Why Riesling?

Sep 01, 2015

Why Riesling?

by Cassandra Harrington, Executive Director, Cayuga Lake Wine Trail

Ask anyone from outside of New York State about Finger Lakes wine and the first thing they will mention are the superb Rieslings (reez-lings). Ask anyone from the Finger Lakes Region why our Rieslings are superb and not many people know the answer. The reputation is rightfully-earned, considering the Finger Lakes Region collectively produces 220,000 cases of Riesling a year.

Amber Zadrozny, recent tasting room and assistant vineyard manager of Six Mile Creek Vineyard in Ithaca, explained the Finger Lakes terrior, and why it has the perfect growing conditions for the Riesling grape. Terrior is defined as the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate.

Beginning 10,000 years ago, as slow-moving glaciers made their way over land masses, they left behind shale deposits while carving what are known today as the Finger Lakes. It’s the shale beds that assist with drainage and give grapes their rich minerality and acidity. In addition, the elevation changes along the shorelines create steep hills great for planting grape vines that almost never need manual irrigation. Those slopes allow for long exposures to direct sunlight.

Every grape varietal responds differently to certain climate conditions. Riesling, in particular, thrives in a cool climate. The insulation from the lakes formulates a microclimate with moderate temperatures, making winters slightly warmer and summers slightly cooler. Without the insulation from the lakes, temperature spikes and significant drops would jeopardize crop yield. This also extends the growing season a couple weeks further into the fall, allowing Riesling to reach the preferred acidity before harvest. Riesling is actually one of the latest grapes to be picked. According to Aaron Roisen, Head Winemaker of Hosmer Winery in Ovid, the warmer temperatures and the extended growing season give Riesling its notorious fruity flavor with notes of tropical peach and apricot.

If harvested in early October, Riesling will be dryer. The longer it is left on the vine, the sweeter the grape will be. Those harvested in November are often used for sweeter wines and if left until January or February, will be used for ice wines, which are extremely sweet and often served with dessert.

Most wine lovers, regardless of their knowledge in the subject, know that not all Rieslings taste the same. Even though the grapes come from the same terrior, the slightest variation can produce grapes entirely different from one another. At Hosmer Winery, some of the oldest Riesling vines were planted in 1975 and the newest in 2011. Everything from the age of the vine, the amount of sun exposure, the amount of precipitation and even the direction of air flow alter the flavor of the grapes. Hosmer currently produces four different Rieslings and are working on the production of three new offerings for this fall.

Since Riesling is farmed for a long season, some Finger Lakes wineries have been forced to take extreme measures to protect vines during rapid drops in temperature. During an unexpected spring frost, Hosmer Winery has flown helicopters over their vineyards in order to keeping the cold air from settling over the vines. Others have invested into propane windmills that regulate vineyard temperatures. All that said, Riesling is a comparably resilient grape and with experienced vineyard management practices, it can withstand even the harshest of growing conditions. Also, with applied research from Cornell University’s Viticulture and Enology program, Finger Lakes winemakers are mastering Riesling at a rapid pace.

Not surprisingly, the Finger Lakes region is home to more than 200 Riesling brands. Many wineries produce more than one Riesling due to the grape’s extremely versatile characteristics. This versatility is why it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t know about and love Finger Lakes Riesling.

Cassandra Harrington is the executive director of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. To learn more, visit cayugawinetrail.com.