Category Archives: New York – Finger Lakes

Villa Bellangelo – Finger Lakes Riesling and Chardonnay with a cool surprise

A while back, I saw my buddy Anatoli’s stellar and raving review of Villa Bellangelo‘s Rieslings, which he stated had finally converted him to Finger Lakes Riesling. Naturally, this triggered my interest (when have I ever heard Anatoli rave about Riesling? Just kidding!). I am a Riesling snob after all, and when folks I like and trust are impressed with a wine in general, but in particular with a Riesling, I want to try and see for myself.

I have a had the good fortune of having participated in several Twitter tastings organized and hosted by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, the association of Finger Lakes winemakers, so feel like I have somewhat of an idea of what is going on in the Finger Lakes, particularly Riesling-wise. Let me add that I also, quite naturally I believe, do compare these Rieslings in my head with Mosel Rieslings I know. The Finger Lakes after all are considered similar in their volcanic soil and rather cold temperatures. I do, however, always try to see these wines by themselves, and compare them to their counterparts in the Finger Lakes as well. One general impression I have is that, while Riesling from the Finger Lakes rightly is considered the best in the US, a lot of them are still a little too one-note for me. A great Riesling has at least five or six layers of flavor and complexity, while I often find myself wishing for more of that complexity in the Finger Lake Rieslings I have tried. That does not make them bad wines, to the contrary, they are very enjoyable, but I think for truly great Rieslings more complexity is key.

Ok, so much for my “credentials”. Sometime after Anatoli’s piece, Villa Bellangelo and I were tweeting and exchanging messages, and they offered to send me some bottles as samples to see for myself. I gladly agreed. The package arrived, with a cool piece of shale bedrock from Villa Bellangelo’s vineyards, which has joined our collection of Mosel slate. Since there were four bottles, I wanted to have some friends over to try along, to see what this group, that has tried wines with us a lot of times, thought as well. With November rapidly turning into December, it took us all the way into January until we could get together and try the wines, along with charcuterie and cheeses, our natural spiel…

Cool piece of shale bedrock.

Cool piece of shale bedrock.

So, who is Villa Bellangelo? Villa Bellangelo was founded in 2002 by Michael Litterio, but was purchased by the Missick family in 2011/2012, who hail from California, according to a post in the New York Cork Report. According to several bloggers and writers (including East Coast Wineries), the winery is a great spot to visit (with Yelp reviews supporting this claim), sitting atop a hill overlooking Seneca Lake. Some of the vineyards belonging to the winery date back to 1866, which is awfully cool, I think. That’s 150 years!!! The winery produces a bunch of whites and reds, and also produces wine from hybrids like Seyval blanc.

My package contained two Rieslings, a Seyval blanc, and a Chardonnay. After some back and forth, I decided to try the Chardonnay first (which I expected to be the most muted wine), then the two Rieslings, and then the Seyval blanc (because it appeared to be the sweetest wine).

So, what did I think? Here are my notes:

Chardonnay!

Chardonnay!

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Chardonnay (ABV 13%), retails for $20: The wine poured clear in a rather pale color (giving me the hope – justified – that it was more in a French style). The nose was somewhat subdued, with some oak and nuts (walnuts?). On the palate, the wine was bone dry and light, with crisp acidity nicely balanced. It was definitely low on the wood, but also a bit too restrained on the fruit for my taste (you get why I like Riesling?). What made me like this wine was its minerality that led to a spicy finish. Definitely more French in style, which I really appreciate. All by itself, this might have been a bit boring, but it sure worked with our charcuterie. Should be paired with food.

Two of Villa Bellangelo's Rieslings

Two of Villa Bellangelo’s Rieslings

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Dry Riesling (ABV 11.3%), retails for $18: Aaaah, Riesling. The wine poured clear with hints of green. The nose was moderately aromatic, but showed good fruit: I got sour peaches, some apple, some floral notes. Would have liked a bit more intensity. The wine tasted dry (although there definitely would be some sugar left at this low alcohol level), was light and crisp. I thought it had good acidity and a very good mouthfeel to it, was quite balanced, but on the palate it just didn’t remind me much of a Riesling, and the table agreed. I think there just wasn’t that much aroma going on. The wine finished spicy, which was a new flavor for a Riesling for me. While the nose surely indicated Riesling, I am not sure I would have recognized it as a Riesling in a blind tasting based on the flavor. This does not mean I didn’t like the wine, in fact I thought it was tasty. Just not Riesling-y enough for me.

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Semi-Dry Riesling (ABV 10.8%), retails for $18: Often, when I find a dry Riesling from a particular winery lacking in flavor (a bit more sugar just brings out more fruit), I look to the semi-sweets. I like that they labelled it semi-dry, because the alcohol indicates it is still pretty dry, and semi-dry is the literal translation of the German “halbtrocken”. Easy to make a German happy! :) Now this wine showed itself pretty much with the same color as the previous. The nose, however, was a different story: nicely peachy, almost peach cobbler, which I love, some bees wax. The wine tasted medium-sweet, with a bit more viscosity, but still fresh acidity. It was flavorful, with good fruit: peach juice, mandarin, some peach pit. Really an enjoyable and good expression of Riesling: flavors were there, the finish was good.

