Seyval Blanc

Serious Wines From Seneca Lake

11 March 2015

Villa Bellangelo WinesAlthough New York makes more wine than any other state except for California, it’s far easier to find bottles from Washington and Oregon than the Empire State. A characteristically grumpy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia explains why:

As New York has just one-tenth of Washington’s vinifera area, yet makes twice as much wine, the bulk of New York’s production can only be from native grapes. Only a bigot believes it impossible for native grapes to ever make a fine wine, but they are few and far between — certainly not even half of one per cent; it is the 99.5 per cent of New York’s native grape wines that are ruining the efforts of this state’s best vinifera wineries to create an international reputation for New York wine.

One might reasonably wonder how vinifera grape varieties (classics such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling) could even survive — let alone thrive — in New York, a northern state subject to harsh winters. In the case of the Finger Lakes region, the answer lies in a lucky stroke of geography.

Glaciers carved deep lake beds with steep banks of slate-rich soil. The lakes, notably Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka, store heat and help warm the surrounding landscape. “…Cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and rises,” as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “permitting more cold air to drain from the hillside.” This satellite photo, also found in The World Atlas of Wine, shows how the land adjacent to the larger lakes has less frost than land farther away. The steep banks also drain water well, important for healthy vine roots.

Villa Bellangelo Seyval BlancWine growing in the Finger Lakes region dates back to the 1820s, according to the Oxford Companion, and one of its newest fine vinifera wineries is Villa Bellangelo, set in a prime location on the west shore of Seneca Lake. The current owners of the winery, the Missick family, discovered the property on a wine-tasting tour following a 2009 wedding nearby. When it went up for sale in 2011, the Missicks acquired it and initiated extensive renovations, including installing new stainless steel fermentation tanks and a new crush pad.

Christopher Missick recently sent me free samples of six Villa Bellangelo wines, mostly from the 2013 vintage. I assembled a small group of friends to try them, and we were all impressed by the quality, especially considering that these wines represent the Missick’s third vintage ever. Here’s what we discovered:

2013 Seyval Blanc: This variety is a French hybrid well-suited to cool climates, according to the Oxford Companion. Although this hybrid has some non-vinifera genes, it can make a very pleasing wine, as evidenced by this example. We noted aromas of green apple, dried herbs and light honeysuckle, and tasters liked its “Rieslingly flavor.” It had taut white fruit, smooth white-pepper spice, a hint of sweetness and enough acids to keep it balanced. The acids became more prominent and orangey with some caramelized onion and Parmesan crostini. Not too shabby for $16.

Fellow Taster Cornelia

Fellow wine taster Cornelia

2012 Gewürztraminer: A “very perfumy” wine, as one tasting companion noted, this Gewürztraminer had a delightful aroma of honeysuckle. It feinted briefly towards honeyed fruit, but moved almost immediately to warm, gingery spice and some hay. The finish had a not-unpleasant bitter note, punctuating the dryness of this floral and fruity wine. One fellow taster remarked, rather distressingly, that this wine “tastes like [his] grandmother’s neck.” Now there’s a tasting note you don’t hear every day. $20.

2013 Chardonnay: The grapes for this wine come from the Sawmill Creek vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake, opposite the winery. I smelled a light caramel aroma, and another taster detected “something burnt — but in a nice way.” Others smelled wet stone and dried pasta, and I would concur. It had a buttered popcorn flavor, but this was no butter bomb. The wine was quite lively and balanced, with judicious oak, notable spice and a long finish. It worked especially well with olives, which brought out more of a vanilla note. An excellent value for $20.

2013 Dry Riesling: The soil composition came through clearly in this wine, which had a slatey aroma with something rich underneath (some also described the nose, not unfavorably, as “shower curtain” and “Band-Aid”). It tasted very juicy, with green-apple fruit, lemony acids and a very dry finish. Paired with bleu cheese, it felt richer and rounder. I liked its austerity, as did about half the group, but one taster called it “the least compelling so far.” $19.

