This article encompasses wines from several regions within New York State and Virginia. (There are also some enterprising New Jersey wineries that snuck in. They registered, so be it.) Let's take the principal regions here in turn, though.
As a relatively young wine enthusiast in the mid-1980s and early '90s, I made it a point to visit many wineries near me on the East Coast. Some were better than others. Some were decent and sometimes produced nice stuff, often mixed in with oddities made for the mass market. Few were really interesting. Too many relied on hybrids and even stranger grapes. If that's what you still think of the best regions on the East Coast, you are way behind the curve. I know exactly what that curve used to look like and how far it has come, given my early experiences with many different East Coast wineries in several states.
The growth of the wine industry in places like New York and Virginia is an amazing success story for East Coast wines. It's a new ballgame, simply put. Not only do Eastern wineries seem to be increasing geometrically in number, but - the quality has been increasingly impressive, too. Now, to be sure, the West Coast still gets the glory and easily dominates wine production. Recent statistics indicate that it accounts for more than 90% of American wine, with California responsible for the vast majority. Still, it is worth demonstrating briefly just how far things have come and how fast. If you have been taking a nap and are just checking in for the first time in many years, you may well feel like Rip Van Winkle.
In the U.S., AVA ("American Viticultural Area") is the federally defined, equivalent term for AOC or DOC that we typically see in Europe. In New York, there are five major general AVAs, including the two that this article focuses on: The Finger Lakes (often called by fans just "FLX") and Long Island. In turn, there are some smaller sub-AVAs within those regions, such as Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in FLX; and on Long Island, North Fork of Long Island (in Suffolk County) and The Hamptons (basically, the South Fork of Long Island in Suffolk County). The North Fork is the winery intensive one; all but a few are on the North Fork.
Surprisingly, for those not keeping track, at this writing New York State has just arrived at 400 wineries, according to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. Most of this growth is recent. Jim Trezise, the Foundation's president, said in a recent newsletter, "The modern growth of our industry began with the Farm Winery Act of 1976, when there were only 14 wineries. That grew to 54 by 1985 when the New York Wine & Grape Foundation was created. By 2000 there were 125 and by 2010, 253. Since 2011 when Andrew Cuomo became Governor, 147 new wineries (including farm wineries) have opened, accelerating an already strong growth rate. Put another way, 37% of all New York wineries have opened in the past four years, which represent only 2% of the industry history dating back to 1939."
That, of course, references the state as a whole. There are "old-guard producers" in various places, like Konstantin Frank, Wagner, Paumanok (and in Virginia, Barboursville, Horton and Linden), to name a few. These are folks who have the luxury of sometimes being able to say they have old vines, relatively speaking, for certain wines. But that is not the most common pattern. Let's focus more closely on the two New York regions in the spotlight this issue.
Long Island is "New York's newest major wine region (dating back almost 40 years)," according to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, but that only hints at how far it has come in a short time, relatively speaking. The local marketing and trade organization, Long Island Wine Council, points out that it has simply exploded in about 25 years, "from one small vineyard to 3,000 acres of vines and over fifty producers." Of course, 50 wineries in 25 years or so isn't much considering the way that, say, Virginia is growing, but one of the key traits of Long Island is that it is a small and compact area. Long Island Wine Council head Steve Bate said the growth in terms of numbers of licensed producers is, "1973 - 1; 1979 - 6; 1989 - 26; 1999 - 38; Today - 59."
The red grapes focus strongly on Bordeaux grapes. Really, that's the region in red, despite exceptions. We'll discuss those, but you could almost skip ahead. There are no hybrids, or other obscure grapes that we are used to seeing on the East Coast (at least nothing significant). Merlot is the signature offering among the reds, strongly advocated by prominent, long-time winemakers such as Roman Roth of Wölffer (and Roanoke) and Eric Fry (Lenz, The Old Field, etc.), the latter of whom told me that it "fits our climate. Merlot works in 9 of 10 vintages." It does seem to produce the best of the best here in red. You'll also see varietals such as Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, too, but Cabernet Franc seems popular as another major option.
