Talking 2015 With a Vineyard Guy

“These things are to be EXPECTED in cool climate viticulture.  And if you don’t EXPECT them and anticipate them, then you shouldn’t be growing grapes here.  Because it means you are ignoring what is statistically common.”

These were the words of Arlo Ringsmuth, an intelligent and passionate former-marine-turned-Finger Lakes grape grower who has worked the past four years at Sawmill Creek Vineyards, a superb, steep site on the east side of Seneca Lake.  Arlo looks about the opposite of a marine now.  He has a 4-inch long beard and lives basically off the grid, very much in touch with nature in his work and in his play.  He had kindly stopped by my home to chat about viticulture and give this comparably “indoor” retailer his round-up of vintage 2015 in the Finger Lakes.

Arlo hauling in a load of 2015 grapes on a brilliant fall day.

In short, Arlo sums up 2015 as a “good” vintage, but he doesn’t like the rain we got (at flowering in spring as well as in 5 inches in September), and due to lower yields, it is not a “great” vintage commercially for growers and wineries.  He says it was one of the smoothest vintages in terms of spacing out the harvest and not being “stacked up” with having to pick many varieties all at the same time.  Pinot Noir harvested in mid-September enjoyed dry conditions and came in before some big rains, so it may be a star for the year.  And he says Cabernet Sauvignon ripened well on their farm.

 

VIEW FROM THE VINEYARD, ARLO’S EYES:

Coming off our second harsh winter in a row, 2015′s cold wintry weather seemed to drag on rather unkindly through April.  But winter came to an abrupt end, turning instantly rather summer-like.  We had a very warm May and the vines made up for lost time.  Flowering or “bloom” normally takes place in late May and early June in the Finger Lakes.  Unfortunately, this is when the skies opened up and rain fell on and off throughout June and into the first third of July.  The heat of May was soon forgotten.

As much as we probably all wish grapes could be grown organically in the Finger Lakes, it’s a rather tall order in our region because of precipitation such as we encountered in late spring.  As if our vines weren’t stressed enough by the 2014-15 cold spells (Arlo noticed that Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling came off the winter with less buds), just as they began to produce the precious flowers that would become the year’s fruit, they were repeatedly inundated with showers and dreary, overcast weather.  The rains can knock off the buds (reducing yield) or lodge the cap into the bunch, setting up conditions for botrytis infection down the line.  The botrytis doesn’t show up until the grapes accumulate sugar in late summer.  Or a poor “fruit set” can result in smaller berries or uneven ripening (another eventual cause of low yield).  In other words, what happens in the previous winter and the spring is what largely determines the fruit yields and grapes’ health. The phrase “everything in moderation” can seem an elusive dream in a Finger Lakes vineyard.

To protect the valuable potential on the vines, it’s essential to keep to spray schedules and that can be difficult when it’s raining often.  Moisture creates rot of various kinds and rot isn’t acceptable in high quality wine.  In the Finger Lakes, growers find fungicide crucial in keeping rot at bay.  However, you need dry days to spray and those were scarce in June.  Arlo says their tractors worked back and forth whenever the skies held back their moisture, only to create another problem–soil compaction.  Vines like nicely textured soil where they roots can take up nutrients and water, not being rolled over by heavy machinery.

Talking about sprays isn’t very sexy, is it?  But at this point, it’s a cool-climate reality that greatly impacts the quality and economic outcome of the season, in partnership with loving care of balanced vines.  We fight fungal disease in the Finger Lakes much more than in drier, warm climates, so organic viticulture has yet been unattainable.  Instead, sorting tables are the last line of defense for wineries seeking to guard quality. 

In a fickle turnaround, July was rather dry and we had less rain than usual, followed by a normal Finger Lakes August.  What this means for most people is that it was a great time to jump in the lakes and go to water parks. Since the vines are firmly rooted under soil and rock, they must do without a refreshing drink, and like many established garden perennials, they muster through.  Luckily, the heat was not extreme and ripening inched forward in the summer days.

Leaf pulling is another essential viticultural action in July and again after véraison (the period when red varieties turn from green to purple).  Leaf pulling helps expose the fruit to the sun and increase air flow (vines like breezes that dry off any moisture).  It also allows the sprays to penetrate more effectively where they are needed, allowing one to use less chemicals. Some local growers leaf pull sooner and better than others.  They also do crop estimates based on established formulas, and after véraison, it is often a time to “drop fruit” or “crop thin.”  This allows the vine to focus on ripening a reasonable amount of sweet fruit instead of tons of mediocre, diluted fruit.  Again, in the Finger Lakes, this practice varies from grower to grower and I imagine to some, dropped fruit looks like dollar bills on the ground.  But if you want a delicious, evenly ripened crop that is balanced with the right amount of canopy, it takes manpower, attention, dry work days and the right vineyard management philosophies.

