Jefford on Monday: Exploring the Finger Lakes

Jefford on Monday: Exploring the Finger Lakes

Andrew Jefford canters through America’s ‘Wine Region of the Year’…

Red Cat, it was called. It came in a litre bottle, and was the colour of cherryade. The label showed a red cat reclining in a wooden bath while a white cat looks lovingly on from just over the fence: ‘the original hot tub legend’, read the caption.  “Historians note,” teases the website of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, the wine’s producer, “that as more Red Cat was consumed, less apparel was worn in the hot tub.”  Our touring party didn’t quite have time to put this to the test.

Cat is short for Catawba: the most widely grown grape in the USA in the first half of the nineteenth century.  The variety itself is white, but in Red Cat it is blended with 20 per cent red hybrids.  Research published in 2016 suggests that Catawba is an American wild vine crossed, perhaps by hazard, with Sémillon.  We bought it in order to understand what ‘foxiness’ might mean — a character, enigmatic until encountered, that native American vine species famously possess. Red Cat was dilute, low in alcohol (11%), sweet and mawkish – but there it was, that distinctive sweaty-catty, pork-trotter-like note.  Once sniffed, never forgotten.

Almost everything else my fellow-travelers and I tasted during a brief two-day tour through the Finger Lakes was fermented from vinifera grapes alone, but hybrid and native vines still account for 83 per cent of total plantings in New York State.  We shouldn’t, therefore, be too dismissive: the origins of viticulture here lie in these varieties, and indeed their genetic resistance to phylloxera makes all our wine drinking possible. A quick peek around the bottle store at Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca Lake also revealed that the imagery and casual, good-time appeal of Red Cat remains a living tradition, not a nostalgic throwback. This is wine as first cousin to cordials, juices, jams and jellies, which is what most of those native and hybrid vine grapes get used for.

The vinifera tradition in Finger Lakes is more recent.  Ukrainian émigré Dr Konstantin Frank was its pioneer, eventually growing 60 different vinifera varieties on land he first purchased in 1958, but take-up more widely in the region was slow and the old artisan native-vine traditions tenacious.  “When I arrived here in 1998,” remembers Morten Hallgren of Ravines Wine Cellars, “there were only two other trained winemakers in the entire region.”

This affable Franco-Danish American grew up on Ch Roubine in Provence and trained at Montpellier (where he says he learned “transparent winemaking”) before crossing the Atlantic, initially to study physics and astrophysics; he now farms 53 ha with his wife Lisa at two sites, the chief one on Seneca Lake and the other close to the winery and beautiful tasting barn at Keuka Lake.  (Hallgren was formerly winemaker at the Dr Konstantin Frank Winery.)

We got out of our bus into warm early October sunlight at Ravines’ barn, though the open doors of which mild breezes sent suspended white drapes dancing.  The air was moist, sweet and scented.  Squeeze it, I felt, and you could wring out all the freighted perfumes of summer: an idyllic scene.  A short chat with Morten about the weather soon set us straight. “We have more vintage variation than any other region I am familiar with,” he said. “Sometimes we question whether we have such a thing as a normal season.” “From May to October,” added Mel Goldman of Keuka Lake Vineyards the following day, “the climate here is pretty similar to Burgundy. The problem is that from October to May, it’s 20 degrees cooler.”

'hilled' vines

‘Hilled’ vines ahead of the winter freeze. Credit: Andrew Jefford. 

That hard winter freeze means that all vines here have to be ‘hilled’ in the autumn, a process involving mounding earth over their trunks to cover the graft union. They spend winter unpruned, as it’s safer; even so, there will be some winter kill every year, so each vine has multiple trunks (between two and five of them) to provide at least some fruitful buds. The first viticultural job every year, says Hallgren, is bud-counting, which means cutting wood and artificially bringing it on in the warmth of the lab to see what has survived and what hasn’t. Under normal circumstances, budburst out in the vineyards won’t happen until around May 1st.  “I don’t feel we’re safe from frost,” says Ryan William of the eponymous winery on Seneca Lake’s warmest spot down in the southeast, affectionately called ‘the banana belt’, “until the last full moon in May”.

Even summer isn’t straightforward: it’s usually too cold, too hot or too wet. Rain in the Finger Lakes is often localised and intense. The summer of 2018 has been hot and steamy — until mid-August, when violent rains began. In one single spot on the east side of Seneca Lake, between 228 mm and 381 mm (nine to fifteen inches) of rain fell in a single 24-hour deluge. It remained, however, warm after the rains, so disease pressures have been intense this year.  Idyllic it isn’t.

Nor has market creation been easy.  Morten and Lisa Hallgren’s aim was to create “dry, minerally Riesling”, but the locals were more used to gulping down sweet Red Cat in their hot tubs; had it not been for a few enlightened local restaurateurs, the Hallgrens might not have made it.  Now the message has got through, and often impressive vinifera-based wines are no longer a rarity; indeed Riesling can be head-turning.  The Finger Lakes was voted ‘Wine Region of the Year’ for 2018 recently in a poll conducted by 10Best.com, an affiliate of USA Today.

Morten Hallgren, of Ravines.

Morten Hallgren, of Ravines. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

Might viticulture hereabouts be, like wine-growing in England, a beneficiary of global warming?  Opinions are divided.  Mel Goldman, a self-declared optimist, thinks that “we are on average benefiting from climate change”, though he says it’s not the view of his winemaker Stacy Nugent.  Nor is it the view of her former boss when they were both working at Dr Frank’s, Morten Hallgren.  “I think it’s too erratic,” he notes.  “It’s my biggest fear, to be honest.  If we get buds starting to move in March, we’re in real trouble.”

I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that “almost everything else” we tasted apart from Red Cat was based on vinifera grapes.  The significant exception was the 2016 Pet Nat of Catawba from Chëpika – and we tasted this, significantly, not in a hot tub by a lake but in New York’s Union Square Café.  It’s made by star somm Pascaline Lepeltier with Finger Lakes winemaker Nathan Kendall.  In terms of style and symbolism, in other words, we are as far from Red Cat as it is possible to be.  Could this return of the native in hip guise suggest a twin-track future, both vinifera and indigenous/hybrid, for the Lakes?  I don’t know.  It’ll be fascinating to find out.


Tasting Finger Lakes wines


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More Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com here

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