While discussing red diversity, a nod to McCall and its often astonishing Pinot Noir is worth a mention, but there isn't much otherwise. Surprisingly, Syrah might be even harder to find. That's a grape that seems to trickle into most emerging regions. When I saw a wine at Bedell that had some (and later a monovarietal there) that was pretty much it for the entire tour. Some more Syrah cropped up later as a monovarietal (well, 98%) in Jamesport's MTK, and as a blending grape, for example, in Jamesport's Sidor Reserve (mostly Syrah). There wasn't much, though. Honorable mention to Bouquet's Syrah dessert wine (with a dollop of Pinot Noir).
In whites, Chardonnay is the standard with, as many indicated, Sauvignon Blanc a distant second. For diversity, though, in this report you can also find Riesling (many using Finger Lakes fruit, however), Pinot Blanc, Viognier and Gewurztraminer. Bedell had a touch of Albariño, too, while Raphael and Shinn had a little Semillon. I was surprised, in fact, that there wasn't more attention to whites. I very much agree that Merlot works well here, but surely many whites do, too. It would seem to be a natural for both the climate and the culture. Long Island is, after all, a summer playground where visitors come to unwind, particularly given The Hamptons. The North Fork may be more down-to-earth, but it is still a seaside area where whites are fun to sip on the porch or in the boat during summer. The array of Sauvignon Blancs that I saw fit in well here and they were extremely successful. This region may be underrated for its Sauvignons right now. In no particular order, those such as Raphael/Anthony Nappa, Macari, Bouquet, Wölffer, Paumanok and others were doing fine work in varying styles. A special warm-weather merit badge should probably go to Wölffer (although there are some other candidates) given its exceptional work with all applicable categories, including rosés, sparklers and whites in general. It is a good place for further development and focus.
Apart from Pinot Noir-advocate McCall, there is at least one other winery that marches to a different drummer in a dramatic way and far more so than McCall: Channing Daughters, a story unto itself. Winemaker Chris Tracy (winemaker since 2001; also now a partner in the winery) experiments in a way the rest of the region does not (and probably does not want to). Want some monovarietal Lagrein? Blaufrankisch? Refosco? Tocai Friulano? Gulp. Head for the South Fork and meet up with Mr. Tracy, who seems particularly fond of Northeastern Italy. I hasten to add: I don't want to make it sound like the wines are odd. They may be different, but they usually work. That's what makes it fun. It was certainly one of the most enjoyable and interesting visits that I had. So, there are iconoclasts everywhere. Iconoclasts are so named, of course, because they are the exceptions, not the rule.
In red, the Long Island style evokes Bordeaux, but not just in name. Sometimes I thought it was more classic, old-school Bordeaux than much of Bordeaux itself is these days. With a maritime influence and relatively cool climate, Long Island reds tend to be a bit lean. To be sure, that is a bit of a theme with many East Coast wines. If they are leaner than, say, Napa as a rule, they are also very fresh and structured. They aren't afraid of tannins or acidity. (Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth said, "A little bit of acidity is always part of the wines - it helps longevity, makes them food-friendly, keeps them alive.") They also care about making wines to age. The top wines here typically demand cellaring and reward it. They rarely make sweet fruit bombs. (In their terroir, they probably can't do that very often.) The alcohol levels are also fairly low. Most seem to be in the 13% range, sometimes a bit less. In fact, Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell, said 14.2% is about as high as he could recall offhand (for red table wines, non-fortified). Ditto, in my survey for this report, to the extent I took such information. That may not be high for Napa, say, but here it caused one winemaker to point and say, jokingly, that it was evidence that global warming had arrived on Long Island, too.
With the structure, the tannins, acidity and freshness, the wines age well, which should be surprising only if you're thinking "Oh, East Coast junk..." My favorite wines on the tour were usually well-developed oldies from folks such as Lenz, Paumanok and Wölffer Estate, in the 15- to 20-year range. They were still fresh, prime time and relatively young. They were simply impressive, completely refuting any notion anyone might have that this is not a serious wine region.
