The standard for choosing the Finger Lakes finalists was rather simple: If you could only send a small number of wines to someone who doesn't believe this region can make world-class wines, which wines would you choose?
Yes, more than 100 wineries now produce wine in the Finger Lakes. But this compilation isn't about spreading the love; it's about choosing that wines that might convert the non-believers.
Some might find the price of these wines to be an issue. As we've discussed before, it's important to offer wines that can compete with wines from other regions at that price point. That is happening, if a bit slowly. Do these wines offer value despite some high price points? They do. They are the exceptions and the exceptional.
Some will complain that several producers appear multiple times. These are the producers whose approaches need to be emulated more widely for this region to continue its steady course upward.
But don't mistake how difficult this process is. The good news is that there is a strong list of producers who don't appear here that are making wines capable of swaying the doubters. I needn't list them all.
If you haven't tracked down these wines, keep in mind that some have already sold out, and some will soon. Here are some thoughts about why these wines were chosen.
Ravines Wine Cellars 2008 Argetsinger Vineyard Riesling ($25): This wine turns a stellar trick: In a vintage that has thus far featured far too many severe Finger Lakes rieslings -- wines that are a touch shrill and off-balance, dominated by acid -- this is a blazingly electric wine with balance, length, and a tremendous expression of its source. An aromatic ballistic missile, this is a standard-setting riesling for producers seeking to walk the tightrope of crackling acid and complexity. Tremendous now, the '08 Argetsinger has a very interesting history ahead of it.
Anthony Road Wine Company 2008 Semi-Dry Riesling ($15/sold out): There are no bonus points for winning the Governor's Cup. This riesling displays the richness that comes from an excellent vineyard site and winemaker Johannes Reinhardt's careful arresting of the fermentation before it went dry. The result is a gorgeous mouthfeel, weighty but with serious cut woven in. The fennel stands out, a classic Seneca Lake hallmark for a wine that will reward patient consumers many years down the line.
Hermann J. Wiemer 2007 HJW Vineyard Riesling ($38/sold out): This is like choosing a favorite fraternal twin; this wine really needs to be tasted next to its single-vineyard sibling, the '07 Magdalena Riesling. That's because, more than any other Finger Lakes producer, Hermann J. Wiemer has successfully identified the differences that come from sites just a few miles apart. In a hot, low-acid year like 2007, this wine displays a surprising racy current that amplifies the flavors. This producer has everything clicking: ideal sites, older vines, and a thoughtful winemaker willing to take risks. As good as these single-vineyard wines are, I've tasted the '08s on their way to the bottle, and they could set new benchmarks when they're released in January.Red Newt Cellars 2007 Curry Creek Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($42): I can still recall the moment when Dave and Deb Whiting giddily revealed their plan to bottle two separate gewurztraminers, each uniquely reflecting its origins. The Curry Creek vineyard is small and is becoming a prized site, delivering gewurztraminer with unusual depth. It helps that winemakers Dave Whiting and Brandon Seager take their gewurztraminers to the dry end of the scale; some Finger Lakes gewurzes struggle to find balance at higher sugar levels. No such problem here. A special wine in Red Newt's inaugural single-vineyard effort.
Fox Run Vineyards 2008 Reserve Riesling ($30): On its own merits, this wine shows the kind of rounded cut that self-proclaimed acid freaks will love. But it's even more impressive when you consider the long list of wines that Fox Run produces each year, and that's before their assistance to other labels. Winemakers Peter Bell and Tricia Renshaw believe deeply in Finger Lakes riesling so they make time to consider how the riesling is developing before selecting the best of the vintage for this bottling. One glass and it's no wonder why Peter Bell is always in demand with his colleagues when they need assistance.
Billsboro Winery 2008 Riesling ($16): Owner and winemaker Vinny Aliperti also makes outstanding rieslings for Atwater Estate Vineyards on the opposite end of Seneca Lake, but it's this smaller production wine that makes the list because it's such a pure representation of Finger Lakes riesling even with a higher level of residual sugar. The classic aromatics and flavors show up in abundance here, and the finish stretches it all out nicely. It's an impressive wine and a very good sign for a young winery.
