For the second time in three years, Swedish Hill Winery has captured the Governor's Cup. Organized by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, the judging brings writers and industry professionals to Watkins Glen. They taste more than 800 wines.
The Governor's Cup is the single most powerful award given to a New York wine. That's because it instantly sells wine. More than a big magazine or a New York Cork Report review, this award can guarantee a sell-out.
And that's why it's so important that the judges get it right.
What is the winning wine, exactly?
Swedish Hill winemaker Ian Barry told me that the Riesling Cuvee is labeled non-vintage, but all of the fruit came from 2009. It was grown in the Caywood Vineyard run by Doyle, which is the largest vineyard acreage holder in the region. Even though this riesling was picked during the last week of October, it still checked in slightly below 18 brix. Barry thought that made it ideal for a sparkling wine, and he made 364 cases, with bottles selling for $17. (The price won't change with the award, but customers won't be allowed to purchase more than one.)
"I think riesling works really well as a sparkling wine base and is a natural fit," Barry said, citing its high acidity and fruit profile. "I've had some pretty amazing sekts from Germany that have always made me wonder why more people didn't make this style."
The Swedish Hill Riesling Cuvee is sweet; Barry fermented it dry and then back-sweetened to 3.5 residual sugar. But he finds customers thinking it's more dry, given the natural snap of acid.
Is this the kind of wine that should win the Governor's Cup?
Barry thinks so. When asked if the Cup should always go to a Finger Lakes riesling or a Long Island red, he replied, "I really don't think that's fair. I know there is an advantage to building the reputation of these two grapes as the signature varieties for their respective areas, but in truth there are lots of great wines being made in New York from lots of different varieties."
Then he added, "I wouldn't be surprised if a pinot noir or a chardonnay or even a traminette won it."
A wave of industry leaders rushed to congratulate Barry and Swedish Hill. "It is encouraging to see that the judges for the Classic were so supportive of a wine that is not widely known or produced in the Finger Lakes," wrote Bob Madill of Sheldrake Point Vineyard, who described the Governor's Cup wine as lightly sweet and pleasant.
"I think it can work," said Aaron Roisen, winemaker at Hosmer winery on Cayuga Lake. "Obviously Ian knows how to sort it out. I think a sparkling wine made from the region's top variety shows the range of quality and intricacies that grape has to offer."
"It must be quite a delicious bubbly," said Charles Massoud, owner of Paumanok on Long Island. "Though I have yet to see the results, I congratulate the winery that won."
Jim Silver of Peconic Bay on Long Island, a long-time advocate for a strong statewide focus on the top vinifera, chose to focus on the strength of the judging. "The judges are a talented lot who know their stuff," he said. "I'm looking forward to trying the wine myself." He added that the award is "probably well deserved."
But some other winemakers who asked to remain anonymous told me this award is a negative for a state trying to carve out a reputation in other areas.
"I just hope writers and consumers in other states don't see this and laugh," one winemaker told me. "A sweet sparkling riesling from a region trying to promote itself as world class. Doesn't quite add up, does it?"
Barry believes this award validates the top quality of riesling as a sparkling wine. "In any reputable competition, the truly good wines will always finish near the top and the truly crappy wines will not get awards." Unfortunately, this has been proven by recent study to be incorrect. In fact, this rather exhaustive look at high-level wine competitions shows that a gold medal wine will very often receive no medal at all in other similar competitions.
That's not to say that the Swedish Hill Riesling Cuvee is undeserving. But it is to point out that if the same judges gathered next week to taste the same wines, they'd almost certainly pick different winners in every single category.
Will other Finger Lakes producers follow suit?
In a short survey of Finger Lakes wineries in the past 24 hours, the answer appears to be: No. Some wineries already produce a sparkling riesling; each August the revelers at McGregor's Clan Club Picnic dance to the sounds of Forever in Blue Jeans re-written to say "Spark-a-ling Riesling." Dr. Frank has produced a sparkling riesling for two decades.
Other producers have already expanded their sparkling production with other grapes. "We are back in the sparkling business after a 15-year hiatus," said Scott Osborn of Fox Run Vineyards. "We just released a Blanc de Blanc made from chardonnay."
But certainly Swedish Hill will sell out of their Riesling Cuvee and keep the program going.
As for the competition, you might recall that Lenn and I wrote our prescription for fixing some of its ills last year. The points made in that post are still relevant today, and you can read it by clicking here. We'll have more to say soon regarding large judging competitions. In the meantime, we look forward to opening a bottle of the Swedish Hill Riesling Cuvee, and we congratulate Ian Barry and the staff. They have seen the tense days of harvest and the long nights throughout the season pay off.