New York's Finger Lakes may be America's most beautiful and underrated wine region. Second only to California in wine production, the lakes produce some of the nation's best sparkling and white wine, including Chardonnay, a variety that was just a curious experiment two decades ago. For generations the vineyards were dominated by Vitis labrusca, the vine species that produced native Eastern grapes and a taste that leading wine authorities characterized as "wild and foxy."
That negative description is a burden of the past because the wines of today are made with superior technology and from grapes of both Vitis labrusca and Vitis vinifera, the vine species responsible for the world's leading varieties, including such major grapes as Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Even authoritative French and California palates would be hard pressed to identify a labruscan New York taste characteristic.
Although the lakes' wines are exciting, they remain largely unknown and unrespected even in the East and especially in sophisticated "Big Apple" restaurants where diners still are attracted to European and California bottles. Clearly all American wine lovers are missing an excellent buy and taste. The situation is not unlike that of California 30 years ago when French wines dominated and interest in California wines was lackluster even for so-called prestigious labels.
Wine lovers visiting New York with an extra day or two to spare may enjoy the five- to six-hour drive to the lakes' historic village of Hammondsport, home of many of the area's wineries. Known as a town of many "firsts," Hammondsport is the site of the first bonded winery in the United States, Great Western, 1860, initially known as Pleasant Valley.
Vineyard plantings have increased during the years to such an extent that there is a bit of a surplus today, even of Chardonnay. Because of overall American wine overproduction and the inability to generate national as well as local interest, some vineyards may be pulled in favor of better moneyed crops.
To stem the tide, Michael Doyle, a longtime resident of the lakes and president of Great Western, has launched a wine production and education program to place its wines on American tables. He has gathered a team of young wine makers--Dr. Andrew Rice, Cornell University, Stephen Coon, Curry College, and Patricia Herron, Fresno State University; all are responsible for Great Western wines and two other sister winery labels, Gold Seal and Taylor.
Excited by the challenge and utilizing experimental lots of French hybrids, vinifera and labrusca, the trio believe wine making here requires greater artistry in blending and style fashioning since few wines rely on a single variety. Herron explained, "In California, wines like Cabernets make themselves; nothing makes itself here."
Great Western, long associated with sparkling wines, offers two relatively new sparklers, which are indicative of long-term future methode Champenoise intentions. "Naturel" suggests a smell of labrusca , but its clean crisp flavor dispels any notion of wild and foxy. There is a bit of a heavy feel on the palate, but the wine finishes with nice yeasty tones, crisply dry and a measure of elegance.
The Blanc de Blancs, to be released this summer, will be the first made with 100% Chardonnay grapes from Great Western vineyards and without any dosage . I tasted a pre-release sample of fine restrained nose fragrance, subtlety of taste and with only a hint of the ponderous earlier style of Blanc de Blancs, made from a blend of Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Chardonnay from California and Oregon. Effervescence is refined, making for an attractive generous wine at less than $10.
Doyle believes Great Western sparklers can be as elegant and clean as French Champagne because climate temperatures are not unlike that of Epernay, a prime Champagne vineyard region. He said: "All other Great Western sparkling wines have been fermented in the bottle and formerly were a blend of Delaware, known as the Champagne grape of the East; Catawaba, for fruitiness and intensity; Aurora, a French-American hybrid, and Dutchess. All this is likely to change as more and better Chardonnay becomes available from our own vineyards."
Besides the sparklers, a variety of table wines are also made under the Great Western label. Gewurztraminer, 1984, is exceptional at $5.39. Somewhat sweet with 1.9% residual sugar, there is excellent Gewurztraminer spiciness with Muscat, Alsatian-like taste tones produced from young vines, 4 to 5 years old. Its high acidity is a plus, as is the spiciness arising out of eight to nine hours of skin contact.