A delicious hybrid

A delicious hybrid

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Seyval Blanc (ABV 12%), retails for $16:  I’d never had a Seyval blanc before, so I consulted Jancis Robinson’s and others’ encyclopedia Wine Grapes. According to this, it’s a French hybrid popular in “marginal climes, especially England”. Now, doesn’t that sound appealing? ;) I was intrigued for sure. The wine poured in a very light color and had a quite restrained nose, maybe some canned peach, but I couldn’t make out much. On the palate, however, what a surprise: Dry and crisp, Asian pear galore (especially the Asian pear freshness), some lemongrass, good acidity, just a really, really tasty wine. Man, that was a really cool surprise. Liked it a lot, and at $16 quite the steal.

My general thoughts? Villa Bellangelo did a good job here. Especially the semi-dry Riesling makes me want to try their single vineyard and reserve Rieslings, I definitely see potential there. The Chardonnay was well-crafted, and the Seyval hit it out of the park. Definitely want to visit the winery, too, given the photos I have seen. Add in that the contact was super friendly, and that piece of bedrock a cool way of showing me some terroir. I like how dynamic the Finger Lakes are, and how, due to their rather short history of professional winemaking, things are still in flow a lot. That creates opportunities for wineries as well as wine lovers.

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Finger Lakes white wine tasting tonight!

Finger Lakes Riesling Launch 2012 - The line up.

Finger Lakes Riesling Launch 2012 – The line up.

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to participate in a Finger Lakes white wine tasting tonight, my second time after last spring. While back then, the Finger Lakes were still an exotic wine destination for me, I have now tried more and more of its wines and am quite impressed, so tonight’s line up including Chardonnay, Gewuerztraminer and Rieslings should be fun! The tasting happens on Twitter at 9:00pm EST and you can follow it via the hashtag #winechat (it takes place under the auspices of Protocol Wine Studio (@ProtocolWine), which skilfully hosts #winechat every week).

I did some research on the Finger Lakes last year, and figured it was helpful to read through it again, so I am reposting this. May is Finger Lakes Wine Month, so why not give their wines a shot?

The Finger Lakes region became an officially recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982 and consists of approximately 4,451 hectares (11,000 acres) that are operated by around 100 wineries. The main glacial lakes that make up the area are Canandaigua Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake. These (and other lakes) stretch from North to South just South of Lake Ontario which explains their name: Finger Lakes. Apparently, the first vines were planted in 1829. The Finger Lakes really seem to have taken off when the above mentioned Dr. Konstantin Frank (a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD in plant science) started experimenting with roots and grapes varieties there for Cornell University in the 1950s and 60s. His work proved to be the first that enabled wine makers in the North Eastern United States to grow European grape varieties, in a climate and area that had been deemed off limits for these grapes.

What is interesting about the region is that the lakes lie at different heights, with land surrounding Canandaigua Lake reaching up to 2,000′ in height, with the land between the lakes further to the East successively reaching lower heights of  1,500′, 1,300′ and 800′. So this should actually make for different micro climates and therefore perfectly situated for single vineyard wines.

The region’s dominating grape varieties by acres under vine are mostly North American usual suspects: Concord (1,814 acres), Catawba (811 acres) and Niagara (667 acres). However, the Finger Lakes region’s second most planted variety is Riesling with 828 acres under vine. The climate should be favorable to Riesling and other varieties grown in colder climates like Germany. Actually, if you look at data gathered by Cornell University in the summer of 2012 (which also provides the other numbers), there are many obscure German or Austrian varieties planted in the area: from Zweigelt to Siegerrebe to Geisenheim to Dornfelder.

The Finger Lakes have been pushing their Riesling credentials, and from what one can read and what I have tsted in the past, rightly so. Its slate soils and cooler temperatures seem to give their Riesling grapes all the ingredients a winemaker needs to make good Riesling: slow ripening conditions to develop sugar and acidity and mineralic soil…

 

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An Eiswein (Ice wine) themed #winechat on Twitter

The three dessert wines participating

The three dessert wines participating

Disclaimer: The wines were provided by the winery or wine association as samples.

Last week, I participated in a #winechat on Twitter. The theme was Eiswein (and dessert wine). The wines were supplied by Knapp Winery and Boundary Breaks Vineyards of the New York Finger Lakes region, and by the Austrian Wine representatives in the US. At 9pm EST on Wednesday, a group of several bloggers who received samples met with the organizers Protocol Wine Studio, the suppliers, winemakers and others interested folks to discuss the wines as well as ice wine in general.

