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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Riesling Revival

On September 1st of this year, I prepared a light lunch for two: a ceviche of pristine divers scallops, marinated in fresh lime juice, a sachet of jalapeños, and diced red papaya. I served the piquant ceviche with watercress and Belgian endive salad dressed with an orange vinaigrette, and two artisan breads: a simple “peasant,” and an olive ciabatta. I knew exactly what white wine I wanted to accompany this simple meal: a fine dry to semi-dry Riesling. A low-alcohol, high-acid, light-bodied, unoaked, fresh, fruity, flowery, flinty, tart Riesling, redolent of peaches, apricots and green apples, with a sweet attack on the palate and a lengthy, complex, dry finish.
I returned to the table with a well-chilled bottle of a very fine dry Riesling, a wine with the exact aroma and flavor profile I have been seeking. A wine to slake the thirst and engage the spirit. Such a fine Riesling must surely come from the Mosel or Rhine regions of Germany? (Danka sheine, but Nein.) From the North Coast of California? (No way. We like oak and alcohol bombs made in the hot sun, dude.) Oregon? (Nope. We’re all about Pinot Noir now, man.) Washington State? (Riesling is just another grape, folks. We can plant all of them and we do.) OK, then Australia? (G’day, but wrong, mate! Our Riesling is unique, but it’s a warm and sexy flesh pot, if you get my meaning. Right? Right?)
The $12 Riesling at our table, which transformed a simple lunch into a small feast, was produced in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Vineyards 2006 Estate Bottled Dry Riesling, grown along the banks of Keuka Lake, made the food taste sooooo good, and made us smile with every refreshing sip.
I’m letting you in on a currently not-so-well-kept secret: Some of the finest Riesling wines in the New World – especially dry and semi-dry versions, but also some rare and wonderful sweet Rieslings – are to be found in the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA), specifically along the banks of Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake.
Why is the Finger Lakes a perfect setting for growing Riesling grapes? Riesling is a grape that is difficult to cultivate successfully, but ironically, the varietal grows best along the banks of large rivers in the coldest regions of the wine world. Germany is the perfect example. It is the last outpost for grape growing in the Northern Hemisphere. The northern part of the country is just too cold to grow any wine grapes, but Riesling shines in south central Germany, in the river valleys of the Mosel Saar Ruwer anbaugebiet (wine region), and the Rhine River anbaugebeite of Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz.
Cold-weather Riesling vines flower or “bud” late, which is good for avoiding spring frosts, but the vine also ripens late, leaving the fruit exposed to the possibility of late summer rains and early fall frosts. When nature cooperates, Riesling develops maximum fruit flavors and maintains its racy acidity.
Warm-weather “early harvest” Riesling, with its under-ripe, herbaceous, and dull flavor profile is a joke at the expense of our tastebuds. This is especially true after we grow accustomed to the snappy, crisp, pure flavors of German and German-style Riesling, which is the style of the Finger Lakes.
The much-praised Rieslings of Austria lack the green fruit acids that the colder German weather provides. With few exceptions, if California stopped producing Riesling tomorrow, Riesling lovers would not even notice, and although Australians love their “fat” Rieslings, when was the last time you heard anybody in this country rave about the great Clare Valley Riesling that they had last night with dinner?
Oregon has chosen not to focus on Riesling; Washington State makes decent Riesling (the actual grape may not be the true Riesling, which is the case in many places throughout the world, including Australia, Austria, and California), but it usually just misses scaling the plateau of fresh green apple crispness, due to the warmth provided by the “rain shadow” of the Cascade Mountains.
Even Alsace, France (formerly Germany), which makes bone dry but full-bodied Riesling with higher alcohol levels than almost anyplace else in Europe, makes a kind of rich and spicy wine that lacks the crispness many Riesling lovers adore. Alsace vineyards also live in a rain shadow, here provided by the Vosges mountains. Alsace winemakers put Gewürztraminer first for quality and Riesling second, and they are right to do so.
In the New World, Riesling makes wonderful wines in the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia (officially the coldest place on earth that grows grapes), and also in the Niagara Peninsula region (mostly in Ontario). Still, when the Riesling producers of the Finger Lakes do their best, they are all but untouchable for quality (and with a very fair price, to boot).
We have two men to thank for both the existence and the excellence of Finger Lakes Riesling: Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier. Dr. Frank, who emigrated with his family from the Ukraine to the United States in 1951 at the age of 52 and with $40 in his pocket, held advanced degrees in viticulture and enology and had taught these subjects in Russia. When World War II ended, Frank managed farms and vineyards for the American Occupation Forces. His first job in America was washing dishes at the Automat in New York City. He next secured a job in Geneva, New York at the New York State Experiment Station, where he hoped to apply his knowledge of grapes and grape growing, but instead was given a menial laborer’s job, which lasted two years.
Frank wondered why winemakers in the Finger Lakes were growing native grapes - vitis labrusca, such as concord and catawba – best for jams and jellies - and inferior hybrids, which are crosses of labrusca and vitis vinifera (the most widely-planted hybrid in New York State is Seyval Blanc). He argued that if New York was to develop a reputation for quality wines, it must embrace the cultivation of vinifera.
