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FLX wine country is booming with Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer. Master of Wine Nova Cadamatre has the scoop on what’s new and exciting.

Jonathan Cristaldi
March 12, 2018

I moved from Brooklyn to California five years ago, and even amidst a veritable sea of Napa Cabernet, never lost my love for New York State wines and all their cool-climate glory. While my Napa counterparts may roll their eyes, I know well the world-class wines to be consumed from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley. If I close my eyes and think about it, I can still recall my first taste of the scintillating Hermann J. Wiemer’s Magdalena Vineyard Riesling and its honeyed finish, or Channing Daughters’ mesmerizing earthy and bright Blaufrankisch, and a 2002 Lenz Merlot that I swore was an old Right Bank red. So, when I heard that —a Master of Wine—had moved to the Finger Lakes to make Riesling, I quietly jumped for joy.    

Although Nova was not the first woman to become a Master of Wine, she can undoubtedly brag of several “firsts.” For one thing, the South Carolina native, who became a Master of Wine in 2017, is possibly the only MW to boast of working her first harvest in Pennsylvania. And in 2004, she enrolled in Cornell University’s newly formed Viticulture and Enology program. She knew nothing about wine, but liked to grow plants, and was attracted to grapevines because of their temperament and  needs—similar to that of roses.

When she graduated from Cornell in 2006, the wine industry in the wasn’t quite developed enough, and there wasn’t demand for full-time winemakers. So, after college, she moved to California and spent nine years making wine for Souverain, Beringer, Château St. Jean, and Robert Mondavi Winery. But almost a decade later, the wine industry in the Fingers Lakes—known as “FLX” to locals—was booming, the energy palpable. And in 2015, she decided to move back.

Q: It isn’t every day that a Master of Wine moves from Napa Valley to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. As a winemaker, what attracted you to FLX?

Nova Cadamatre: The climate and soils are what drew me in—the Finger Lakes region boasts a cold, continental climate, so without the lakes, vinifera vines, which benefit from radiant heat off the lakes, would be impossible to grow here. The lakes were formed around 10,000 years ago after the Wisconsin glaciers swept through the area and scoured the land to expose the bedrock, which is Devonian era shale, rich with fossil deposits.

The topsoil is composed of glacial deposits, and vineyards vary in the number of deposits, even within the same vineyard, which makes planting a vineyard a bit challenging, but leads to a wide diversity of expressions from the various grapes planted. Vines must be close to one of the lakes to take advantage of the radiant heat given off by the water during the winter. Since the lakes are so deep, they act as a heat sink during the summer and then a heat source during the winter. Seneca lake—the largest and deepest at 600 feet—has only frozen over completely four times in recorded history.

Q: What are the main styles of wine produced from FLX’s primary grapes?

NC: The most widely planted grape is Riesling. But we also have Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, as well as Blaufränkisch (known as Lemberger locally), Saperavi, and Teroldego.

But Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Cabernet Franc reign supreme. Rieslings range in style from bone-dry to very sweet and for me are close in style to those from Pfalz in Germany. Many winemakers are trying some cool experiments, like neutral barrel fermentations and skin to increase complexity in their Rieslings.

You can find anything from pure stainless steel Chardonnays all the way to fully oaked bottlings. Because we share a climate similar to Chablis, FLX Chardonnay acid tends to be very lean and the style mineral-driven.

The best Gewürztraminers rival the best that Alsace can produce. These whites are exquisite with vibrant aromatic expressions and balanced, fresh acid, which distinguishes them from more flabby and fat examples made in warmer climates.  

FLX Cabernet Franc tends to be light-bodied, with red berry fruit and earthy notes, but a few winemakers, including myself, are making more medium-bodied, fuller styles. Some winemakers are experimenting with unoaked Cabernet Franc, more akin to the reds of Beaujolais at the village level.

There are also several FLX wineries making sparkling wine from the local Cayuga grape, similar to Prosecco, as well as beautiful sparkling wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the traditional method—fermented in the bottle like Champagne. 

Q: You make two Rieslings that are entirely different stylistically from one another. Tell me about them.  

NC: One is a more classic Finger Lakes style, which is off-dry, fruit forward, and approachable early. I do use about 20 percent neutral-barrel fermentation, which adds complexity and richness on the palate — this is typical of the best producers in the area.

Under my label, , I take a more avant-garde approach. Just after pressing my grapes, I allow two hours of skin- to increase the tannin levels, followed by a five-day cold-soak of the juice and solids before I rack off the juice and start fermentation. I ferment the wine completely to make a bone-dry style, and then bottle age for a significant time before releasing it to the public—the time in the bottle makes my Riesling more approachable young but will age a long time.

Q: Can you name some of your favorite producers in the area? How about favorite wine experiences?

NC: I highly recommend planning your trip, as many of the wineries are spread apart by the lakes, and it takes quite a while to drive between them although it is a beautiful drive. Here’s my short list of favorites: , , , , , , , , , and of course .

Q: How do you see the FLX winegrowing scene changing in the next ten years?

NC: Right now we are still relatively unknown to a large number of people, but word is getting out, and it’s clear that the next 10 years will see a rapid growth of the industry and tourism. I like to think we are in the sample place Napa was back in the 1970s. As more and more people realize how fantastic the wines are from FLX, we will continue to develop into a national destination for food and wine.   

Q: Have you had a chance to taste any aged bottles of New York State wine?

NC: The oldest bottles of Riesling I’ve tasted have been around 15 years old from Thirsty Owl Wine Company — and they are still singing. The acid helps wines age well, and I can only imagine that as the quality of winemaking and grape growing improves that the wines longevity will continue to develop as well.

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