In theory, this is a style that I like a lot: great food wines that are low-alcohol, age-worthy and not overripe. That said, there are some producers that seem to try too hard to turn average wines into classic powerhouses by pouring on tannins without balancing mid-palate concentration. Overall, the best producers work this out very well, making structured wines that age astonishingly well, particularly if you factor in the prejudice against East Coast wines.
There is plenty of evidence that the region has arrived and is on the cusp of maturity, no longer an outlier, but increasingly reliable in good vintage years. More improvements are likely, to be sure, but overall there is a lot to admire. One thing is clear: given its modest size and limited space, St. Emilion-by-the-Peconic, that is, Long Island, will never be a producer that looks to the mass market. There isn't a lot of land. These are mostly small-production wines in the grand scheme of things. Not that everything leans in this direction, to be sure, but concentrating on quality and age-worthy wines is a good idea. That's a niche they can fill.
Vintages: Vintages can be particularly important here. In recent years (and considering late release and/or re-release policies in some places, the older ones are also still relevant), top vintages particularly include 2005, 2007, 2010 ("the hottest year on record for the North Fork of Long Island,? said Paumanok's Kareem Massoud) and 2013. I liked quite a few wines from those years, to say the least, but obviously there weren't as many examples to taste in some years, like 2013, because the producers were not as yet showing those big reds. There is a lot of buzz there already, though. In a press release, one winery (Wölffer) called 2013 "an epic vintage" featuring a dry summer that allowed "robust, healthy fruit." Winemaker Roman Roth added that "2013 is the 1945 of Bordeaux...we've never had a vintage like it." Kareem Massoud (Paumanok) called it a "near perfect vintage." Some of that will have to be taken on faith at the moment. It is true that the 2012s, for instance, generally could not match the 2013 concentration levels when I got them both together.
There also weren't any examples available from 2014, except mostly in early maturing whites, pinks or the simpler reds, but the consensus among producers was that in 2010-2014, they've been pretty lucky: 2011 was difficult, and everything else was good or better. That matched what I saw, noting again that there wasn't all that much to taste of some, including 2011. That last scarcity perhaps hints that producers much preferred to concentrate on presenting better years.
Regarding 2014, incidentally, several producers (including Nappa and Kareem Massoud of Paumanok), indicated that 2014 was an exceptional growing season with one problem: it produced a huge crop;]. "The most prolific harvest we can remember, in some varieties more than others," Kareem said. Nappa noted the obvious: a huge crop is not always a good thing for wineries, and steps had to be taken to control crop size, ultimately resulting, he contended, in "exceptional natural balanced chemistry and ripeness." If the big reds were not yet on display, the whites I saw showed very well, including a lot of nice Sauvignon Blancs.
The Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes (says its marketing and trade organization), is the "largest and most celebrated" of Eastern wine regions. Bob Madill, Executive Director of Finger Lakes Wine Alliance (and a founding partner at Sheldrake Point) told me that means about 130 "actual producing wineries. The number varies depending on the inclusion of satellite retail stores or not." Getting around the principal Finger Lakes requires some stops on all of the big lakes, as the wineries are spread out. Most wineries will be found on busy Seneca, the largest of the wine routes, but there are certainly important estates elsewhere. Some wineries may have more than one location.
It's been pointed out before, but there is still a fair bit seen of grapes that often damaged the reputations of East Coast wineries over the years. The hybrids planted in the East (because everyone was so sure European grapes wouldn't thrive!) left many Eastern wineries with damaged reputations, to say the least. Then, there are native grapes as well. I wrinkled my nose at more than a few on my first trip to the region a couple of decades ago. These still crop up.
However, the more famous wines are based on well-known grapes such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and the like. There is a distinct Germanic and Alsatian touch, too. The Keuka Lake Wine Trail has eight constituent members listed, for instance. These are fee-paying members; not everyone necessarily decides to join. Still, all eight make Riesling and all but two make Gewurztraminer. (In addition, all but one makes Chardonnay and all but one makes Pinot Noir.) When I first encountered the Finger Lakes years ago, after some of those nose-wrinklers, I was reasonably impressed by the whites and particularly interested in the Germanic whites. It still leans that way from everything that I see. Winemaker Anthony Nappa (of Raphael and his own winery on Long Island) sources Finger Lakes fruit (as do more than a few on Long Island), in Nappa's case from Sheldrake.
