By Randy Agness – Times Wine Columnist
You can call, email or visit the two largest producers of Vinifera Riesling grapevines in the Finger Lakes, but the response will be exactly the same: “We are completely Sold-Out!”
Higher demand for Finger Lakes Riesling wines both locally and nationally has resulted in the need by many to plant additional acreage in either existing vineyards, or planting for new vineyards. Also, the harsh weather over the previous two years has prompted vineyard managers to replace the vines which didn’t survive filling not only holes in the vineyard, but in some cases entire rows or sections.
“With the combination of high in the 90’s and no significant rain forecasted, more vines will become stressed as what rain has fallen quickly has evaporated due to the windy conditions that followed,” remarked Fred Merwarth – Hermann J Wiemer Co-Owner, “which will impact vine survival as well.”
“We are very happy with the amount of clusters and the yield potential,” expressed Sean Zugibe – Vineyard Manager at Zugibe Vineyards, “as the vine yield cycles do occur, but rain is definitely needed before conditions become irreversible.”
Oskar Bynke, Owner of Hermann Wiemer Vineyard, says “the demand has exceeded the supply. We are hopeful that the new stock from the nursery vineyard will be in greater abundance as orders for next year already total more than 50% of our capacity to fill.”
Wiemer has the overall capacity to replenish the equivalent of 375 acres, but that total is across all v. Vinifera grapes. The same situation is occurring at Grafted Grape in Clifton Springs. “When the vines don’t survive in the field, the same happens in the nursery vineyards as well, which in turn does limit the amount of stock for graft, and ultimately what can be made available for sale,” explained Eric Amberg – Owner Grafted Grapes Nursery.
Many vineyard managers in the Finger Lakes had experimental planting with a number of varieties including Gruner-Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer, and Pinot Grigio which have not proven to be as cool hardy as expected. Whereas Rieslings vines have shown a greater stability to withstand upstate New York winters.
Entire vineyards of Pinot Grigio will be pulled to make room for Riesling grapes. “Pinot Grigio is very difficult to grow being highly susceptible to vineyard damage by a variety of diseases, and not worth the amount of effort.” noted Morten Hallgren, Co-Owner of Ravines Cellars. “With limited amount of crop yield, it’s purely an economical decision to make these changes, as we have long-term plans to convert sections of vineyards to Riesling vines.”
The switchover has taken many planners by surprise as the wineries need to anticipate wine sales for three to four years in advance or be forced to slow sales growth. At the same time, producers of vine material and root stock have to meet rigorous standards for traceability to comply with disease free quality standards. Merwarth noted, “It’s not like certified nurseries acreage can be generated that quickly as an immediate reaction to shifting demand from one v. Vinifera grape to another.”
But in recent years, Riesling stock has been in high demand especially in the Finger Lakes region. “The recent changes in the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board rules now allowing direct to customer shipments and direct to retail sales, we are forecasting anywhere from a 20 to 40% increase in sales into Pennsylvania alone over the next year,” notes Oskar Bynke, “these changes are long overdue and appreciated. Trying to meet new demand is definitely a good thing.”
When crop yields increased significantly in 2013,most Finger Lakes wineries responded by buying more and larger capacity stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, so winemaking capacity isn’t an issue; it’s the availability of high quality Riesling grapes to produce premium Riesling wine. “With the loosening of restriction, there are many unknowns still,” commented Oskar Bynke.
Riesling, a noble white grape, has become loved by sommeliers and chefs for its aromatics, food-friendly acidity, and mineral-driven finesse and continues to grow in popularity being complimentary to all menus from seafood, to barbeque and beef dishes to Asian and other ethnic meals noted Ellen Bhang Boston Globe Correspondent in ‘Talking Finger Lakes Riesling with an Expert’ she quotes wine writer and historian John Winthrop Haeger ‘The biggest difference between the Finger Lakes then and now is the enormous growth in planted acreage,’ he says. ‘There’s been a real increase in serious, professionally trained winemakers,’ he continues, saying that the region has reached a ‘critical minimum mass’ whereby talent and a sense of community converge.
The number of high quality and highly rating Finger Lakes Riesling has increased dramatically in just the past few years alone, and now more vineyard acres of Riesling vines are necessary to further support the overall growth.
It should be noted that planting a single acre consisting of 800 grapevines could easily reach of cost of $25,000 and the vineyard will not produce any crop for three years. “This is a long-term investment” Jim Trezise President of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation explained, “In 2015, The Finger Lakes is home to 828.60 acres of Riesling.”
Finger Lakes Wineries consisting of more than 200 different Riesling brands produce collectively an average of 220,000 cases each year according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The average Finger Lakes winemaker provides 2-3 styles of Riesling a year, yet the majority sells less than 5,000 cases individually.
Following Riesling, the most common grapes grown in the Finger Lakes include: Chardonnay (340.53 acres), Cabernet Franc (220.74 acres), Pinot Noir (179.19 acres), Gewürtztraminer (104.94 acres), Merlot (62.25 acres), Pinot Gris (51.45 acres). “The Finger Lakes encompass eleven glacial lakes, but the area around Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes contain the vast majority of vineyard plantings in the AVA,” noted Trezise.