Photos by Morgan Dawson Photography
If you're the type of wine drinker who tunes out when people start talking about "dessert wine," I'm going to ask you to abandon your prejudice. This is the story of a wine that is way beyond a simple after-dinner drink. With apologies to the many nicely made ice and dessert wines in New York state, the TBA is so much more than that. And in this case, it's a wine that a German-born winemaker Johannes Reinhardt dreamt about for years, wondering if he'd even get the chance to attempt it. The conditions had to be perfect. The staff had to be prepared for an intense 48 hours. Their feet would do the work traditionally done by the crusher.
All of those factors came to pass one year ago, and last week the wine finally found its bottle.
TBA is short for "trockenbeerenauslese," which is the German classification for this riesling royalty. It translates to "dry berry select." Bureaucrats, in their endless quest to inflict death by regulation, don't allow American wine to carry that name. Thus, Anthony Road Wine Company on Seneca Lake is calling their wine "Riesling Trockenbeeren," but in conversation it's often referred to as "TBA."
Having worked on the sorting line for this wine, I'll take you back to the rather hilarious moment when the winemaker bounded into the winery to make an announcement. It's worth knowing the story if you're going to pay triple-digits for this wine.
2008 conditions were ideal for TBA
"I almost can't believe this," Johannes said, nearly tripping in his knee-high rubber boots. "The first reading is 43 brix. That's the highest I've seen. And okay, to be honest, it's almost too much!"
In non-winemaker speak, 43 brix is a hell of a lot of sugar in a grape. TBA is made from botrytized grapes -- grapes that have been infected by botrytis, otherwise known as "noble rot." This is not like putting lipstick on a pig; botrytis can actually be a wonderful thing under the right circumstances. The summer rains set up a harvest that was rife with noble rot in some places, and Johannes decided that this was his chance to make a true riesling TBA. In his decade of making wine in the United States, he had never attempted it.
"For me it's not something you can force every year," he said that fall day. "I may not see this chance again. But if we're careful, we can make something special."
Working on the sorting line was a high-pressure endeavor. There were several dozen of us working with bins filled with picked riesling grapes. Our job was, first and foremost, to make sure no sour grapes got into the batch. Some of the grapes were kind of vinegarized -- they smelled extremely sour and betrayed more of an orange color. "Even one or two sour berries can change the quality of the batch," Johannes warned. "We simply must be precise." And so we were, happy riesling soldiers picking out sour berries, and tossing out the rock-hard ones. The cheerful mariachi music put a bounce in the step of my Mexican friends on the line.
The final brix reading for the riesling clocked in at 39. Within 48 hours the grapes were off the vine and crushed by foot. Given the vigilance on that sorting line, I doubt a single sour berry made the cut.
More than just riesling TBA
Johannes decided to also make a vignoles TBA, as well as a riesling BA and a pinot gris bA. The latter two are wines that checked in with slightly lower brix and will carry a moderately lower price tag. (BA stands for "beerenauslese," which is just a notch down from TBA in the German hierarchy.)
The pinot gris BA will retail for $35 per 375 ml bottle. The riesling BA will run $65 per bottle, while the vignoles TBA will carry a price tag of $75 and the riesling TBA checks in at an even $100.
"The price does not only reflect the quality of the wines," explains assistant winemaker Peter Becraft. "It's reflective of the huge amount of labor that is required to make these wines the right way. We didn't cut corners on a single part of this effort, and we think it shows up in the wine."
The riesling TBA tastes like a dried apricot dream, with so many supporting flavors that I won't bore you with the list. It's more fun to let them unfold on your own. The vignoles is quite a different TBA, owing completely to the much higher acidity that is naturally present in the grape. Consequently it's crisper but with a little less length.
Anthony Road will release the riesling BA and pinot gris BA this month, followed by the riesling TBA in January and the vignoles TBA in March.
So why doesn't everyone make a TBA in the Finger Lakes?
The simple reason is that you have to be really, really good at what you're doing. And it's pretty darn risky for winemakers who don't have experience to give this a shot. A few too many sour berries, or too long between picking and crushing, or even recognizing when to pick -- it all factors into the best TBAs.
As far as we know, there are two other wineries that produce a TBA in the Finger Lakes: Hermann J. Wiemer and Dr. Frank. The Wiemer is sublime and retails for a little less than the Anthony Road Riesling TBA. Sometime soon I hope to try the Dr. Frank version.
On bottling day at Anthony Road, Johannes conceded how thrilled he was with this wine. "If I'm being honest I'll say that I'm 95 percent with this one," he said with a smile. Peter Becraft later told me, "If Johannes is happy, that's really saying a lot. He can be very hard on himself. But it's hard not to love what's in this bottle."