He said to me that: "The Finger Lakes produce the best Riesling in the country which is the 'world- class' wine they make. It is two full climate zones colder in the Finger Lakes than Long Island, which makes it perfectly suited for Riesling, while down here we can grow excellent Merlot and Cab Franc or Sauv Blanc."
Bruce Murray, owner of Boundary Breaks on Seneca Lake, a young winery that is a rising star, said, "We produce only Riesling." He added: "Johannes Selbach and Paul Hobbs have purchased property in the Finger Lakes to produce Riesling. Johannes Selbach reportedly said that the climate in Germany has changed so much in the last 20 years that is it impossible to make the kind of Rieslings he wants to make. So he purchased property in the Finger Lakes. Let's see where this comes out. Undeniably, we are not yet 'dialed in' to a style from the Finger Lakes that you can reference as a standard. I do not think, however, comparing the chemistry of our Finger Lakes wines to those of Europe is appropriate. The main reason for the difference is not our ignorance in the Finger Lakes; it is simply we have had only about 15-20 vintages to 'dial in' our wines. The Germans have had 300 vintages. That's a head start." He concluded by noting that he was about to crack a Donnhoff Spatlese and that one day he hoped to make a wine so good. Well, he hasn't yet. But his output at a very early point in time is astonishingly good. He and many others have certainly made a Riesling statement for the Finger Lakes. This is the go-to grape. The price points are mostly quite good, too. For less than $20, you can find many very attractive wines. All that, by the way, is not to deny that there are some nice reds and other good whites. There is no question what category is really generating excitement for FLX, though.
One note: the wineries are rather good at putting "dry," and "semi-dry" and "sweet" on the label, but what that means is not always so clear, because there is no absolute rule. If you're familiar with typical European table wines, where in most cases anything above 4 grams per liter is consider medium dry rather than fully dry, things are different here. While there are no laws, Bob Madill advised that "many FLX wineries have adopted the IRF Riesling Profile (www.drinkriesling.com). The IRF Profile calculates a sweetness index by dividing residual sugar in grams per liter by total acidity in grams per liter."
As all Riesling-lovers know (not to mention other geeks), the perceptible sugar can seem very different - the wine not as sweet - when matched by vibrant acidity that places like FLX deliver, hence the use of the IRF Riesling profile. Since paper statistics on residual sugar don't tell the whole story, the wineries pick and choose what they call dry, semi-dry or sweet. The statistics for sugar in the Finger Lakes will seem high by typical, dry table-wine standards, but high-acid wines like Rieslings are simply different. Hence, opinions differ on what to call "dry." At Silver Springs, for instance, a 2012 Dry Riesling had 10 grams per liter of residual sugar. At Red Newt, it dropped as low as 6, but ran up to about 10 as well. At Boundary Breaks, it went up to about 9. Perceptibly, these were fair to call dry. The wineries try to distinguish between wines with good balance and some fruitiness, as opposed to those that show some sugar. They don't all agree where that line is - and terroirs and vintage years may be different, too. Bruce Murray of Boundary Breaks said, "I think the acidity that we find in our Finger Lakes Riesling makes it very risky to produce a Dry Riesling below 4 grams per liter of residual sugar. The wines are just out of balance at this level." Needless to say, opinions differ. Check out Lakewood in this report or Three Brothers, for instance.
It really isn't that much different in Germany. Winemaker Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof said, "In Germany wines that have between 0 grams and 8 grams residual sugar are allowed to be labeled "trocken" by German Wine Law. From 9 grams to 18 grams they can be declared as "halbtrocken." João Nicolau de Almeida, Chief Winemaker at Ramos Pinto, put this in perspective, "Generally the dry wines are under 4 grams per liter. But! But! This depends on the negotiations of each appellation, and also of the total acidity of the wines. For instance: The Vinho Verde to be dry can have 4 grams per liter, but also can have 9 grams per liter if the total acidity is 7 grams per liter (tartarique ). The Espumante can have 32 grams per liter. Champagne can have 12 grams per liter. As you can see that depends a lot on the negotiation of each appellation."