How did the vintage end?  After a mostly glorious, sunny September, thirty-six hours of notable rain occurred at the end of the month.  Those who picked well-farmed Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varieties before the deluge took in an attractive crop of below normal to normal yields.  Grape clusters are tightly packed with berries, so rain can cause splitting, oxidation and uptakes in water that dilute the juice. 

October was quintessential Finger Lakes fall weather…some gorgeous, blue skies, some beautiful autumn colors and some frost. There was increasing botrytis as the month progressed.  On October 18th, we had a prolonged overnight frost and actually a little snow in certain locations.  After a freeze, vine leaves fall off within a few days and no further sugar accumulates.  Depending on your location, the frost may have hit harder in some sites than in others.  This is why having multiple vineyard sources has its advantages.  Any fruit that remains on the vine after the frost will not get any riper, but acid levels will go down.  Basically, the mid-October frost signaled the end of the vintage was imminent and no one would be harvesting into November.

Good viticultural practices in 2015 were key with the amount of precipitation we encountered at key moments in the growing season.  In general, Arlo concludes it is all what growers do to in response to the weather that matters, such as keeping on their spray schedules to prevent sour rot and unwanted botrytis, pulling leaves to open the canopy, dropping fruit so that the crop can ripen.  One reason growing techniques vary from grower to grower is sometimes there isn’t enough labor in the Finger Lakes to get on top of the problems.  Are there enough people on-hand to get all the tasks done in a timely manner and approach the vintage in a preventative manner or are growers fighting fires and picking their battles based on what’s most urgent? Overall, it very much depends on which varieties you grew, and as usual, it’s early to tell, but it might even have been a superb vintage if you stayed vigilant.

Having visited a few French cellars over the years and asking vignerons their impressions of the vintage, I often hear the word “classic” as a descriptor.  It sounds so much more appealing than saying “average,” “typical,” or “normal.” If you hail from a cool-climate like the Finger Lakes where a range of damaging weather events can occur throughout the growing season, like Arlos says, you should be used to soldiering through.  The devil is in the details, they say, and that certainly applies every year in the Finger Lakes.  Considering the high points and low points of 2015, it was up to the grower to determine the outcome in the vats and barrels this year.  I think it’d be appropriate to call it a “classic” Finger Lakes year.

 

-Written by Dewi Rainey with thanks to Arlo Ringsmuth*

*Arlo begins a new project in 2016 by preparing a plot of his family’s land on east Seneca Lake to plant Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  He aims to create a “working landscape” with beneficial vegetation and insects in which something is always in bloom.  Look for premium Finger Lakes grapes from “In Bloom” in 2020 and beyond.

Click here to check out our Finger Lakes wine selection.

PART 1: New Finger Lakes Arrivals to Get Excited About

When you take a look around, you’ll find some fresh, new energy rifting through the Finger Lakes wine industry.  Young and exploratory winemakers and growers are carving their own unique places in the industry, while also paying homage to those who have spent their careers diligently working to place the region on the global wine map.  

At Red Feet, we strive to engage with local wineries; tasting, visiting, and getting to know these dedicated people, so that you are presented with the best new bottlings throughout the year. We recently had the pleasure of tasting and chatting (on separate occasions) with two winemakers that have been hot on the radar lately, August Deimel of Keuka Spring Vineyards and Christopher Bates of Element Winery.

When you meet August, you are enveloped by his exuberant energy and captivated by his passion.

August Deimel joined Keuka Spring Vineyards in 2012 as head winemaker.   He often speaks in poetic parlance about cool climate, Finger Lakes varieties, especially Gewürztraminer.    As a graduate* of St. John’s College (Santa Fe, New Mexico), Deimel’s persona is undoubtably influenced by his study of the Great Books and the brilliant minds of renowned philosophers.  This mindfulness has likely played a large role in his desire to be somewhat experimental in his approach to winemaking, unafraid of questioning the norm and cultivating his own unique place within the industry.  August is also a Cornell graduate, holding a Master’s Degree in Enology from the university.

Although Deimel has a fond appreciation for and adeptness with Riesling, his passion is for Gewürztraminer, which he calls “a beautiful, if misunderstood, grape.”  I asked August to elaborate on his fascination with Gewürztraminer, to which he replied:

“Often compared to Riesling because it grows in a similar climate and is an aromatic white grape, it is actually quite different.  Whereas Riesling is a medium-weight grape that can trend toward the ethereal, Gewürztraminer wants to be dense and thick.  Whereas Riesling will always be about the nose, its beautiful aromatics carrying it forward, Gewürztraminer is deceptive.  The nose of Gewürztraminer may be what first captures you, but its the texture that makes it truly beautiful.  The mouthfeel of the best cool-climate Gewürztraminer is like nothing else in the white wine world.  It can be weighty without being oppressive and powerful without becoming a caricature. It’s exploring that side of Gewürztraminer that I love.”  

