Local rieslings are rising to the top

07/15/2010 12:00 AM |

If you pay attention to the public-relations machine of New York’s wine industry, you probably think that riesling is the state’s most important wine. It is true that in upstate New York, wines made from the riesling grape have the most prestige. That’s because under the cold conditions of the Finger Lakes (as in Germany), aromatic riesling makes attractive wine even when ripening conditions for the grapes have been less than optimal. The same cannot be said of Long Island’s leading varietals, the French vitis vinifera white grapes like chardonnay or pinot blanc, which lack character when underripe, or red vinifera varietals like merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, which taste harshly herbaceous when underripe (and don’t survive temperatures below zero in the first place).

Germany sets the standard for quality riesling, which is typically high in acidity, low in alcohol and balanced either by adding preserved juice (must) to the finished wine or by stopping the fermentation so that some natural sugar remains in the wine. Most rieslings imported here from Germany taste noticeably sweet, and the same is true of most rieslings from the Finger Lakes.

On Eastern Long Island, where all of the noble European wine grapes can survive the winter and ripen, riesling takes a back seat to its French siblings. In 1974, at Hargrave Vineyard, I planted an acre of riesling and learned just how much of a nuisance it is to grow. It sunburns easily and is prone to every kind of fungus, noble and ignoble. Also, its yields are low, making it uneconomic relative to, say, chardonnay, which ripens at the same time. It’s hard to dedicate the picking crew and the wine press to riesling when you could be making twice the amount of chardonnay in the same time. Also, until recently, riesling wine was tough to sell, no matter how good it was.

In 1980 we had shared some riesling vines with our neighbor Ray Blum when he established Peconic Bay Vineyards in Cutchogue that year. Unlike me, Ray never gave up on his riesling. And neither did the Lowerre family, who bought Peconic Bay Vineyards (now called Peconic Bay Winery) in 1999. They hired Greg Gove (who began his winemaking career at Hargrave Vineyard) as its winemaker, and my (ex) brother-in-law, Charlie Hargrave, as its vineyard manager.

Greg is devoted to riesling, and I would guess that’s because, after 25 years of making wine, he enjoys a challenge. And with Charlie’s meticulous management, he has ripe fruit to work with.

Recently, Greg hosted a rare vertical tasting of 10 years’ worth of Peconic Bay riesling, from 2000 to 2009. About 40 journalists and members of the winery’s wine club — committed fans who are rewarded with special discounts and exclusive events — sat banquet-style at a table running the length of the winery, each place set with crystal glasses and select cheeses, Marcona almonds and quince paste from the Love Lane Cheese Shop.

Peconic Bay’s general manager Jim Silver introduced the tasting, alluding to the glory given to Finger Lakes rieslings. “I’m not ready to give up riesling to our friends up North,” he said. In praise of Greg’s experience, he added, “Anyone can make a single great wine, but to make 10 in a row shows the skill of the winemaker … not everyone understands finesse like Greg Gove.”

Finesse, yes, and complexity, too. The vertical tasting showed Greg’s mastery of riesling. He makes them dry because he can; they have enough character and ripeness that they don’t need to be sticky. The warmer vintages (2000, 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007) showed more pronounced apricot, guava, pear and marmalade aromas, and the cooler years more subdued mineral and citrus qualities.

In almost all the aged Peconic Bay vintages I also found that aromatic fingerprint of Germany’s great rieslings commonly described as “petrol.” Although it sounds negative, in the context of riesling’s other fruit and floral elements, this is a potently attractive perfume (aphrodisiac?) that emerges in riesling only as it ferments and ages. Greg and Charlie work together to maximize the conditions that foster this element in both vineyard and winery.

A few other North Fork wineries (most notably, Bedell and Paumanok, whose co-owner, Ursula Massoud, comes from Germany) grow riesling. Because it’s cheaper to do so, others buy the fruit upstate. Riesling is too challenging to be Long Island’s signature wine, but it is worth seeking out, especially when it is grown here.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.