Photos by Morgan Dawson
Reflecting back on what truly was a startling discovery of New York’s Finger Lakes wine region during TasteCamp EAST 2010, one aspect of the vino-soaked weekend that I will never forget was our visit to Ravines Wine Cellars.
If I had to pick an experience that changed my mind about how I perceived Finger Lakes from what little exposure I’ve had it would be the very instant that Morten Hallgren (pictured at right) began talking to our group in his no-surrender tone in defense of his wines — not that they needed defending, but he wanted to be clear on his defining style that just might not appeal to the masses.
I thought about all the great winemakers I have listened to and tasted with. The very best have exactly the same convictions, that honest and steadfast resolve to do things their way because they believe it’s the right way and criticism be damned.
Hallgren, along with his wife Lisa, are true believers in the terroir of Finger Lakes and have concentrated their efforts on what does well in the vineyards that are so dear to their hearts.
Morten has staked his claim on the correct varieties for a cool-climate region that is not unlike Ontario’s Niagara region, or other great regions in the world such the Mosel, Champagne, Alsace, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Piemonte. Hallgren has decided on riesling and cabernet franc with a bit of chardonnay and pinot noir as the main wines being made at Ravines.
But what was of particular interest to me was Ravines’ portfolio of rieslings. This is where Hallgren draws a line in the sand, a line he won’t yield even one inch. It’s a stylistic battle line where his rieslings are defined by their sharp edges, that steely, citrusy and mineral-laden quality that runs deep through each of his wines.
It’s a risky, but brave, portfolio. Dry, austere white wines need the benefit of time to soften up the hard edges, to tame the racy acidity that props up the raging citrus and slate. This is serious riesling, built for the dinner table, and not for the faint of heart. An unwitting wine lover looking for a fun little glass of wine along the wine route might wonder at the style, not understanding the concept of watching this glorious wine as it comes into maturity. And maybe they won’t be back.
But that is the risk the Hallgrens are willing to take. The payoff, for them and, luckily for us, is authentic, thrilling, terroir-driven wines that go far beyond a cookie-cutter style of wine so prevalent in the world of wine today.
In the Ravines rieslings you can taste the gravelly loam and limestone and you have to believe Hallgren when he says that is best expressed through an austere style that shows balance, elegance, and a purity of aromas and flavors.
“Fine wine is about delicate balance and nuances,” he told us as we sipped through the vast majority of his portfolio.
A Focus on Quality and Expression
Morten was raised in the Provence region in the South of France where his family owned and operated Domaine de Castel Roubine, a 270-acre estate with 170 acres under vine.
He worked as chief winemaker for Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Cellars, another fabulous Finger Lakes producer, before he and Lisa purchased a 17-acre parcel of land in 2000 on a glacier-carved hillside on the eastern slopes of Keuka Lake. It’s a piece of land laden in mineral-rich, well-drained soils and situated between two deep ravines (hence the name of the winery), which drain cold air from the land during the winter.
They operate a charming tasting room, with views to the lake, opened in the spring of 2003. It has been elegantly decorated by Lisa in a Provencal style, including a sculpted head of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, from the Castel Roubine tasting room. Since opening, the winery is adorned with medals and praise from the wine press.
Ravines’ wine program, which is limited to just 10 or 11 different wines per vintage, is built on an extraordinary riesling portfolio as well as European-styled cabernet franc, meritage, pinot noir and rose.
“We have everything here to make world-class rieslings,” he says. The Ravines style is built around tight, mouth-watering, bone-dry rieslings that are balanced between fresh fruit and acid. They are made for the long haul in the cellar even though they are released to the public with some bottle age.
Morten admits that Ravines doesn’t “try to be everything to everyone” which, to be honest, is a refreshing change from so many of the Finger Lakes wineries that tend to do just that and end up with a whole mess of wine that perhaps is fine for the masses but misses the mark for serious wine lovers. Ravines wines are more likely to appeal to people with wider wine experience and those who seek out the finer wines in life.
