Veraison

One of the most visible signs of harvest approaching is when the red grape varieties begin to develop their color, in a process called veraison. The term in French means “the onset of ripening,” and everywhere in the world where grapes are grown it is accompanied by excitement and a buzz of activity.

Table grapes at veraison.

Table grapes at veraison.

Veraison actually started about a month ago in the Finger Lakes. Each varietal marches to its beat of its own drum, with the unknown table grapes shown above from last weekend well on there way, while Cabernet Sauvignon right across the street is less farther along. Concords in my yard just have a few berries per cluster showing signs of pink.

Cabernet Sauvignon at veraison.

Cabernet Sauvignon at veraison.

From the time berries form until veraison, energy goes into cell division. At veraison, changes occur in the cells so that energy goes into sugar development. At the same time, malic acid degrades, leaving tartaric acid as the dominant acid component. For Chardonnay and red wines, it is often desired to convert tartaric acid back to malic by malolactic fermentation, but more about that when we actually get there.

One of many tools to scare away birds.

One of many tools to scare away birds.

Unfortunately, birds and deer also know something is up, in part visually and also due to changes in the aromas in the vineyard. Growers have a number of tricks at their disposal, such as these modern versions of scarecrows, propane powered cannons, and netting.

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Dialing for Grapes

Based on data collected by Cornell, the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets has notified wineries that they may purchase out of state grapes due to this year’s winter damage. State law allows this on a per-varietal basis when the loss for the varietal is 40% or more. The affected grapes are:

  • Brianna
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Chardonnay
  • Frontenac
  • Gamay Noir
  • Gewurztraminer
  • La Crescent
  • Lemberger
  • Merlot
  • Noiret
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir
  • Riesling
  • Syrah

Several of these are surprising, for instance Frontenac and La Crescent that are supposedly winter hardy down to minus 33 degrees. A spot check of weather recorded up north (Watertown) and out west towards Buffalo, where wineries producing with these grapes are situated, did not uncover anything near that. It would be interesting to know more about the affected wineries and their fruit sources.

Although I have come to believe that decks tend to be stacked against grape suppliers as opposed to purchasers, New York does have a rigorous process for granting waivers. A winery seeking to use out of state fruit must list 3 growers from which it tried to purchase, and the amounts must be in line with what it has purchased in the past. Further, if the wine is less than 75% New York grapes, it cannot carry a New York or regional appellation. The benefit to the winery is that it can at least continue to participate in the wine market. Alas, all the grower has to fall back on is crop insurance.

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The Orange Wine

Several months ago while visiting a local business, we had occasion to pick up an issue of the excellent Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine and discover something that was almost shocking: an article about the Finger Lakes’ first orange wine. We qualify the word “almost,” noting that the winemaker behind the wine was Steve Shaw, about whom nothing should shock.

Steve is a longtime grower who decided to open up his own winery on the west side of Seneca Lake in 2002 (the tasting room opened in 2004). He has a passion for long-aged, complex wines, one measure of which is that many of his current red releases are 2007 and earlier. He is a fixture in the community, is opinionated (in a good way) and funny, and events are always better when he is there. In the spring when we hosted a Canada/New York throw-down, his 2007 Cabernet Franc was hands down the choice for the Finger Lakes entry. And when responding to visitors’ skepticism about the ability of the Finger Lakes to make excellent red wine, the three word answer “Visit Shaw Vineyards” is much easier than a more long winded discussion.

As to what makes an orange wine, the answer is conceptually simple and, no, it is not a wine made from oranges. To make a white wine, the usual process is to crush the grapes, discard the skins, and ferment the juice. For red wine, the skins are kept with the juice for a period of time (perhaps 30 days or so), with the tannins and pigments becoming part of the finished wine. Thirty days of skin contact makes a wine red, while one day of skin contact results in a rosé. An orange wine is the product of a white grape fermented in the style of red wine. The orange tinge results in part from components in the skin as well as oxidation.

