Star California and German winemakers will plant vineyards and produce Riesling
The Finger Lakes wine region of New York, which has steadily improved in recent years with Riesling as its lead variety, is drawing increasing attention from outside vintners. Paul Hobbs, whose eponymous California winery produces outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and Germany’s Johannes Selbach of the Mosel Valley’s Selbach-Oster have announced a new joint venture in the area.
The new project is located on the southeastern shore of Seneca Lake, where many of the area’s most prominent wineries and high-quality vineyards are located. “I’m really excited by the site, which took me two years to find,” Hobbs told Wine Spectator. He bought the property in June 2013. Located in the town of Burdett, the 67-acre site runs along both sides of Route 414, though the lower portion won’t be planted because it is too steep. The upper portion ranges in elevation from 600 to 900 feet and there are about 45 plantable acres, according to Hobbs. “It will take us three years to plant, as we have to order up the vine material. We plan to go with at least 90 percent Riesling, with maybe a little Gewürztraminer or Pinot Blanc.
The new project is a homecoming of sorts for Hobbs, who was born in upstate New York and planted vineyards with his father in Niagara County as a young man. “My dad knew Konstantin Frank [founder of the pioneering Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellar] and he would go over to the Finger Lakes and get advice from him. We were growing hybrids only at the time, so it’s sort of ancient history. But obviously it had an impact as I really cut my teeth on those vineyards before moving on to California,” said Hobbs.
Hobbs first met Selbach in 1998 while touring wineries in the Mosel. The two became friends and this marks their first winemaking venture together. Selbach, whose Mosel estate is one of the region’s top wineries, took some convincing to get on board with the project though, according to Hobbs. “When he first saw the site, it was pretty rough—lots of trees,” said Hobbs. “It needed work and I don’t think he was too crazy about it at first. But then we dug the soil pits and he saw the shale and now I know he’s in love with it.”
The as-yet-unnamed project will likely produce its first wines in 2015 using purchased fruit while waiting for the new plantings to come online, says Hobbs.
The Finger Lakes region, located five hours by car from New York City, has a long history of quantity-first, rather than quality-first, wine production based on hybrid and native American grapes. Over the past 15 years though, a steady shift to higher-quality, lower-yielding vinifera grapes has taken hold. Riesling has been the best performer so far, along with other aromatic whites. Reds made from Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Blaufränkisch (sometimes called Lemberger) have also shown promise.
Hobbs and Selbach are not the first outsiders to stake a claim in the Finger Lakes, but this combination of California and German vintners is the most high-profile to date. Louis Barruol of the Rhône Valley’s Chateau de St.-Cosme has started his Forge Cellars label with local Finger Lakes investors, while winemakers Morten Hallgren of Ravines and Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road moved to the Finger Lakes after previous winemaking stints in Europe.