For those unfamiliar with Eiswein (the German word for Ice wine), I wrote a longer piece about it a while back so please feel free to check it out here. To recap: Eiswein is made from grapes that are frozen on the vine (that’s for purists, like me, some regions, like Quebec, allow freezing off the vine). The grapes freeze, so all the water in the grape becomes ice. When you press these grapes, all you get is minuscule quantities of pure concentrated flavors. Sugar and acidity are extremely present in these wines. They make for some of the rarest wines in the world, and age ridiculously well.

Meats from Biercamp in Ann Arbor

Meats from Biercamp in Ann Arbor

We had a few friends over for trying the wines, because of their intensity, I usually only want a small glass of each wine. It is the perfect wine to share. We paired the wines with mostly cured meats from the wonderful Ann Arbor sausage shop Biercamp (duck bacon, Canadian bacon, and a honey/cracked pepper bacon as well as Andouille sausage), cheese (a creamy Delice de Bourgogne, Manchego, goat Parmiggiano, and Roquefort), as well as homemade (by one of our insanely talented baker friends) sweet macarons. I will write a separate post on what to pair with sweet wines, but for now you should know I prefer salty over sweet pairings.

Macaron made by our friend

Macaron made by our friend

But on to the wines. Up first was the 2012 Boundary Break Late Harvest Riesling (not technically an Ice wine). The wine is made by a young winery whose other Rieslings have gathered quite some praise from The New York Times and others. This wine was made with Riesling grapes from one single clone that come from a single vineyard. The vines were planted in 2010, so they were very, very young when the grapes were harvested for this wine. In Germany, winemakers tend to hold off on producing wine from vines that are under 4 years old. The wine had 127 grams of residual sugar per liter, and 14.2% ABV. The first thing we noticed when pouring was how light in color the wine was. The nose offered aromas of ripe cantaloupe, cream, honey, some vanilla, and something the reminded of gummy bears. On the palate, it was very sweet without much acidity, which was what surprised me the most. Its mouthfeel was light, and there were some orange bitter rinds like in English orange jelly. I struggled with this a bit. There was definitely craft in this wine, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the winemakers should have held off on making a small quantity, high level wine from such young vines. It also didn’t feel like a Riesling to most of us. Trying it with the macarons made the wine a bit more acidic, which was welcome. So this could definitely be paired with sweets. Retail price: $30

Boundary Breaks Riesling Late Harvest

Boundary Breaks Riesling Late Harvest

Next up: Knapp Winery’s 2012 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. Harvested on January 3, 2012 at 11 degrees Fahrenheit (which by my standards makes it a 2011, because the grapes grew in 2011, not 2012), the wine spent almost a year fermenting slowly until it was bottled on December 20, 2012. 24 cases were produced, the wine has 12% ABV and 140 grams of residual sugar per liter. The wine’s color was more saturated than the Boundary Break Vineyard Riesling. The nose was gorgeous, with ripe aromas of spiced orange, some clove, bergamotte. On the palate, this Vidal Blanc showed good acidity, some smoky aromas, with a wonderful viscose mouthfeel to it. I got citrus aromas, mandarin oranges, and raisins mostly. What I was struggling with was the alcohol. It left an almost cognac feel to the wine on the finish, which I was not looking for in an Eiswein. Others on the table had less of an issue with this, so it might just have been me. When I retried this wine 6 days later, the alcohol had stopped bothering me. All in all, a solid wine with good primary Eiswein aromas. However, texturally it reminded me more of an Auslese or Beerenauslese than an Eiswein. I would probably not have identified it as such in a blind tasting. As for pairings: It worked remarkably well with the creamy delice de Bourgogne, taking off the edge of the alcohol. With the goat parmiggiano, more almondy flavors became present, and the bacons worked as well. While I thought it was also good with the macarons, I got shouted down by the table that that was not the case….Retail price: $25

Knapp Vidal Blanc Ice Wine

Knapp Vidal Blanc Ice Wine

Finally, we tried the Austrian 2009 Höpler Pinot noir Eiswein, an Eiswein made from the red grape Pinot noir. The wine poured in a gorgeous amber color, lush and rich and syrupy in texture. The nose was beautiful, with dried apricots, honey, and rum and raisin aromas. When I tried it, my first note read “ICEWINE”, underlined twice. The richness and flavors worked, the wine felt special, just like an Eiswein should. There was a wonderful smokiness to the wines, with the aromas from the nose persisting. Its finish was great: It became smoky again, with lots of honey, and a wonderful acidity that tickled your throat. The wine was decidedly heavier than the first two, and much more intense in flavors. It also paired the best with salty foods. This was a wonderful expression of how interesting ice wine from a red grape can be. Retail price: $69

Höpler Pinot noir Eiswein

Höpler Pinot noir Eiswein

All in all it was a great experience, and I am grateful for the organizers and hosts for letting me participates. The wines were all interesting and showed the diversity there is. The conversation on Twitter was lively and engaged, and I got into some really interesting side discussions about pairings and occasions to drink these wines.

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