Try to compare apples-to-apples in a producer's lineup when comparing. That may well mean the difference between steely, fruity and sweet. Don't assume, though, that a little residual sugar listed on the label means that the wine is no longer a table wine. It can be perceptibly dry in any event.
There is absolutely no reason why the Finger Lakes cannot be viewed as a great Riesling area. If it is not today (and there is a case to be made), it will be. In all the regions covered in this report, the single best bottling, the one with the most upside, is Finger Lakes Riesling. Others may claim to be more consistent and point to some warts in FLX, but when you get to Riesling (and honorable mention to other whites, particularly in the Germanic group), the Finger Lakes puts on its Big Boy pants. You'll be hearing a lot about Riesling in the Finger Lakes. I thought that some 20+ years ago on my first visit. It is still the region's clearest path to greatness.
Note: There is some reasonable representation here from FLX, but participation was delayed a bit for some wineries in the region for various reasons, at least as compared to Long Island. This article is not a one-off. There will be regular coverage and more coming in time.
If the growth in New York is impressive, Virginia, currently the fifth largest state in terms of number of wineries, is no different. Annette Ringwood Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office said that there are 255 wineries now, but in "1996, 46; 2005, 85." So, by 2015, it seems that starting a winery has become the most popular hobby in Virginia. They are breeding like bunny rabbits.
Starting at the beginning, broad geographic regions are Northern, Southern, Central and Eastern Virginia; Blue Ridge, Hampton Roads, Shenandoah Valley, Chesapeake Bay and Heart of Appalachia. Several of the regions have only nominal winery presence, though. The two big ones, as confirmed by Boyd, with 154 of the 255 wineries, are the Northern region (82) not far from Washington, D.C.; and the Central (72) region, around Charlottesville. Even in and between those two regions, I spent a fair amount of time in the car. Virginia can be a big place. Blue Ridge (30) and Shenandoah Valley (32) are a distant third and fourth. The other regions run from small to barely there: Chesapeake Region (10); Eastern Shore (2); Southern Virginia (13) and Heart of Appalachia (2).
Contained within the state are also seven official AVAs: Shenandoah Valley, Monticello, Virginia's Eastern Shore, George Washington Birthplace, North Fork of Roanoke, The Rocky Knob and Middleburg. Climates in the various regions can vary and affect growing seasons considerably. Distances are fairly substantial. Some winemakers thought the AVAs needed more work and clearer definition. Jim Law at Linden, one of the state's old-guard flagship producers, thought it was too early to start defining a lot of AVAs. Mark Fedor at North Gate thought that the Middleburg AVA might have to be split. That said, I certainly saw differences, say, from Shenandoah Valley wines to Central Virginia's Monticello appellation. In describing Shenandoah's terroir, owner John Higgs of Barren Ridge said his area was higher in elevation and semi-arid. The wines tended to show more acidity. He also added that in 10 years his appellation would be one of the premier AVAs on the East Coast. I liked the wines and the style of the wines, particularly in white, but they weren't quite all the way there yet.
There is obviously much to explore and the winemakers don't have all the answers yet, either. At times, the focus tends to be more on geography than AVAs, the two hot spots being the aforementioned Northern and Central Virginia regions. One difference is the terroir between the two. The North features more granitic soils and the Central area more clay and loamy soils, said King Family winemaker Matthieu Finot. Winemaker and General Manager Luca Paschina, of Barboursville, another of the old-guard flagships in Virginia, added that the North was generally cooler, with later harvests. He thought they would ultimately make better whites than the more Southern regions, while in the South they would have a leg up for big reds. Once again, things are not yet completely settled.
