Thursday, August 13, 2015

Pre-WBC15 Excursion - A Short Dip Into the Finger Lakes

I had no idea, when I started this little blog of mine, that it would morph into such a significant part of my life. Six years ago, I would never have foreseen my arriving for my third Wine Bloggers Conference - and making my way to New York state's Finger Lakes none-the-less. But it has and I am. Indeed, following the marvellously entertaining - and informative - experiences I had three years ago in Portland and two years ago in our own Okanagan Valley, I know that the next five days are going to be jammed pack with wine, wine and more wine.

And I can't wait - particularly because I know very little about New York wines. Except for a group tasting station at this year's Vancouver International Wine Festival, I'd be hard pressed to remember any other exposure to the region's wines back home. If memory serves though, we did run across at least one Finger Lakes Riesling the last time Boo and I visited NYC.

One thing I learned at my previous Wine Bloggers Conferences is that, while the seminars and conference events are all that and more, fitting in some additional visits to the wineries themselves is always an extraordinary bonus. Consequently, I was thrilled to be able to sign up for WBC15's Pre-Conference Excursion. The actual conference kicks into gear tomorrow evening but I was joined on the bus by a handful of bloggers to mosey off and see a bit of the Finger Lakes and its wineries first hand for the balance of today and parts of tomorrow.

Our destination is the Seneca Lake Wine Trail where a series of events have been organized by the Seneca Lake Winery Association.

The Finger Lakes region is a series of eleven lakes that were created upon the retreat of glaciers from the last Ice Age. They range from large and deep to small and shallow and they are now home to around 130 wineries. Those wineries produce about 90% of the wine made in New York state and a majority of them are located near Seneca Lake, a primary reason being that the lake is incredibly deep and, consequently, has an ability to store heat during the winter thereby helping with the viability of the vines through what can be some harshly cold temperatures. All the lakes also have a cooling influence on the surrounding areas, providing some moderating effect through the summer growing season  - another crucial benefit to good viticulture.

There are two other leading sub-regions that host "wine trails" of their own - Cayuga Lake and Keuka Lake but they'll have to wait for another day.

Our first visit was at Bellangelo - about half way up the western shore of Seneca Lake. The Missick family and the folks at Bellangelo teamed up with Kings Garden Vineyards (from the eastern shore of the lake) and one of the local, artisan cheese producers. Together, they offered an in-depth look at Riesling - perhaps the grape I most associate with the region - and at a Cab Sauv vertical, something I would definitely not have expected.

I think it's safe to say that my foremost goal for the Finger Lakes visit was to garner some exposure to the local Rieslings. As anyone who regularly reads this blog will know, I'm a super-fan of the grape. Bellangelo must have known that as they went full bore and introduced us to their "Riesling Experience" - a presentation of nine different examples of their varietal Rieslings. The wines ranged from dry to semi-sweet, covered four vintages and included their Reserve bottling and a single vineyard wine. The range of notes was surprising and I'll readily admit to requesting a second and third pour of the Reserve.

On the whole, I didn't find the acid to be as bracing as with some of my favourite Okanagan Rieslings, but it was a memorable introduction to the region - particularly when paired with any number of the local cheeses, breads and charcuterie that were graciously provided. I've got to say that I'm a long time fan of goat cheese but this was the first time I'd ever been offered a chance to milk a goat. I think the ladies, including the goat herself, will be happier to sell me the cheese and leave the milking to the pros however.

As mentioned, there was also a ten-year Cab Sauv vertical presented by Kings Garden Vineyards and owner/winemaker, Mike Oleksyn. The first words out of most everyone's mouth was "I would never have thought that the region is hot enough to ripen Cab." His reply? "Taste the wines and you tell me."

We hear the same "you can't grow Cab here" statement in the Okanagan and, as Mike pointed out, it's all about where you're located and the terroir you find yourself in and on. He advised that his vineyard is located in a micro-climate known as the Banana Belt and he figures he's been able to consistently ripen his grapes in all but a couple of years. In part due to my extended rendezvous with the Rieslings, I wasn't able to taste the full flight; however, I was intrigued by the wide range of opinions that were voiced as to which years were favoured most by our crew.

Our time allotted at Bellangelo, though leisurely, quickly came to an end and we were back on the bus making our way to our host hotel in the town of Geneva at the northern end of Lake Seneca.

After a quick check-in, we journeyed on to our next destination - a rendezvous with the Finger Lakes Wine Women at Ventosa Vineyards. The Winery Association knew that they were going to host a dinner as part of our excursion and they went all out, canvassing their members to submit concepts for the evening's events. The proposal chosen celebrated the growing presence that women are playing in the wine industry in the Finger Lakes.

Bringing together owners, winemakers, researchers and even a part-time burlesque dancer (on top of her winery duties) from four of the Association's wineries, we learned how these women were making headway in an industry that is predominantly male-centric - once you move beyond the tasting room.

Each of our hosts recounted stories of how she ended up treading the vineyard trail and what some of the trials and tribulations were that she'd encountered along the way. From having to convince a winery principal that, indeed, a woman could operate a tractor to being asked if she was crazy when deciding to give up law school, each woman's perspective was unique. Yet, all of them emphasized their belief that part of the Finger Lakes' strength and growth as a winemaking region stems from a larger than usual proportion of women participating in the local wineries.

Our group was also taken for a tour through part of the Ventosa vineyard, where we were put to work for our supper. Hardly. We did receive, however, some notes on how the growers and winemakers look to evaluate the ripeness of their grapes. We collected a selection of grapes and saw a demonstration on the use of a refractometer to measure to the must weight or amount of sugar present in the grape juice.

After that incredibly taxing activity, we were treated to a four course meal that a pair of wines from each of the four wineries participating: Ventosa Vineyards, Leidenfrost Vineyards, Three Brothers Wineries & Estates and Standing Stone Vineyards.

1974.  2012 Ventosa Vineyards Pinot Noir (Seneca Lake - Finger Lakes - New York State)

It only seems natural for me to add one of our host's wines to The List and Ventosa's Pinot was introduced, along with our sweet corn and cheddar risotto cake, as one of the winery's most popular wines.  Fruit forward and easy drinking,  it was popular at our table as well. In fact, with a little finagling, part of an additional bottle magically appeared for a few re-pours.

The balance of the dinner included a candied beet, melon and arugula salad, Finger Lakes filet with Cayuga blue cheese and a peach and ginger galette. The wines ranged from a Blanc de Blancs and Pinot Rosé, through Gewurtz and Riesling to Cab Franc and a Cabernet Port.

As if that weren't enough, everyone moved to Ventosa's banquet room for a walk around tasting of many other offerings from our four host wineries.

Let's say that, as far as introductions go, the Seneca Lake Winery Association and the Finger Lakes region started off on the right foot.

And, as packed as our day had been, we weren't done yet...

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