By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photos courtesy of Les Degustateurs
Tom Leahy didn't know how he had come to own a bottle of 1985 Lucas Riesling from the Finger Lakes. It had slumbered in his cellar for years, though he had no memory of it as a purchase or gift. It was just there, hanging out among some of the most highly sought White Burgundies, and aged Vouvrays, and vintage Champagne. Leahy might have considered it to be like a Dan Brown book on a shelf filled with Steinbeck. Who could blame him?
Nor did Leahy know what to expect when he chose to feature the Finger Lakes bottle in a blind setting for his tasting group. Les Degustateurs is made up of 18 men in the Chicago area; its name translates to "the tasters." That is an accurate description. Leahy's fellow wine lovers were not the type to only drink first-growth Bordeaux, though one flight planned on this occasion featured two Lafites and two bottles from Petrus. No, this is a discerning group that delights in exploring wines blind and tasting treasures from around the world. The members combine a munificence with a thoughtfulness in selecting bottles from their respective cellars. Predictability was boring.
But even with that open-minded background, Les Degustateurs would not have had much experience with the Finger Lakes.
Putting the flights together for the upcoming meal and tasting, Leahy was hoping to create a flight of five whites from 1984. But he was short. The 1985 Lucas was as close as he could come, and he harbored some misgivings. He was concerned about the age.
Then he thought, "What the hell?" It would be a new experience -- if the wine was alive. If it was dead, it was only one bottle, and it would follow a flight that included a '96 Dom and a '98 Dom. No one would complain.
The opening flight of Dom had shown beautifully at Cyrano, a French restaurant in the city, with the '98 showing more age than the still-precocious '96. Chef Didier Durand's opening two courses were a harbinger of what was to come, a dynamite evening of food that included foie gras terrine with fig compote; wild mushroom cappuccino with parmesan tuile; crispy veal sweetbreads with chestnut confetti; and grilled duck breast with confit of leg and root vegetables au gratin.
The only question, really, was how this unusual Finger Lakes Riesling would show in its group, which was now on the table.
Leahy watched as his fellow tasters moved carefully through the flight of these five wines:
- Chateau Montelena 1984 Chardonnay, Napa
- Olivier Leflaive 1984 Meursault, Burgundy
- Peter Michael 2002 Chardonnay Ma Belle Fille
- Marc Bredif 1984 Vouvray
- Lucas Vineyards 1985 Riesling
It was clear, simply from the reaction of the assembled group, that the Lucas was not corked or cooked. Leahy eventually stopped monitoring the others and set about to taste the wines himself.
There was the class of Leflaive, no surprise. The Vouvray was fascinating, a reminder of the Loire's versatility. But then... the Lucas.
What a shock! Leahy glanced around, smiling to himself, It's alive! He found it crisp and impressive and he could hardly wait to hear what the rest of Les Degustateurs would guess this wine to be.
Not even Leahy could have known that this was likely one of the last few bottles, if not the last bottle, of the Lucas 1985 Riesling still in existence. And who would have worried about it, anyway? It was probably $8 on release, crafted by Ruth Lucas, and in the mid-1990s Lucas herself ordered the new winemaker to dispose of most of the library wines. No one expected those wines to age with grace, and no one cared!
When the group had drained much of the five bottles, each member announced a score. If Leahy was shocked with the wine's vitality, he might have been more surprised now: The Lucas won its flight.
Before the wines were revealed, each member offered a guess as to what they had just tasted. Most of the 12 correctly guessed that they had just tasted a riesling. Several guessed it was a mature Vouvray, associating its scents and flavors with the previous wine in the flight. Manfred, known in the group as the resident German wine expert, offered a very specific appraisal.
"Mature riesling from the Rhine," he said.
Someone else chimed in, "It has a surprising crispness to it."
Several settled on Germany. No one correctly guessed the Lucas Riesling's home region.
Finally, when the wine was revealed, a curious murmur rose above the room. The bottle circled the table. What followed were the familiar palpations of a group of wine enthusiasts examining a heretofore unknown gem.
"Tell the winemaker this wine is supposed to age seven years, not 25!" Manfred exclaimed. "Its longevity is truly remarkable."
Tom Leahy was kind enough to send the photos and his notes to Lucas' current winemaker Jeff Houck -- the same man who was asked by Ruth Lucas to get rid of the old library stock that once contained more of the 1985 Riesling.
"What a true surprise," Houck said. "I would not have expected much, to be honest."
Houck is a modest man but a hard-working winemaker with plans to taste more library wines soon. Lucas' library does not contain the artifacts of the 1980s, the deep roots of Finger Lakes winemaking history. But it goes back for much of a decade, and Houck will build upon that. Soon Lucas will host a vertical tasting of cabernet franc. And why not? It is unrealistic to expect each bottle to stand up in the manner that this rare bottle of riesling did. But how can we know if we don't attempt to find out?