In vintages, Luca summed it up this way: "I can make good or better wine in 8 of 10 vintages," he said. Two vintages in 10 may be too hot and need irrigation, but they can work, he said. Two vintages in 10 are too rainy and the wine suffers. The other six start out good to great. In recent years, he said, 2003 and 2011 were very difficult. He (and others) lauded 2010 for its exceptional ripeness. Most in Virginia will tell you it's a great vintage because they got such great and unusual ripeness. I was sometimes, but not always, convinced. Certainly, that big, ripe fruit is an obvious characteristic that will initially impress, but the 2009s and 2013s that I saw certainly showed well. In fact, while I generally thought the 2010s bested the 2012s in most cases, at times I preferred the better-balanced 2009s. I do think the 2010s are just a bit overrated. In some places, they were the stars and definitely lived up to the reputation. The wines had more concentration. However, in some wineries and with some grapes, they seemed a bit overripe and overly alcoholic.
In whites, there are plenty of Chardonnays and Viogniers, the latter considered the state grape and a potential signature grape in particular, plus many others, including hybrids such as Vidal. There are times when it feels like everyone in Virginia has spoken to the same consultant. Viognier was declared the next great white and they are everywhere, it seems. That potential "signature" white in Viognier does look reasonably good, as demonstrated by places like Barboursville, Keswick, Michael Shaps and others. It is another avenue available in whites besides the ubiquitous Chardonnay, but it might not actually be the best white choice.
Mike Heny (Horton winemaker) mentioned Petit Manseng to me as possibly the next big thing and winemaker Michael Shaps said that Petit Manseng "is ideal in Virginia. The humidity here doesn't favor Chardonnay." Another reason it seems popular, of course, is that it provides big acidity, which isn't always easy to come by in all parts of Virginia. This seems to have great potential, but while the examples seemed very nice, in quantity it is a long way from taking over the industry. Still, check out some Petit Manseng in varying styles from Michael Shaps and Glen Manor (the off-dry version), among many others. Many producers also make nice dessert wine styles. Try some from Linden or Glen Manor (the Raepheus), for instance. They are all very promising. I liked them a lot and better than the Viogniers in principle. Sometimes the Viogniers could seem a bit flabby. That usually won't be a problem with the Petit Manseng.
The mainstay is Chardonnay, of course, and there are certainly some very fine examples. An obvious standout is Linden. Jim Law at Linden particularly provides lessons in Chardonnay terroir in Northern Virginia. I doubt that anyone in the state is making better Chardonnay. He is doing it in varying styles that beautifully express his terroir. If you like exceptional Chardonnay, Linden should be a destination, and not just in a "good for the East Coast" context.
You won't, on the other hand, find a lot of common grapes like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Consultants evidently advised most winemakers that Sauvignon Blanc was wrong for the State because it will be difficult to grow in many places. But there were some rewards for those who made the effort. One clear nod has to be to Jeff White at Glen Manor, which has mature vines. There are also the bits and pieces of things like Vermentino, Roussanne and Albarino.
In reds, this is (yet another) region focusing on Bordeaux grapes. They are doing a pretty good job, but while I won't say they are necessarily better, I confess that I had a little extra zing and zest in my heart while tasting Barboursville's Nebbiolo and Paradise Springs' Tannat (among others) than the same-old, same-old Bordeaux grapes. Barboursville's performance with Italian grapes actually is quite amazing, but that's a story unto itself. Perhaps they should rip out the French stuff and just settle down with Italian grapes. (Yep, probably not happening. The other stuff is good, too.)
The thought of Cabernet Franc being a signature red has produced little evidence of that being a great idea from what I saw. They were often odd and usually lacking anything resembling mid-palate concentration. Mid-palate concentration can be an issue in the East in general, of course. The path to ripeness is not always so clear in Eastern territories. But it did seem even more of an issue here.
On the other hand, for red diversity, I did see that lovely Tannat, better known in Madiran and Uruguay, cropping up frequently. (It, too, is a trend.) There are many others that pop up from Chambourcin and Norton, to be sure. (Norton, a rather obscure grape said to be introduced in the 19th century by Daniel Norborne Norton of Richmond, Virginia, has been prominent for more than a century, still popularized today by wineries like Horton. I vaguely recall tasting this at Horton many years ago - I believe the Horton Norton was the first Virginia wine I had long ago.) Other notable grapes like Syrah and Grenache are in short supply, although there are some. Bits and pieces crop up, too, like Horton's Pinotage.