It turns out that orange wines are traditional in eastern Europe (notably Georgia), where fermentation is done in a clay pot buried for several months, after which the juice is separated from the solids. Interestingly, one of the grapes often used for orange wine is Rkatsitelli, which is made here by McGregor Vineyard and Dr. Konstantin Frank. Orange wine has been finding its way in Europe and California where it is embraced or vilified by critics. Whatever, eh?

Even the kitty knows something is up with this.

Even the kitty knows something is up with this.

Our quest for the Shaw orange wine had some fits and starts, since on our first sortie the wine was not yet released because our Federal Government had not yet approved the label. We had to drown our sorrows in an excellent newly released 2007 Merlot. Finally, bottles appeared on the shelf and we had the opportunity to taste and purchase. Steve has actually produced two 2013 orange wines, the first of which is a Sauvignon Blanc, and the second (to be released in a few weeks) will be a Gewürztraminer. The SB orange had 32 days with full skin contact with multiple daily punch downs before being lightly pressed and combined with 8% Gewürztraminer, also made in the Orange style. It was racked from two stainless steel drums after 7 months on the fine lees, and bottled it directly without fining or filtration.

A sample of the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc in the tasting room revealed layers of complexity to be discovered, and aside from purchasing the 3 bottle limit of orange, we also sampled the 2012 regular Sauvignon Blanc. The 2012 and 2013 vintages were miles apart, but the fruit sources were the same and one could at least tell that the two wines were related. This evening, we put one of the orange wine bottles in the refrigerator for Steve’s recommended 30 minutes and let the experience manifest itself in the glass.

Well! The nose is beautiful, with hints of sherry (from oxidation), but with more overt layers of honey, peach, flowers, and other goodies. On the tongue there was a degree of tannins from the skin that would never appear in a straight white wine, but the overall effect was succulent, complex, balanced, and delicious. While orange wine may never be more than a sideshow, Steve in definitely onto something, and it turns out that Keuka Lake Vineyards will soon release an orange Vignoles. Between barrel fermented Riesling at Domaine LeSeurre, barrel fermented Gewürztraminer at Keuka Spring, and Steve’s orange wine, our year of innovation and invention continues. Bring us more mad scientists!

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Make It Stop Already

Yet another weather system in moving into the Finger Lakes the next two days with the potential to drop another 1 to 3 inches of rain. According to the Cornell University Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC), the temperature hasn’t been far off from the long term averages, but the summer has been decidedly wet, with flooding experienced in Ithaca, Penn Yan, and other areas in the Finger Lakes.

*through August 11
Month Average Temperature Total Precipitation
Normal 2014 Normal 2014
May 55.4 56.4 3.19 4.44
June 64.6 65.1 3.99 5.14
July 68.8 67.8 3.85 3.83
August 3.63 2.66*

More troubling has been severe storms we have experienced, including several bouts of hail and one spate of tornadoes.

Hail on a deck near Ithaca, courtesy Finger Lakes Weather and Sharon Heller.

Hail on a deck near Ithaca, courtesy Finger Lakes Weather and Sharon Heller.

While no farmer ever wants to see hail, this type of precipitation is particularly tough on grapes. The photo below is probably of a native American varietal, as indicated by the loose clusters. Vinifera tends to be more tightly clustered, and a puncture in the skin of a grape on the outside of the cluster allows juice to stream inside where, with nowhere to go, it produces rot. The juice from compromised clusters is decidedly, in the words of Alton Brown, “not good eats,” and they must be discarded or the grapes  sorted before pressing – an arduous and expensive process for which there is little time during harvest.

Hail damaged grapes, courtesy Finger Lakes Grape Program.

Hail damaged grapes, courtesy Finger Lakes Grape Program.

At this point in the season, the grapes have all the water they need. Some stretches of sunshine and low humidity would be most helpful.

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Merlot Strikes Back

As some have already guessed, the subject here is a reference to the movie Sideways, in which the Miles character disses Merlot in favor of Pinot Noir and, as a result, the movie producers unwittingly cost Merlot producers millions of dollars due to lost sales. The setting for this unplanned payback was this weekend’s annual Merlot and Mignon vertical at Keuka Spring Vineyards (KSV). As with their Shrimp and Chardonnay and the recently added Going Gewürtz events, it is a fun opportunity to see how recent vintages compare and are holding up, and to share food and friendship.

