By Finger Lakes Correspondent Jason Feulner
Morten Hallgren has an unusual background for a U.S. winemaker, especially one in the Finger Lakes. He was born in Denmark and moved to Provence in southern France after his father decided to purchase an ancient winemaking estate founded in 1307. Although Hallgren learned French winemaking techniques throughout his childhood, he decided to pursue science and attended university in the United States, majoring in astrophysics (yes, it seems that in this case it does take a rocket scientist to make wine).
Eventually, Hallgren found his calling and enrolled in an oenologist program at the Ecole Nationale Superieure d Agronomie de Montpellier. He graduated in 1995. As part of his thesis, Hallgren worked at Chateau Cos d'Estournel in the Medoc region of Bordeaux. During that time, he met some Texas winery owners who were touring France and decided to move back to the United States to become a winemaker in Texas.
Hallgren worked for a time at Cordier Estates in Texas and at Biltmore Estates in North Carolina. Surprisingly, he had not heard of the Finger Lakes until he pulled a bottle of Dr. Frank's riesling off a store shelf. Hallgren was impressed with the wine, did some research, and ended up becoming the head winemaker at Dr. Frank's in 1999. Hallgren and his wife Lisa founded their own winery, Ravines, in 2002 on the eastern shore of Keuka Lake.
I recently sat down with Morten Hallgren to gather some of his thoughts on winemaking in the Finger Lakes.
East vs. West
For Hallgren, the choice to focus his winemaking career in the Eastern United States was an easy one: "I belive that cooler climates produce balanced, food-friendly wines. California wines can be great as stand-alones, but some are too intense and one-dimensional."
While some winemakers view a cooler climate as an overwhelming challenge, Holgren sees an opportunity to produce wines that are complex and age-worthy. "Many of the celebrated wine regions in Europe are actually cool climates by definition. Burgundy, Champagne, even Bordeaux are cooler climates than many of the New World growing regions."
Hallgren compares the minerality and acidity of the Finger Lakes soil to that of Alsace, while the climate reminds him of most of Champagne.
A Delicate Touch
Ravines is a boutique winery, and it produces only 5,000 cases a year. Instead of emphasizing quantity, Hallgren focuses on hand-crafting his wines. The grapes he sources from eight different Finger Lakes vineyards are picked by hand. He uses various time-intensive techniques to create his wines, including whole press crush, punch downs, and cold soaks. As a rule, Hallgren never adds acid to his wine and tries to keep residual sugar to very low levels in all his wines.
For his chardonnay, Hallgren employs a technique called passito, selecting the finest grapes for a 4-7 week drying on trays. Passito concentrates the flavors of the grape, yet Hallgren controls the residual sugar by employing this method for only 20% of the grapes used in the total wine. The result is a dry chardonnay with a significantly enhanced floral flavor.
As for the Finger Lakes reds, Hallgren remains optimistic: "I have to work really hard for the reds. Reds here can have a refreshingly balanced fruit taste with fine tannins, but the mid-palatte can be lacking. Each red I produce has to be handled very, very carefully in order to excel."
Hallgren regards the future of the Finger Lakes by reflecting on the reality of the Old World. "In Europe, dozens of generations of winemakers have been able to focus on what works in all kinds of conditions. Most vines in the Finger Lakes are still first-generation, and we only guess at the qualities of the terroir based on short-term observations. There's still a lot to discover and improve."
Ravines wines continue to win critical praise, including a recent 90 rating by Wine Enthusiast for its 2005 riesling.
Hallgren's new project for the 2006 vintage includes a sparkling wine employing the Methode Champenoise. Normally reserved, Hallgren is adamant about the potential for sparklers in the Finger Lakes. "This is one of the best regions in North America for sparkling wines!" he states emphatically. "I think there is a great future there."