Statistics put things in focus. According to the Virginia 2013 Commercial Grape Report from the Virginia Wine Board, the biggest grapes harvested were Vidal Blanc (579 tons), Cabernet Franc (860 tons), Cabernet Sauvignon (440), Petit Verdot (384), Chardonnay (850 tons), Merlot (732), Chambourcin (450 tons) and Viognier (457), meaning: Bordeaux grapes, Chardonnay, Viognier and well-known hybrids. Nothing else is over 400 tons. Promising grapes that winemakers touted to me, such as Tannat (101) and Petit Manseng (162), trail badly, but Petit Verdot seems to be on the rise. I wonder, frankly, if that last is such a great idea. They were often reasonably good and perhaps better than the Cab Francs, but how many winemakers around the world have garnered fame and fortune by making monovarietal Petit Verdot?
The obvious conclusion is pretty obvious: Virginia's identity is still in flux when compared to the other regions on which this report focuses, because pretty much no one thinks the discussion of "Who We Are" is over. In Long Island, Merlot. In the Finger Lakes, Riesling. Easy and quick answers. If you want to expand a bit, you add Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc on Long Island; and other white grapes, particularly Germanic, in the Finger Lakes. It's not the whole story, but it is a clear identity.
Confirming what seems to be the case, Boyd said, "In general, we find that Virginia has such wide geographic microclimates and soil types that we continue to find lots of experimentation with various grape varieties. So the short story is that VA is still doing quite a bit of experimentation and it's too early to lock in on one variety like Pinot Noir for Oregon or Riesling for the Finger Lakes." In truth, I think it is far more likely that it will never happen. The state is just too big and too different. Virginia's story is not ever likely to just be "we're this and that's that." As things shake out and producers learn their terroirs, I expect there to be more focus on specific grapes in particular areas and more divergence in views. For the state as a whole, consensus might become less, not more, likely.
In terms of quality, there were a few too many routine wines - pleasant, correct, a big cut above what you might expect in days gone by from the East Coast, but not truly distinctive. These were what one winemaker called "serviceable wines." There were also quite a few producers who clearly rose well above the ordinary, in general or for some specific category, including Barboursville, RdV, Paradise Springs, Williamsburg, Michael Shaps, Linden, Keswick and several others. The high end tended to hold its own well, but it didn't always seem like there was as much of it or as much consistency as in the other regions discussed in this report. These questions are simply what you have to expect when so many wineries have come online so quickly. The overall progress is encouraging, though. Even producers working with young vines show good potential. The state still has enormous untapped promise for the future - and the top slice of wineries is not waiting. They are making superb wines right now.
Over and Out - for now: The Conclusions in Summary
Probably the most consistent region in this report is the smallest: Long Island. It is focused very carefully and there are a lot of producers with track records who are making fine wines that age and perform at a high level. The wines have a classic feel. Their direction is clear. The focus on quality is evident, too. You're not going to find Catawba and Baco Noir here (at least not much and not that I saw - stuff always crops up). Of course, it is far easier to have a direction when you have such a small and rather close-knit community.
The Finger Lakes region probably has more variation, but if you force me to name one category that will unquestionably take its place with the world's greats at some point and get geeks excited, that would have to be Finger Lake whites, Germanic grapes specifically, and especially Riesling. They've just got this idea down right. The price points are enticing, too. Take a look at some of Wagner's submissions, to name one. It has long been a truism for wine geeks: when you want good wines at nice prices, look for the less famous regions and cherry pick. You can do that here with lots of success. Even the basic "core" Rieslings show quite nicely for the most part.
If Virginia is the murkiest, in part simply due to its size and diversity, its top end proves that the potential here is simply enormous and that those producers willing to invest the time and money will succeed. Given the size of Long Island and the Germanic emphasis in the Finger Lakes, it is quite likely that it will be Virginia that becomes the consumer-friendly juggernaut, the one that has the clearest and easiest path to market penetration. Things just have to settle down.
Finally, this report was fun, but it sure is not a one-off. I intend for coverage in these regions to be more regular and timely as things hit the market. There won't generally be many big reports like this. There will be continuing coverage of new releases (and expansion to cover more local regions). You'll find something to like from the Beasts of the East.
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