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The 2018 Rieslings

The Finger Lakes 2018 harvest was more nightmare than fairytale. The season began well enough: no major winter damage or early frost, with a dry spring and early summer conditions. Then August arrived with rain and humidity.
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A happy ending to a heartbreaking season

By Sarah Thompson

Processing Seyval grapes at Villa Bellangelo on the west side of Seneca Lake. Photo by Michael Welch.

The Finger Lakes 2018 harvest was more nightmare than fairytale. The season began well enough: no major winter damage or early frost, with a dry spring and early summer conditions. Then August arrived with rain and humidity. A lot of rain and humidity. According to Chris Gerling, enology extension associate at Cornell University, “2018 was as humid as it gets in every part of the [NY] state.”

High humidity increased disease pressure and rot, while wet, cloudy conditions in September and October stalled sugar accumulation (i.e., ripening). This was bad news for Riesling, a later-harvested variety whose tight grape clusters are prone to rot. But if you’re Steve DiFrancesco, head winemaker at Glenora Wine Cellars, with 40 years of Finger Lakes harvests under your belt, you take it in stride.

“You have to do the best you can with what you have. It’s not just the season defining the results, it’s your to reaction to those conditions,” DiFrancesco said.

In general, Finger Lakes winemakers reacted by sticking to the basics of clean, quality winemaking. This meant harvesting earlier than usual to beat the rot, and painstakingly scouring vineyards by hand to bring in the cleanest fruit possible.

Sorting grapes at Villa Bellangelo.

“Vintage 2018 was not a vintage to fool around with,” said Johannes Reinhardt, owner and winemaker at Kemmeter Wines on the east side of Seneca Lake.

So what can drinkers expect from the rough start to the 2018 Rieslings?

“Time is a healer,” as Anthony Road Wine Company winemaker Peter Becraft says, and winemakers were able to craft a happy ending that they think customers will appreciate.

DiFrancesco is pleased to see that the slightly higher acidity of earlier-harvested grapes is balanced by fresh, brighter flavors with citrus notes. Consumers are likely to find more Rieslings in an off-dry style similar to Kabinetts from Germany. These are wines with racy acidity but quite low alcohol levels (ranging from 7% to 13%). They are refreshing and eminently drinkable. But don’t expect to see many late-harvest Rieslings or more experimental products.

“The vineyard didn’t give us the potential to do some things I’d normally do, like a skin-ferment or a sparkling Riesling,” Becraft said. “If there are any ‘off’ aromas or faults in the grapes, it will be accentuated by these styles.”

Looking back at 2018, there are lessons learned: Climate changes mean that vineyard management and winemaking here can never be by rote. But, as DiFrancesco said, adverse conditions make Finger Lakes producers more nimble each year. Becraft can testify to this; his winemaker tasting group recently tasted 18 tank samples of dry Riesling from the region and only one exhibited any rot-related volatility.

“To keep consistency in wine is hard, especially in the Finger Lakes. But in 2018, this was especially so,” said Reinhardt. “We’re grateful to see what we have, and consumers tasting the 2018 Rieslings will find some exciting wines.”

Sarah Thompson is a writer, certified yoga teacher and small vineyard owner in Penn Yan. She is the author of Finger Lakes Wine Country (Arcadia Publishing, 2015), an archival visual history covering more than 150 years of grape growing and winemaking in the Finger Lakes region.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of the magazine.

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