other traditional grapes – but more land is being planted to Riesling and suitable red grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir (jury's still out on the suitability there) and the Trentino-born Teroldego.

This endeavor is built on the efforts of such pioneers as Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer, who in the middle of the last century determined that Riesling was well suited to the Finger Lakes' cool climate and could be supported by the temperature-moderating effects of the cat-scratch-shaped lakes' depths.

It may be a while before those of us who don't live in the area or tour its wine route consistently seek out Finger Lakes wines. Consensus among Maine wine distributors I talk to is that while there are a few Finger Lakes wines available here, they rarely sell well.

(Riesling from some of the greatest estates in Germany are available here too, for not much more money, and while there's a small avid group of fans for these wines, they're no market-share threat either.)

Blame the overall indifference to German wine on a combination of consumers' misunderstanding of the role of sweetness (or wrongheaded assumption that all Riesling is sweeter than all Sauvignon Blanc, say) and a generalized "fear of umlauts."

But whence the fear of New York wine? Probably a combination of New York's somewhat fusty wine marketing efforts, the legacy of Manischewitz and an assumption that nothing this close to home could actually be very good.

It's easy enough to correct all these misconceptions, because Maine is now lucky enough to have available what many people consider some of the best wines from the Finger Lakes – those of Ravines Wine Cellars.

Morten Hallgren, who owns the business with his wife, Lisa, grew up in Provence on a wine-producing estate, then went on to make wine and study enology in France before coming to the U.S. and eventually landing in New York state. He was chief winemaker for Vinifera Wine Cellars (founded by Frank), before starting Ravines in 2000.

Consider the Ravines Dry Riesling 2011 ($18, Crush). I adore Rieslings with sweetness, but I also adore the Ravines' serious dryness. Some "dry Riesling" still has noticeable residual sugar to balance the high muscular acidity inherent to the grape – indeed, the marvelously luxurious, fruit-focused Hermann Wiemer Dry Riesling 2006 ($18, National) is one of these – but the Ravines wins the truth in advertising award for dryness.

This dryness is not so much citric or herbal, as in a Sauvignon Blanc, as it is stony and salty. Subtle white flower notes help the wine avert the danger some dry Rieslings veer toward, when bereft of natural sweetness they stand so firm as to become grim. The Ravines is that rare thing: A dry Riesling with a smile.

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