Menu with tasting notes.

Menu with tasting notes.

Our emcee and Keuka Spring winemaker is August Deimel, a fairly recent graduate from the Cornell graduate program, an incandescent ball of energy, and a bellyful of laughs per minute. August introduces the program by asking the question, “why Merlot?” and answers it by stating that in his experience making KSV wine with KSV fruit, Merlot has proved both consistent and flexible. It makes a consistently good varietal, and is also included in KSV’s two red blends – Miller’s Cove Red and Epic. Before returning to Pinot Noir, a brief review of the program.

Vertical awaiting enjoyment.

Vertical awaiting enjoyment.

All of us were delighted with the bounty, which included Merlot from 2007 and each succeeding year through 2012. The wines were served in two flights, with the younger three (2010, 2011, and 2012) served first. They were accompanied by a plate of food, the pièce de resistance of which was co-owner Len Wiltberger’s famous Filet Mignon slider. Len has been making this recipe for years, bonds with it as a mother hen does with her chicks, and may be as proud of the sliders as he is of the successful business he and wife Judy built with their daughter Jeanne and son Mark.

Of the first flight, 2010 and 2012 were fairly similar, since they came from fairly similar hot and dry seasons. Both had nice cherry noses, were well balanced, and exhibited a nice finish. The 2011 was the product of an odd wet-at-the-end year that caused growers fits, and it had a decidedly earthy nose. Surprisingly, it seemed to be more complex, and it kept kicking around in the finish doing all sorts of interesting things. As to why, August said (2011 was his first vintage) that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good considering the challenges of that season, but he was certainly happy.

Turning to the second flight, I tried the 2009 first. The year was pretty bad for reds since it was so cool, but I have been really surprised sometimes. Today was not one of them, as the wine to my taste was just OK. The 2008 was quite good, and the 2007, which I have had several times, is one of a kind. It is still deep garnet, still has amazing fruit and tannin, and is simply the complete package.

At the end of the event, the conversation returned to a remark August had made at the outset, when he talked about the history of KSV and expressed gratitude to Len and Judy for allowing him to drop Pinot Noir. One of the guests asked why, and this turned into the best Pinot Noir rant ever. Two minutes into it, I was kicking myself for not recording it, but the highlights included:

  • Pinot Noir is a genetically damaged grape.
  • It is falling apart in the vineyard due to genetics, and once you make it, it can fall apart in the barrel.
  • Some people like to chase Moby Dick, and some like to sleep at night.
  • And so on.

It was a devilish rant that had all of us in stitches, but it actually begs a serious and controversial question, which is: of the grapes we are growing in the Finger Lakes, which should we drop?

The answers vary dramatically between winemakers. Whereas August thinks Merlot is consistent, others view it as finicky. Whereas Pinot Noir certainly is, others are totally committed to it. Some say we should lose Gewürtzraminer, because we have a tough time competing with Alsace and it’s less popular with customers. We also have varietals like Sangiovese that only do well in good seasons and are less winter hardy, so why do it? Bob Madill, who is a Finger Lakes luminary, was recently quoted wondering (paraphrase alert) if we should even be bothering with reds. And aside from plusses and minuses of particularly varietals, we are also prone to criticism from wine journalists that we are doing too much and don’t know what we want to be when we grow up.

These are tough questions for wineries, and they are tough questions for the Finger Lakes wine industry. Regardless of the outcome though, the journey is fascinating.

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Garlic With a Side of Heroism

This weekend was the annual Glorious Garlic Festival at Fox Run Vineyards. Fox Run is one of the oldest wineries on Seneca Lake. It has a large and varied product line including dry and sweet wines and some special reserve bottles, and the Fox Run Riesling is a component of the Tierce, which is a collaborative venture with Red Newt and Anthony Road. The winery was acquired by Scott Osborne in 1993, who entered the wine industry from a career in real estate development in California and later moved back to upstate New York where he had grown up. He had the good fortune to hook up with winemaker Peter Bell shortly after he got started here, and the two have had an enormously successful partnership. We will return to Scott and a note on heroism later.

