May 13, 2004

N.Y. state rieslings set bar in America

"I’m afraid we’ve run out of the German riesling,” the server said. “Instead, we’re pouring one from New York state.” She apologized and explained that the wine is actually pretty good, but I waved the apologies away and urged her to bring it on. Germany sets the model for riesling around the world, but New York’s examples are right behind.

It may sound strange, but New York’s Finger Lakes region has proved to be the best place in the U.S. to grow riesling. Sure, there are a few good ones out of California (Bonny Doon, Claiborne & Churchill, and Smith-Madrone, for example) and Washington (Chateau Ste. Michelle, for one), but none combine the grape’s limey fruit with dry, slatey minerality like good Finger Lakes riesling.

Looking at the Finger Lakes region with its steep, vine-covered slopes descending to long, skinny lakes, it’s not hard to draw a comparison to Germany’s Mosel region, where the steep banks of the Mosel River are paved with riesling vines. But whereas Germany has made great riesling for centuries, getting good riesling in New York state was no easy task. When Konstantin Frank arrived on the scene in 1951 championing European varieties like chardonnay and riesling, the locals thought he was crazy. They thought it was too cold for these European vinifera varieties; instead, they were trying to coax decent wines out of the “foxy”-tasting native grapes and from hybrids of labrusca and European vinifera grapes.

Frank, however, was an agricultural engineer who had specialized in growing grapes in cool climes before he fled from the Ukraine during World War II. He had a hunch the cool, shale-covered slopes of the Finger Lakes would be terrific for cool-climate varieties like riesling. Lacking money and a command of English, though, he took a few years to find someone to believe him. That person was Charles Fournier, a vintner from the cool Champagne region of France who had come over to make wines at Gold Seal Winery on Keuka Lake. He hired Frank, and when Frank set up his own grapevine nursery on the side, Fournier persuaded the owners of Gold Seal to invest in it.

That nursery still supplies vinifera vines to wineries all over the East Coast, and the riesling stock they have there is thought to be one reason Finger Lakes riesling is so good. The clone, or type, of riesling that Frank chose was particularly cold-hardy and produced small crops that made for fragrant, intense wines, unlike the higher-yielding riesling varieties grown on the West Coast.

Few would have believed it, though, had Frank not set up his own winery in 1962. Now called Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, the winery began putting out rieslings that turned heads. Rather than fruity, off-dry, simple whites, these were mineral-laden dry rieslings that took on more and deeper flavors when left in the cellar to age for a decade.

Since Frank’s success, other vintners have been attracted to the Finger Lakes for precisely the elements that attracted Frank: a cool climate in which grapes could ripen slowly, retaining invigorating acidity while developing ripe fruit flavor; the influence of the lakes, which moderate the climate, provide moisture and reflect what warming sun there is back up onto the vines; and the soil, which adds its own particular savory flavor to the wine.

Today, great Finger Lakes riesling is made by several wineries, including Hermann J. Wiemer (started in 1979 by a vintner from Germany’s Mosel region), Fox Run, Heron Hill and Standing Stone.

So far, though, the dry riesling from Dr. Konstantin Frank is the only one available in Colorado. As of this writing, it’s available by the glass and bottle at Table 6, 609 Corona St., and at Argonaut Liquors, 718 E. Colfax Ave. Hopefully, it will be more widely available soon.

While looking for it, if you happen upon a bottle of Dr. Frank wine labeled “Rkatsiteli,” check it out, too. Made from a grape that’s obscure here but widely planted in eastern Europe, it’s bright, limey, spicy, and mineral, someplace among riesling, gewurztraminer and sauvignon blanc. Spunky and original, it may best represent the feisty, driven Ukrainian immigrant who brought us great American riesling.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post.

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