Villa Bellangelo Cabernet Franc2013 Semi-Dry Riesling: The surprise hit of the evening, this wine had appealing aromas of honeyed red apple overlayed with some bright freshness. I liked its appley fruit and orangey acids, which balanced out the light sweetness. The entire group was enthusiastic about this wine, exclaiming, “This is by far the best,” and, “I don’t usually like Riesling, and I like this,” and even, “This is the wine I would like to go home with.” Very fun, and a very good value for $18.

2013 Cabernet Franc: As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “some very fine Cabernet Franc is made in the most benign years” in the Finger Lakes. This example smelled of ripe red fruit and vanilla, and on the palate it had cherry fruit, black pepper spice and an aromatic almond note. “Maraschino cherry pits!” exclaimed a fellow taster. I liked its ample fruit and rustic texture, but the wine again divided the group. $18.

Although some of these wines were controversial, each was clearly crafted with care. I especially loved the floral but dry Gewürztraminer, the rich Chardonnay and the well-balanced Semi-Dry Riesling. These wines leave no doubt in my mind that exciting things are happening in the Finger Lakes.

I can’t wait to discover more of what the region has to offer when I head there in August to attend this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. I have a feeling we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by what we’ll find.

Thankful For Wisconsin Wine

24 November 2012
Comments Off on Thankful For Wisconsin Wine

I am thankful for so many things, most of which don’t really relate to this blog. But one thing I can write about here is that I’m thankful that nowadays, tasty wines are being made all over the place. Americans have become much savvier wine consumers, demanding higher quality, and entrepreneurs have set up wineries in all 50 states. Ever more countries have discovered what unique combination of terroirs and grape varieties work for them. I am thankful that in all of known history, there has never been a time when so much fine wine from so many different places has been available at such affordable prices.

One winery I’m thankful for is Von Stiehl, in the lakeside town of Algoma, Wisconsin, where I had a memorable tour and tasting led by a former cast member of Hee-Haw. I wrote about Von Stiehl’s well-made Cabernet Sauvignon in this post a little while back, but I also brought home another bottle from that visit: A non-vintage Von Stiehl Lakeshore Fumé.

This wine is not actually a “Fumé Blanc,” a somewhat indeterminate style of Sauvignon Blanc invented in the 1970s by Robert Mondavi involving some oak aging. Von Stiehl made this wine with Seyval Blanc, a French hybrid which is “productive, ripens early and is well suited to relatively cool climates,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It sounds ideal for a Wisconsin winery. But because it has some non-vinifera relations, you’re unlikely to find any wines labeled as Seyval Blanc in its home country. Europeans always have been rather intolerant of those lacking respectable lineage.

In any case, I liked this Seyval Blanc enough to buy a bottle and cart it home. Unfortunately, it then remained on my wine rack for years, essentially unprotected from Chicago’s hot summers. I decided it was high time to open this half-forgotten bottle, because it would surely gain nothing from aging any further. So while making a batch of chicken saltimbocca with roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots and sunchokes, I cracked it open and hoped for the best.

The wine had deepened in color, turning a rich gold, and it had some pineapple in the aroma. I was relieved to smell fruit instead of mildew, dung, or nothing at all. It actually reminded me of a light Sauterne, with some woodsiness and tropical fruit, but it was but a shade of this noble French wine at this point. The fruit felt a bit flabby. Some acids remained, especially in the first 15 minutes after the wine was opened, but they started to dissapate thereafter. The wine became too white-grapey, and flab replaced what was once surely some lively fruit.

I enjoyed the first intriguing glass, but the rest of the bottle just didn’t make it. I had waited too long, and once again, a fine bottle of wine died a slow, silent death on my wine rack.

Maybe it’s time to be thankful for the wines I already have in my collection, and open the rest of the older wines now, before they too suffer a similar fate.


NV Von Stiehl Lakeshore Fumé: Originally surely well-balanced with lively acids, tropical fruit and a touch of wood, this wine didn’t age all that well. The acids decayed, and the wine became flabby. A fine choice, but drink it soon after purchase.

Grade: I can’t really give this wine a fair assessment.

Find It: Von Stiehl now sells this wine under its “Up North” label as “Tranquility Lookout,” priced at about $13.