Shalestone Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc ($18): When local wine lovers ask, "Where should I go that I've never been before," this producer is always at the top of the list. Some barely notice it's there, and by making only reds, owner and winemaker Rob Thomas is rather like an Irish pub owner who serves only soda. But this cabernet franc affirms his focus. Rich but not over-the-top, it delivers a wide range of flavors that will keep the consumer thinking. And if you know Rob Thomas, you know that's exactly what he wants.
Heart & Hands Wine Company 2007 Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir ($40): There is a reason that Heart & Hands Wine Company is the hottest word-of-mouth tasting destination in the Finger Lakes, and it's not simply their popular dog or welcoming new facility. In just winemaker Tom Higgins' second vintage, this pinot is a revelation. It's evidence that most local pinot producers should rip up their vines, and the rest should follow Tom's lead when it comes to meticulous sorting, crop yields, and site selection. And if it's this good now, what can we expect when Tom's own newly planted vines -- sitting on a trove of limestone - start bearing fruit? That's the fun part of a new wine company's journey.
Ravines Wine Cellars 2007 Cabernet Franc ($19): At an industry tasting of 2007 cabernet francs this summer, this wine earned the highest marks thanks to one significant reason: mouthfeel. The texture allows the consumer to experience a rich array of flavors that highlight one of the best vintages for red wine this region has ever seen. Interestingly, the '07 Ravines cabernet franc reaches for a wide range of aromatics and flavors -- and pulls it off. Simultaneously earthy and bright, with spice and layered fruit, it features freshness as well as depth. Ravines' adherence to low yields paid serious dividends here.
Hermann J. Wiemer 2007 Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25): So you profess to be a cab franc lover? This wine is as pure a representation of Finger Lakes cabernet franc as I've seen, and that means it's unafraid, unapologetic for its varietal character. That also means it's a cab franc lover's cab franc, replete with a tangy, herbal note that courses through the long finish. The aromatic and flavor range is very wide, from a roundhouse of raspberry to tobacco, just to name a couple. Some consumers who love huge, bombastic reds will find that it pushes them too far in new directions. And that's exactly what I love about this wine. Needs time or decanting.
Keuka Spring 2007 Lemberger ($19): The dark horse of the finalists, this wine seems to surprise everyone who tastes it. That's because Lemberger - we prefer the name Blaufrankisch - has a serious future in the Finger Lakes, and winemaker Mark Wiltberger is giving this wine a thoughtful approach. Kissed with oak but not dominated by it, this Lemberger has just enough layering to make consumers stop and think about its potential. There's probably not enough structure for long-term aging, but it's a very nice wine right now. Down the lake at Heron Hill, Blaufrankisch is earning big headlines, but it's masked in way too much new oak. If that changes, the Blaufrankisch revolution might officially be underway.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars 1999 Prestige Cuvee ($30): Spend much time with the Frank family and you'll inevitably hear about their admiration for Finger Lakes sparkling wine. Willy Frank used to tell interviewers that wines from Chateau Frank could routinely beat up on French champagne. And while his bluster might not have been matched by the results - that is, after all, a huge mountain to scale -- it's easy to see why the Franks are excited. They craft delicious, approachable sparkling wines with consistency.
Hermann J. Wiemer 2006 Cuvee Brut ($25): If you like your sparkling wine to show some rich, doughy character -- and I do -- then this is the Finger Lakes version most suited to your palate. Displays a balance between crisp lime and brioche. Pour this wine blind for your family and see how many say Finger Lakes.
Anthony Road Wine Company 2008 M-RS Riesling Berry Selection ($65): Quietly, there is a revolution unfolding in the Finger Lakes, and it's led by wines like this one. In vintages that feature higher levels of botrytis, winemakers are attempting richer wines with high levels of residual sugar. I'd say this could be the standard bearer for German winemaker Johannes Reinhardt's portfolio, but his TBA-style riesling isn't even out yet, and that will almost certainly rise to even loftier heights.
Hermann J. Wiemer 2007 Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling ($85): The price tag for these sweet, balanced wines is derived from the enormous amount of labor, time, and energy required to produce them. Pain-staking hand sorting removes any hint of sour berries from the very small production of this wine. It's lush and round, and for patient consumers, these richer wines have the potential to evolve and improve for a long time.