Sparkling teroldego? Chardonnay, partially fermented on its skins? You might think of northern Italy or the Caucasus region of Georgia. But I found those wines recently around the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York, during an all-too-short visit that challenged my perception of that region as Riesling country.
Everywhere I turned or sipped, I found experimentation and innovation. This is not just a good American wine region — it’s an exciting one. Riesling might be the star that established the Finger Lakes’ reputation, but grape varieties such as Grüner Veltliner, cabernet franc, Gewürztraminer and blaufrankisch (often called by its other name, lemberger) are increasingly common there.
Take that fizzy teroldego, for example, an American version of unassuming Lambrusco. I savored a glass at Microclimate, a tiny wine bar off a pedestrian walkway in Geneva, an idyllic town at the northern end of Seneca Lake. The wine is made by Red Tail Ridge, a relatively new winery that quickly developed a following for its exceptional Rieslings. The sparkling teroldego was, as many regional innovations are, an invention of necessity, says Red Tail Ridge co-owner and winemaker Nancy Irelan.
“Our game plan is focused on experimentation, with terolodego, blaufrankisch, dornfelder and a couple of other reds from cool-climate areas of Europe,” Irelan says. When her first vintage of teroldego in 2008 didn’t work out, she decided to try a second fermentation in bottle, using the traditional Champagne method.
“When I finally released it, it became very popular in New York City,” she says. Alas, the wine is dependent on the weather. At most, Irelan produces about 100 cases: “If Mother Nature gives me the right ingredients, I will make it.”
And that partially skin-fermented chardonnay? It hailed from Billsboro Winery, just south of Geneva on the western shore of Seneca Lake. Winemaker Vinny Aliperti has been experimenting with fermenting some of his chardonnay on its skins, in the manner of so-called “orange” or “amber” wines. That technique gives the white wine heft and tannin, but risks losing acidity and oxidizing the juice. Using partial skin fermentation, Aliperti has managed to capture lightning in a bottle: the extra weight of the skins with the freshness of modern wine. It’s not a wine for everyone, perhaps, but I found it compelling.
“I’ve been experimenting with skin fermentation of chardonnay for almost 10 years, mainly to build more mouth feel and texture without the use of new oak or tannin additions,” says Aliperti, who is also winemaker at Atwater Vineyards in addition to his own Billsboro label. With the 2014, the wine that impressed me, he increased the skin fermentation to 40 percent of the blend.
The experimentation evident in Red Tail Ridge’s sparkling teroldego and Billsboro’s 2014 chardonnay challenged my perception of the Finger Lakes as Riesling country. These wines, along with other light-bodied reds, scintillating chardonnays and celebration-worthy bubblies, reveal an exciting wine region that is still trying to define itself. It’s a beautiful place to visit, too, and Washington-area wine lovers should consider making the six-hour drive through Pennsylvania’s scenic Susquehanna Valley to spend a few days there. It might be the only way to taste some of these experimental wines.
Pascaline Lepeltier makes the trip regularly from Manhattan, where she is beverage director at Rouge Tomate restaurant. Lepeltier, a master sommelier and certified rock star of wine media, seeks out New York wines to complement the restaurant’s focus on local ingredients.
“The Finger Lakes is one of the best regions for white wines and sparkling wines in the United States, with also a great potential for reds,” Lepeltier says. The wines sell well in her restaurant, especially to younger diners and foreign customers interested in tasting local wines, she says.
While experimentation adds excitement to the Finger Lakes, the region’s heart remains with its Riesling. Familiar names such as Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer, Wagner, Fox Run, Anthony Road, Ravines and others have been joined in recent years by Forge Cellars, Kemmeter and Boundary Breaks as some of the region’s top producers. And some of those labels are available in local specialty wine stores, so those of us unable to trek north can still sample the excitement of the Finger Lakes.