Last month we left the city for the weekend to gorge ourselves on the best wines made in New York State. My girlfriend Amanda and I had been invited to spend some time in the Finger Lakes, starting with a vertical tasting of Hermann J Wiemer Rieslings from ’99-’08 hosted by the winemaker, Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke the estate manager. Fred has been at the winery for nine years gradually taking over full winemaking responsibilities and Oskar worked there as an intern for two years after working in the wine industry in NYC. Hermann was looking to retire and lacking any natural heirs struck a favorable deal a few years ago to have the winery sold/passed down to his vigneron protege and his impish former intern. These are not the most well known wines of the region necessarily (that is changing) but they are far and away the benchmark and are almost solely responsible for the legitimacy of the Finger Lakes AVA.
The winery was established in 1979 on the west side of Seneca Lake. There are seven lakes in region which are long, narrow and incredibly deep. This is the reason the vines can survive the harsh NY winters in that the depth of the lake actually prevents it from freezing and protects the the area up to just over a mile from it’s shore.
Originally from Bernkastel, Germany, Hermann’s family on his mother’s side were winemakers and his father’s position as the head of the Agricultural Station in Bernkastel put the task on his shoulders of restoring the vines damaged during WWII. He followed what had been done before in France and grafted vinifera onto American rootstock convincing even Dr. Thanisch that this was necessary and beneficial for the Mosel.
Hermann himself studied winemaking and grew up grafting vines. He moved to New York in the 1970′s and became familiar with the area and it’s potential while working with some of the large bulk producers in the area who had little interest of attempting to make quality wines. He planted the HJW vineyard in 1976- the first vintage was 1979. One mile from the lake at 800 feet elevation, this vineyard is directly behind the winery and is the coolest of the three vineyards which Fred now sources fruit from.
The other two vineyards are Magdalena and Josef which are ten miles north of the winery in one of the warmest spots of the Finger Lakes. Magdalena was planted in 1999 and Josef has vines over 30 years old including the oldest vines of Gewurtztraminer in New York, a one acre block from 1967 (also the oldest vines of any varietal in New York). All three vineyards vary in soil type- mainly rich loam, silt loam and eroded top soil with shale and gravel deposits (we visited the waterfalls in Watkins Glen- ten minutes south where you get an up close scatch and sniff view of the shale that lays beneath the soil in the area).
To the wines- Fred led the tasting which included Amanda and myself, a few Wiemer collectors and enthusiasts and a some wine buyers from the area (I was the only one from the city) eighteen people in all eagerly sat down to taste what in some vintages were among the last bottles remaining at the winery.
1999 Dry Riesling 49% Josef vyd, 51% HJW vyd
Petrol, wet stone a bit of honey on the edge with honeydew and melon rind. Nice petrol and minerality on the palate with a honeyed bone dry finish.
2000 Dry Riesling 55% Josef, 45% HJW
Grassy peppery honeydew on nose peach kernel and wet slate in midpalate, nice balance acidity carries through a long peach skin finish.
2001 Dry Riesling 42% Josef, 58%HJW
Funky petrol, caramel and thistle on nose. Wet stone soft bruised pear and overripe peach on palate with a medium to long finish. A bit of the fruit from Josef was botrytis affected.
2002 Dry Riesling 67% Josef, 26%HJW, 7% Magdalena
Rich ripe peach and lychee on nose, juicy canteloupe midpalate finishes long and dry.
2003 Dry Riesling 60% Josef, 20%HJW, 20% Magdalena
Peaches and cream, ripe baked apple with a lemon rind edge beautiful balance with a medium finish.
2004 Dry Riesling 70% Josef, 30% Magdalena
Grassy peppery arugula nose, honeydew and pepper on plate with lychee and nice minerality.
2005 Dry Riesling 50% Josef, 50% Magdalena
Petrol, honeysuckle, acacia flowers, dried apricots on nose, wet stone and young peach skin on palate, nice acidity long finish lingers with minerality dominating at the end.
2006 Dry Riesling 37%Josef, 48% Magdalena, 15% HJW
Green apple, wet stone, acacia, honeydew and arugula on edge. Mineral in midpalate with a short finish.
2007 Dry Riesling 44% Josef, 36% Magdalena, 20%HJW
Lychee, lime meringue on nose with funky honeycomb and kiwi mineral midpalate with a medium succulent finish. This is the one wine from New York that I pour by the glass at Rothmann’s.
2008 Dry Riesling 44% Josef, 44% Magdalena, 12% HJW
Not yet bottled- tank sample. Pineapple, baked apple and sweet peppery lemon meringue, lime zest and grapefruit with nice mineral structure and racy acidity.
I saw a lot of similarities between the 2000 and 2004 and also thought the 1999 and 2005 showed a ceratin sibling rivalry but the 05 would win the backyard brawl. I think the 2007 is going to be amazingly long lived. A lot of fight in all of these dogs and no dogs in the bunch. The weakest of the lineup was the 2006.
They then brought out four more wines for the table which by now had gotten chummy and chatty, everyone passing bottles around after getting the “serious” tasting out of the way.
2003 Dry Reserve Riesling 100%HJW
Peaches and cream, apricot, panna cotta, touch of petrol, honey comb, wet slate long mineral finish.
2004 Semi-Dry Riesling 75% Josef 25% Magdalena
Funky melon rind, grassy notes, white pepper, wet gravel, orange peel, creme de menthe on nose, tangerine, juicy peach and apricot with a long finish.
1999 Late Harvest Riesling 100% HJW
Honey almond, candied walnut, candied orange peel, cinnamon toast, pineapple, melted butterscotch with candied nut and caramel baked apple on the palate. Long finish but nice balance. This is a wine to take home to Mom and get a wink from Dad.
1990 Dry Riesling 100% HJW from 1/2 bottle
The great 1990 vintage worldwide strikes the Finger Lakes. Apricot and tangerine dominate the nose, hint of petrol, white pepper and clove on midpalate, long peach kernel finish. Still showing amazing life considering the format from which it was served. Last bottle remaining at the winery (or so Oskar claimed…)
This tasting was a testament to what Hermann Wiemer had built and successfully passed on to a new generation. Other wineries in the area are bigger and claim more attention because they seek it out and seem to have money behind marketing. Hermann never did, reasoning that the wines would speak for themselves. He has made a great American winery, something unique for the price point- the rieslings retail under $20. Look for the quality to only increase, as the vines get older and Fred learns more about the vineyards and mesoclimates his predecessor was intrigued by thirty years ago.