A Unique Winemaker-Grower Relationship
The inspiration and fruit for Ravines’ greatest expression of riesling comes from a coddled vineyard overlooking Senaca Lake called Argetsinger, named after Sam Argetsinger (right), the colorful man who owns it and spends most of waking hours nurturing it.
Hallgren crafts his single-vineyard Argetsinger Vineyard Riesling from Sam Argetsinger’s vines, a riesling that shows its teeth with pronounced mineral-slate, floral and citrus notes.
On a walk-through the Argetsinger vineyard with Sam, it’s easy to see why these two men have come together in perfect harmony to make such a thrilling wine. Hallgren, an idealistic winemaker with precise ideas on what he wants out his wines, and Argetsinger, a free-wheeling spirit who covets his vines with the passion of a star-struck lover.
Argetsinger should have been born into the Iroquois nation as he recites stories about Mother Earth and her relationship with his vineyards.
When he gathers us around him to tell the story about Thundering Voices, appropriate after a hellish storm the night before, we listen and believe him when he says the Creator had it out with Mr. Thunder one day and finally decided (after some divine persuasion) they could work together for the good of the people who would one day all live together in harmony (or something like that).
Fact is, as we walked through his spectacular vines, that look straight down into Seneca Lake, we could feel Mother Earth all around us. You got the feeling that Argetsinger is just a caretaker of the land, here to nurture vines so that others (like Hallgren) have some great grapes to turn into spectacular wines.
Following our brisk morning vineyard walk, Hallgren, who buys all five acres of riesling grown on the property and bottles it as a single-vineyard wine, showed up with some nice morning frittata and a bottle of Ravines Argetsinger Riesling 2007. Never has a frittata gone so beautifully with a riesling as the sun beat down in the quiet stillness of that amazing vineyard.
A Different Style of Riesling
As a wine writer primarily covering the Niagara region in Ontario, where I work and live with my family, it is hard for me to understand the lack of residual sugar (or late picking of riesling grapes) in the quality Finger Lakes wines.
I drink a steady diet of amazing Niagara rieslings that, for the most part, are made with some RS — more or less depending on the vintage. In Niagara, that little touch of sweetness lifts the flavors to another dimension. From citrus, lime and mineral to peach, apricot and tropical notes, in some cases.
It is a style that now dominates in the Niagara wine region, though many wineries still make bone-dry rieslings.
So it begs the question. Do I wonder what Hallgren’s wines would taste like if he made them in a sweeter style?
I’ve thought about that a lot since visiting the Finger Lakes. I have concluded that I have no desire to see Hallgren do anything other than what he’s doing — making some of the most interesting and thrilling wines in the Finger Lakes. And I can’t wait to get back there.
Ravines Dry Riesling 2006 — A fragrant and floral nose of green apple, citrus, mineral-stone and grapefruit. It’s perfectly dry and austere with a firm acidic spine but balanced off by ripe and zesty citrus-lime fruits.
Ravines Dry Riesling Argetsinger Vineyard 2008 — Definitely one the finest rieslings enjoyed on the trip came from this single vineyard belonging to the quirky and likeable Sam Argetsinger. This is one of the oldest riesling vineyards in the Finger Lakes and shows a pronounced mineral-slate, floral, citrus nose. It’s very focused and firm on the palate with racy acidity and tart-juicy fruits. This is built for food and shouldn’t be touched for a couple of years at least, but, wow, what a beauty.
Ravines Pinot Noir 2007 — Morten is fond of saying that he came to the Finger Lakes for the riesling but was surprised by the pinot. And he’s right. There is a great deal of potential for pinot noir in the Finger Lakes and winemakers are just starting to realize that. I love the earthy cherry fruit, sweet mocha spice, saddle leather and vanilla on the nose. It’s juicy on the palate with fresh red berries, vibrancy, spice and subtle oak/cedar notes on the finish. It’s done in an elegant and classy style.