Last week I went to Rochester, New York, on a junket paid for by your tax dollars. Lucky me.
Upstate New York is actually a real live, serious wine growing area, particularly the Finger Lakes region, about 45 minutes south of Rochester. There was no way I was going to pass up a wine tasting opportunity, so I got to Rochester early and spent a day sampling the local wares.
First of all, regardless of the quality of the wines, the Finger Lakes are incredible. A series of long narrow lakes (the longest is nearly 40 miles long) set in glacial depressions, they are surrounded by beautiful rolling, forested countryside. Though not mountainous by California standards, the views from the hillside wineries were breathtaking. I got there just as the fall colors were starting to turn, and could tell that it must be amazing at it's peak, particularly set against those gorgeous lakes.
And the lakes are the whole reason that this is a wine making area. Apparently, the deep lake water moderates winter temperatures enough so that the vines can survive and produce wine grapes.
But what kind of wine do they produce? A lot of these east coast states produce absolutely vile, sickly sweet concoctions made from indigenous grape varieties or mulberries or some other damn thing. Being a California ("Cali" in east coast parlance - apparently, right coasters have difficulty pronouncing anything with more than two syllables.) wine snob, I wasn't about to be down with some weird pink syrupy crap.
Well, guess what? They do make some of that nasty, undrinkable syrupy fruit stuff. I shudder even to think about it. I visited the New York Wine and Culinary Institute at Lake Canandaiqua (unmissable and well worth the visit if you are anywhere in the area, BTW), and tried some Montezuma Winery Cranberry Bog.
You got it - a cranberry wine. Think of Boone's' Farm Strawberry Hill, but made with cranberries. Cloying. Gawd awful. According to the staff, this is one of the most popular wines they sell. No comment on what that says about their clientele. Zero stars. I'm still washing my mouth out after tasting that.
Another "area for improvement" are their red wines. Now I have to admit that they've come a long way since I was there last year (either that, or we've learned which reds to avoid), but if you're used to "Cali" reds I highly recommend giving their reds a miss. Supposedly their strong suit is Cabernet Franc, but most of the ones I tasted were seriously flawed.
A good (bad??) example was the Osprey's Dominion 2004 Cabernet Franc. A very light wine, extremely over-oaked to hide the flaws and lack of fruit flavors. A strong, almost overwhelming vanilla aroma gave me a headache. Tart and bitter. One star for not actually making me vomit.
Another example of how far they have to go on their reds was the 2004 Red Newt Finger Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon... with a residual sugar of 0.5 percent. Say what? A half a percent sugar? That means it's a lightly sweet wine. A sweet Cabernet?? What planet are you people from?!? Oh, and the taste of this wine? Do you really have to ask? Minus 2 stars for being so weird that I had to try it (against my better judgment).
OK, so is the Finger Lakes a total wash? No. In fact they actually make some great wines here, but you have to winnow them out from the seas of sweet plonk.
Probably the greatest wines the Finger Lakes make are Rieslings. Yep, those light, tart wines that go great with Asian food.
But you do have to be careful, because these right coasters just love their sweet wines, and that goes for Rieslings as well. But if you search hard enough (and move up to the higher grade stuff), you can find some real gems. I'm a particular fan of Fox Run Rieslings, which run from fairly sweet to completely dry.
My favorite from this trip was the Tierce 2005 Dry Riesling (made by a consortium of Fox Run, Anthony Road and Red Newt wineries). This was a truly dry wine. No overwhelming fruit flavors, but great structure and acidity. Very complex and well designed. This was the best wine I tasted on the trip. 4.0 stars.
One other thing they do well in upstate New York are ice wines. These are wines made from grapes left on the vine and allowed to freeze in the winter. The freezing removes a lot of water from the grapes, leaving behind an intensely sweet and concentrated juice. The resulting wine is intense and super sweet - and not for everyone. Personally, I love to sip it or pour it over ice cream.
One standout ice wine from this trip was the Mazza Chautaugua 2005 Lake Erie Vidal Ice Wine. Yummy! Extremely sweet and honeyed, with strong notes of apricots and muskmelon. Very dense and intense. 3.75 stars.
So the basic take aways from the Finger Lakes region are: Avoid the reds unless you want to try some weird, undrinkable swill. Focus on the whites - particularly the Rieslings and Gewürztraminers - but be prepared for a lot of sweet wines. Move up to the premium offerings for the most dry - and most drinkable - stuff. And avoid the fruit wines unless you are a complete masochistic idiot.