Our responding question at the time seemed straightforward and air-tight: given that our Rieslings are beautifully balanced at around 11-12% alcohol; given that our cool climate blesses us with Rieslings which are nuanced and crisp; given their vibrant flavors that range from lime zest to mango purée to pineapple to tangerine; given that sometimes there are notes of fennel or bay leaf, and always some alluring river rock (who else can boast of river rocks?)…
Why would we want to copy a wine style from another part of the world, when our own Rieslings are so beguiling?
Fast-forward to last July, and you’d find Peter, Kelby and me at the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle, Washington, a winemaker-heavy think tank devoted to this most singular grape variety. We, along with several other winemakers from the Finger Lakes, had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Rieslings from around the world. Over the course of three days, we participated in a slew of blind tastings and seminars, and came to some interesting conclusions.
First of all, you’ll be proud to know how well our local Rieslings showed among those from long-established Rock Star producers. Without knowing what they were tasting, the crowd -- comprised of Riesling producers from Alsace, Germany, Austria, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US (both coasts as well as Michigan) -- extolled the enchanting flavors, beautiful acidity, purity and length of the Finger Lakes examples.
We weren’t at all surprised to rediscover how delicious our Rieslings are, but it was certainly nice to have our firmly-held beliefs reaffirmed in an international forum.
We were also not the least bit surprised to find some delicious, and different, expressions of Riesling being made around the world.
You might be surprised to learn that one of those styles was, yes, a low-alcohol sweet Riesling from Germany. What we admired in those examples was the balance achieved in a wine which should, by rights, taste like sugary juice. These wines had a lot, and I mean a lot, of sugar: around 60 to 70 grams per liter (or 6-7 percent, if that’s a more comfortable measurement for you). Their alcohol content ranged from 8-10 percent, and they achieved some delicacy, despite their fruit intensity. We were inspired.
We never want to stop making Rieslings in the styles Peter Bell has helped make internationally famous—very dry to semi-dry, with luscious flavors and clarity; perfectly balanced and with a moderate alcohol content (11-11.5 %). These wines are exquisitely poised as they go into the bottle in their youth, and they have consistently proven that they become even more delicious as they age. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to play with our boundaries.
At that conference, we surmised that our Finger Lakes fruit, given the right growing conditions, could produce a stunning wine in the low-alcohol style. As if by design, this summer provided what had to be ideal conditions. Lots of heat and sunlight produced grapes with a range of intense flavors—loads of lime and tangerine. We also had a good quantity of Botrytis, which presented as Noble Rot, concentrating the sugars and producing lovely marmalade aromas. We had high sugar accumulation, which meant we could ferment until we reached around 8% alcohol while still retaining quite a large quantity of sugar.
Of course, we had to take the plunge, albeit on a very small scale.
This past Friday, we stopped the fermentation on a few hundred gallons of low-alcohol Riesling by lowering its temperature below the comfort zone of yeasts. Boy, is it tasty! How it manages to taste like wine, despite having so little alcohol, is confounding but thrilling. It’s at once rich and delicate. It’s a Cool River of orange-fleshed aromas—papaya and mango and clementine -- with a lovely lashing of lime, which keeps the wine lively. Wait until you try it.
It won’t be a dead-ringer for German Riesling, but that’s a good thing. We always want our Rieslings to express their Finger Lakes character. The industry here is long past the point where we need to think of copying another region: our Rieslings have a sui generis standing that is acknowledged world-wide.
A few other wineries in the Finger Lakes are tinkering with this particular manifestation of old-world style winemaking, as well. Watch for these lower-alcohol wines, and let us know if you try any of them. We’d love to hear from you.
By: Tricia, Assistant Winemaker
Music of the Day:
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