The Town Pants: Celtic group extraordinaire.

The Town Pants: Celtic group extraordinaire.

Although the festival proper is Saturday and Sunday, the preceding Thursday evening features the annual visit of the Celtic band The Town Pants. The band has been around for quite some time with Canadians Duane and Dave Keogh at the helm. Other musicians have floated in and out, and one of the Pants fans’ spectator sports is to see if last year’s female fiddle player is still with the band or has been replaced with someone else. This time the answer was replaced, with newcomer Nellie Quinn from Victoria, BC, skillfully filling the role and seeming to thoroughly enjoy herself. The group plays a variety of genres — ballads, reels, etc, but except for occasional forays into other subjects, the songs tend to center around drinking. And why not?

Portable demo green energy station with turbine and solar panels.

Portable demo green energy station with turbine and solar panels.

We returned on Sunday to visit the vendors and purchase some terrific fresh garlic to get us through the winter. It turns out that garlic is amazingly variegated and complex. There are German varietals, French, Italian, and others. There are red garlics, white, soft neck, hard neck, and others. Some are relatively sweet, some spicy and hot, some that will start mild and then bite your tongue off. And regardless, anything you can buy fresh puts most supermarket garlic (imported and chemically treated) to shame. We pick up a couple of dozen bulbs, which should be good into early next year if kept cool and dry.

One of many braids for sale.

One of many braids for sale.

Closing the sale.

Closing the sale.

Regarding Scott and heroism . . . New York State does not allow the sale of wine in supermarkets. Beer is OK, but wine and spirits are the province of licensed stores. Every so often, a push is made to allow supermarkets to sell wine, and about four years ago legislation to do this got pretty far along. Suffice it to say, serious money found its way to Albany to preserve the status quo, and the wine and liquor retail business raised the specter of stores failing, teenagers getting drunk on Chardonnay, and all sorts of bad things happening, despite proof from other states that supermarkets and well run wine and liquor stores can coexist.

Among the wineries, it is probably safe to say that almost all were in favor of broadening their markets, but few came out in public risking the ire of the wine and liquor stores and their distributors. Scott Osborne was one of the few that spoke out, and as a result Fox Run lost about half of its distribution to stores, and the measure did not even pass. Scott and the Fox Run team worked hard to recover from this and by all indications did, but it was sad to see his business suffer for being honest and correct. If there is a single alcohol related law on the books that actually protects consumers and consumer choice, please post here, and we will be happy to share. In the meantime, Scott continues to be a hero in our book.

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The Party Season (Part I)

After months of seemingly endless waiting for summer to arrive, it is moving along way too fast. Our area is blessed not only by having terrific wineries, but also by having imaginative owners and staff who supply much more fun in the form of special events than can reasonably reasonably be consumed. One such event is the summer steak roast at Rooster Hill Vineyards.

Pizza Before Mean

This ever popular event is a chance to enjoy and also to reconnect with RHV wine club members who live out of the area. The 5:00 sign pictured above is appropriately light of heart, but there is nothing as serious as having guests party too hard. It can result is human tragedy for those involved as well as risking everything a winery owner has invested in the form of money and ridiculously hard work. To RHV’s credit, part of our admission is an envelope containing tickets for 5 tastes and 2 glasses of wine. Water, lemonade, and iced tea are available, and so we space out our fun during the pre-meal pizza, the grilled steaks, and various other diversions such as auctions, guess the number of corks in the jar, and so forth.

One of the guests who took the Margaritaville theme seriously.

One of the guests who took the Margaritaville theme seriously.

The party also coincided with the recent release of a few new RHV reds – a Cabernet Franc and a Cabernet Franc/Lemberger blend. Also available but not yet released is the 2013 Pinot Noir, which in its infancy is a beautiful cherry bomb. All in all, a terrific afternoon of fun and friendship, but summer should really slow down.

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