Wellspring of Terroir in Western New York

Seneca Lake.  Three quarters of a mile and 800 feet above its western shore is where Hermann J. Wiemer chose to plant his original vineyard in 1976.  A vineyard along with the two added almost twenty years later, Josef and Magdalena, defined by the water that is near, by the wind drawn to them, by the soil and slate formed underneath them over the last few million years.

In talking about terroir we often talk of the soil and only the soil.  The effect and amount of sunlight is noted – which direction the vineyard faces and how many hours of sunlight the grapes will receive.  Sometimes a vineyard manager or even a winemaker will offer his opinion that the concept of terroir is largely – in his humble and frank opinion – “Bulls**t . A romantic notion perpetrated by effete wine writers.”  This can be charitably translated if we realize that most people do not consider cropping (pruning of the leaves) which helps determine how much sun the grapes receive and is a chief concern of someone who spends the majority of the day with the vines themselves.  Or flavors and nuance that can be imparted by a winemaker using commercial yeasts during the fermentation process, not to mention new oak, acidification or chaptalization… Water is mentioned – too often only as a geographic designation, as in, the river is 3 miles to the east, the cooling winds from the oceans 9 miles to the west, or the average amount of rainfall and the implication of how little water the vines receive throughout the growing season.

But Seneca Lake is the conduit between the sun and soil: giving its blessing and transforming the land fortunate enough to be near it to become terroir.  The lake itself absorbing the sun and having been carved into being by the glaciers that left behind the different soil types- 38 miles long holding half of the water in all of the Finger Lakes, holding the heat for the surrounding shore to nurture its vegetation (thermal retention in wine speak).  Despite typical temperatures in the winter months in the mid 20’s Fahrenheit, the lake does not freeze.  The source of the lake is underground springs which gush 328,000 gallons of fresh water a minute to feed the gentle giant.  The force of the springs and subsequent motion of water underneath the deep surface ensures that the lake does not freeze, protecting vineyards until just over a mile away from the shoreline.  Around the area in January you see waterfalls suspended in motion, enormous chunks of ice with slight trickles of water slithering down layering over and around the frozen molecules that preceded them, contributing over the winter days to the tons of bulbous mass that will in the spring slowly re-emerge as falling water. In contrast, excepting the random jagged chunks at the edge of the southern shore in February, Seneca Lake remains comfortably in liquid form through all the seasons of its life.

Many of the world’s major wine regions have a long history originating with the Romans or even before garrisons of soldiers planted vines.  Even today we speak of “new” and “old” world wines, usually with an implied slant that the old-world wines are more complex, more worthy of respect while the new world wines are grape juice with dollops of jam smashed and stirred with new oak.  The grapes used in the production of fine wine however are not in dispute as vitis vinifera originated in Europe while vitis lambrusca hails from North America.  Most of the vines planted in the Finger Lakes region were vitis lambrusca or hybrids designed to withstand the winters and yield as many grapes and as much juice as possible.  The focus was always on quantity since quality was not seen as a viable option.  Nor did many in the area have the expertise for production of fine wine.  The grapes were designated for bulk wine before the vines were in the ground.  Just another crop like apples or wheat.

The concept of terroir is always being debated because it doesn’t directly translate, it is overused and abused and misunderstood.  Terroir usually refers to the place, the sense of place, but the people and surrounding culture contribute to terroir as well.  To me terroir exists when you taste something delicious and specific that gives you pause.  It might even slap you in the mouth and demand attention.  Cotton candy doesn’t slow me down to think on its evolution and structure.  Somewhere in the course of my day I hope a glass of wine will.   Wiemer’s Rieslings do.  Coffee, tea, cheese, other animal sources of proteins and vegetables can express terroir as well, but wine lifts the spirit and cleans the blood.

Hermann is from Bernkastel, Germany where arguably the greatest riesling vineyards in the world look down on the Mosel river. There are 300 years of winegrowing tradition on his mother’s side and his father was the head of the Agricultural Experiment Station after WWII and oversaw the replanting of vineyards destroyed during the war.  Learning about vines and rootstock during his formative years before coming to New York, Hermann had an old world sense of the potential in his adopted new region having worked for the Taylor Wine Company and Bully Hill for a number of years before planting his own vineyard.  For these wineries, he helped make wines that were technically sound, but with vitis lambrusca or hybrids the best you can say about these wines is just that, that there are no discernable flaws.  Complexity, minerality and depth of flavor are not typical of the fruit produced in these vineyards.  Hermann bought an abandoned soybean farm and planted vitus vinifera – riesling and chardonnay, against the advice of anyone willing to give an opinion.

The history of the winery has been told many times.  The first release of his wines in 1979 won admirers, silenced critics and inflamed Walter Taylor’s jealousy.  Hermann’s success with vinifera led to Taylor’s infamous telegram on Christmas Eve 1981 in which Hermann was fired from Bully Hill- a classic story that has become Finger Lakes legend (my favorite version has it as a singing telegram…not very likely but add it to the legend).  Losing his day job forced Hermann to survive on the strength of the wines made from his HJW vineyard- wines made from vinifera grapes.  Wines produced by the benediction of Seneca Lake and Hermann’s vision.   Wines of a unique terroir that was not new, it had just been waiting to be discovered.

– Tom Gannon