A dazzling New York riesling for any season
By Abe Loomis
New York wines can be hit or miss, but their stars are on the rise. Among the long hills and pristine Mennonite farms of the Finger Lakes region upstate, winemaking gems sparkle at the edges of deep, cold lakes with names like Keuka, Cayuga, and Canandaigua. (In the water itself, you’re more likely to find the small, gray, runic fossils that litter the lakebeds in surprising abundance, like fragments of alien pithoi.) These downward waters — Lake Seneca plunges 618 feet — rarely freeze in the winter, moderating the bitter cold, and their emanations cool the vines in the summer. This is the kind of climate a rising riesling rootstalk could get used to.
Born on Seneca’s shores, the 2016 Boundary Breaks No. 239 Dry Riesling is a wine of unusual length, extraordinary concentration, and intriguing complexity. Like most of its German cousins (the unchallenged standard-bearers of the varietal), it has never touched oak. The acidity is pretty and succulent one moment, tart and forceful the next: a glittering slap of spray from the water’s edge, supporting flavors of key lime, green apple, and even the tang of apricot. A glimmer of spice decorates the nose.
It is the concentration of fruit, though, that is most exceptional. “Fruit,” of course, in wine-speak, doesn’t mean sweetness. The residual sugar in the No. 239 is just .8%, according to Boundary Breaks’ technical sheet. But the experience of this wine on the palate is intense. The flavors are generous and lively, suggestive and shape-shifting. As when you sip the juice of freshly pressed apples, there is a sense of the presence of the living essence of the fruit.
Bruce Murray, owner of Boundary Breaks, connects the wine’s quality to the vineyard’s proximity to the lake and, critically, to the careful management of water.
“I hate to say it’s the drain tile, and not my genius,” he says with a chuckle. “But it’s the drain tile.”
Too much moisture in the earth can make life too easy on a vine. Its roots remain shallow because they don’t have to dig deep to drink. The fruit it bears will be bloated, watery, and sullen — noble grapes turned to naughty princes. To prevent this sort of dissipation, farmers bury drain tile, perforated pipes that let water in and carry it away, forcing the plants to work harder and reach further. (Such systems have been so important to agriculture in this part of the world that there is a whole drain-tile museum in Geneva, N.Y.) At Boundary Breaks, the drain tile is four feet down.
Less water in the environment also means the grapes get to spend more time in the sun.
“Drainage tile keeps the vineyard dry,” Murray says, “[especially] in the fall, when mold begins to be a problem for grapes. By having a very dry vineyard, we can keep our grapes out longer, they get riper, the juice is richer, and the wine tastes better.”
“No. 239” calls to mind the bin numbers used to label some Australian wines, but its meaning is more technical. Consistent with a quickening American appetite for the science behind our foods — and especially our wines — it refers to “Geisenheim 239,” a relatively recent riesling clone that was among several that Murray’s team planted to gauge their suitability to the place.
“You want to match the clone with the site,” Murray says. “The climate, the terroir, and all of it. There wasn’t a lot of experience in this region with clones, so we planted five different ones to see how they did. After eight years or so we have a feel for how the clones differ, both in the way the plants behave and in the juice, the flavor profile.”
The result is a revelation.