We had the opportunity to taste the classic 2014 bottling from Keuka Spring Vineyards as well as their 2014 Dynamite Vineyard Gewürztraminer recently, and were extremely impressed with the concentration, texture, and purity of each.  You can now find both of these wines on our shelves along with the 2014 Keuka Spring Vineyards Riesling.  (All are perfect matches your upcoming Thanksgiving dinner!)

2014 Keuka Spring Vineyards Dynamite Vineyard Gewurztraminer
Dynamite Vineyard is located on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, and boasts one of the largest single vineyard plantings of Gewürztraminer in the Finger Lakes.  The name refers to the dynamite once used to break up the dense rocks in the soil in order to put the posts into the ground for the trellis system.  

Much of the texture and depth of this wine comes from fermenting in barrel (45% of the total wine) followed by two months of aging in older oak barrels.  The aromatics are fresh and vibrant, ushering in notes of lemon zest, lychee, pear, and guava.  Texturally, this Gewürztraminer is a star!  An incredibly silky mouthfeel couples with nice weight and depth on the palate.  Mineral, slate, and spice present themselves right away and continue to linger throughout.  Notes of lychee, quince, passionfruit, and lemon pith also come through, backed by well balanced acidity and persisting spice. 

2014 Keuka Spring Vineyards Gewurztraminer
Well-structured with a fresh, floral bouquet and wonderful clarity, this classic bottling from Keuka Spring Vineyards dances along the palate with a delicate, yet focused nature.  It doesn’t carry quite the viscosity of the Dynamite Vineyard bottling, but still reveals a richness that is undeniable.  Almond, candied lemon peel, and ripe stone fruits weave together on the nose, leading to a palate with concentration and complexity.  Stone fruits make an appearance again along with notes of lemon, mineral, and a lingering spicy finish with lively acidity.  Acidity, weight, and spice are all working harmoniously in this bottling, with each component shining through from the entry on the palate to the finish.

 

Check back next Friday for PART 2: New Finger Lakes Arrivals to Get Excited About when we’ll focus on Element Winery and local Sommelier-Chef, Christopher Bates. 

It was at this blind tasting in October that we discovered Chris Bates' beautiful Pinot Noir 2012 (Element Winery).

 

- K. Rose

Here’s what a new tractor looks like at Château de Montfaucon

We carry several wines from Château de Montfaucon, a family-run estate located across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhone Valley of France.  The amiable owners, Rodolphe and Mari de Pins, have become good friends in fact, over the years.  But we carry the wines out of pure adoration for the quality and because they are tremendous values.

I recently hooked up with my friends for a meal and catch-up in NYC when they were in the country on business.  Rudi told me that he had a new tractor and was anxious to show me photos of it.  I wondered why he was so enthusiastic about a machine; it didn’t seem to be the type of thing that would make him all giddy.  I figured it really must be something.  Probably the latest technology with miniature size and handy new functions; though that had me puzzled as the tractors at Montfaucon never looked all that spiffy.  Rather covered with dirt and very well used.  The estate is traditional, honest, manual, organic and focused on one singular thing:  growing the best possible grapes and then getting out of the way.

Rudi opened up his ipad right in the foyer of Aqua Grill as we waited for our table.  These are the pictures I was shown of the “new tractor.”  Her name is Tiffany and her operator is affectionately called Kojak.

Rudi is especially keen to use this beautiful draft horse in his new plantings and in his very old vines.  He says he can’t stand to see any damage done to his beloved and delicate vines.  He has some Clairette vines that are as old as 140 years, so it would certainly be a crime to hurt them with a machine.  In case you are curious, here’s what a 140-year old vine looks like.  He calls this one “Octopussy.”

I love this photo with Château de Montfaucon (an 11th century Scottish-style, 3-sided castle) in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are Tiffany and Kojak working in the new Mourvèdre vines planted in 2013 in honor of Rudi and Mari’s new baby girl, Wilhelmine.  Mari says Mourvèdre is apropos as it’s as sassy and characterful as the little miss!

 

There they go, working in the new vineyard just below a plateau of garrigue.

Vines do not like a great deal of compaction.  The roots don’t like to be stepped on with a 2-ton machine several times a month.  I’m sure they much prefer this nice horse.  It might look easy, but this is intense work that requires muscle, endurance and a willingness to work for hours in the Provençal sun.  Handcrafted wines indeed.  From vine to glass, these grapes are touched with love.  It makes one realize even more what a value they are at $12 to $49 a bottle.

Below is a video of the dynamic duo cultivating the ground between rows.

tiffany in action

Cheers, Dewi Rainey