Frank was told that it was too cold, especially in the Finger Lakes, to harvest vinifera successfully. This seemed like madness to him, since he had propagated Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir in Odessa, “where the temperature goes to forty below, where when we spit, it froze before it hit the ground.” For three hundred years, various people had tried to successfully cultivate vinifera vines in New York State. Because of so many failures, Dr. Frank was widely ridiculed for his ideas.
Charles Fournier was another immigrant, but by way of Champagne, France, where he was the chief winemaker at Veuve Clicquot. Fournier became the president of the giant Gold Seal Vineyards in Hammondsport, and had been in that job since 1940. In 1953, Konstantin Frank’s ideas about planting and cultivating vinifera in the Finger Lakes came to Fournier’s attention. Knowing the Champagne region, which grew only vinifera - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay - was seven degrees latitude north and colder than the Finger Lakes, Fournier realized that Frank was very likely correct, and hired him as a consultant for Gold Seal.
Frank knew that he needed to find very hearty rootstock that, when grafted to the vinifera vine, would ripen the vine wood before winter’s first frosts. Fournier and Frank discovered such roots in the garden of a convent in Québec, Canada, where they found Pinot Noir growing. Frank planted thousands of grafted vines over the next five years, and in 1957 he was proven to be correct. With February temperatures of 25 degrees below zero, both the Labrusca and hybrid crops were decimated. Dr. Frank’s Riesling and Chardonnay buds showed minimal damage during the winter, and when harvest came in late September, the vines produced healthy grapes at the rate of three to four tons per acre – a yield that is near-perfect for both quality and commercial viability.
Fournier began to plant vinifera vines at Gold Seal as fast as he could secure rootstocks, and Dr. Frank went on to establish his own Vinifera Wine Cellars right up the road from Gold Seal, which has since been absorbed into a huge corporate wine enterprise.
Konstantin Frank, who worked everyday in his Keuka Lake vineyards and winery until he was 82, died in 1985 at the age of 86. His son, Willy, now 77, and Dr. Frank’s grandson, Fred, now operate Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars and Château Frank, where Fred makes méthode champenoise sparkling wines.
The Frank family is not alone in producing superior Riesling in the Finger Lakes. Consistently fine Riesling is produced on Keuka Lake by Heron Hill, and on Seneca Lake by Chateau LaFayette-Reneau, Lamoreaux Landing, Fox Run, and most notably, Hermann Wiemer. Wiemer is a native of Bernkastel, a famous vineyard district in the Mosel Saar Ruwer wine region, and is a master of Riesling. In addition to several luscious styles of still wines, Wiemer produces a very fine sparkling Riesling. He also maintains a nursery from which he sells 300,000 vinifera vines to vineyard owners all over the United States and Canada.
A hundred years ago, Riesling wines from the Mosel and Rhine regions of Germany were the most expensive and most sought-after wines in the world. A lot has happened during that time to diminish the reputation of Riesling, including labeling many inferior wines as Riesling, when they were actually made from grapes that had only a passing familiarity with the greatness that Riesling can achieve on the vine and in the bottle. Konstantin Frank, however, planted the famous Clone 90, which is Riesling from the Giesenheim University and Enology Research Station in Germany. These vines, now almost fifty years old, and younger Clone 90 vines cultivated by Hermann Wiemer, continue to provide bud wood for Riesling vineyards throughout the Finger Lakes and beyond.
My simple Sunday ceviche lunch for two went very well, and I was, for just a moment, quite pleased with myself for bringing an unexpected but great wine to the table. My ego was checked, but my instincts were confirmed the next Wednesday, when, in the September 4 issue of the New York Times, wine journalist Frank Prial wrote “Riesling, the American Way.” Prial praised the Finger Lakes as the most exciting place for Riesling in the United States, and went on to report the results of a tasting of American Rieslings.
Four of the top ten wines were from the Finger Lakes, including #1, #2, and #3 (all dry), and winner for Best Value. In third place, Hermann Wiemer ($13); in second, Chateau LaFayette Reneau ($13). And the #1 Wine AND the Best Value? Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Vineyards 2006 Estate Bottled Dry Riesling ($12), the very wine that had graced my table just three days earlier.
I am beginning to hear people murmuring about growing tired of poorly-made and/or overly-expensive Chardonnay (by the way, Finger Lakes Chardonnay at its best, is very good; Chardonnay is another cold-weather grape). If Chardonnay is losing ground, it should be to Riesling. There is no more food-friendly white wine than Riesling, especially in its dry and semi-dry incarnations. Riesling is the wine that works with a wide variety of foods, including spicy food and salty food, and food with some acidity or a touch of natural sweetness. So if you are going to have, among many other dishes, a mild curry, a Hunan or Szechuan poultry dish, or ceviche, or seared scallops with tomatillo salsa, or sashimi, or pork loin, or barbecue pork, or poached ocean fish I a lemon grass broth, or pan-fried brook trout, or fried chicken, or grilled vegetables, or a tomato salad with tangy goat cheese, and especially smoked fish or smoked white meats, dry to semi-dry Riesling, especially from the Finger Lakes, would be my first choice.
With all the good news about Finger Lakes Riesling it is surprising that less than two per cent of New York State’s vineyards are planted with Riesling. In fact, the New York State wine industry (with the total exception of vinifera-based Long Island), is still based largely on native Labrusca varietals and hybrids (about 80 per cent of total production).
What would Konstantin Frank say?

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