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New York Wines: A Sommelier’s Love Affair

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Few wine regions in the world can also claim to benefit from one of the planet’s most vibrant gastronomic and hospitality communities. The quality and consistency of New York wines has evolved in tandem with a thriving gastronomic scene, with restaurateurs and sommeliers as instrumental to the increasing confidence and character of the region as its winemakers and growers.

Indeed, much of the rapid transformation of New York wine in the past couple of decades has been a matter of love in addition to talent. The appreciation and rediscovery by the state’s hospitality community validated the work of producers, the character of the different regions and the potential to brush shoulders with top international counterparts in the best wine lists and pairing menus.

A journey of discovery

For Mara Rudzinski, sommelier and managing partner at Contento in Harlem, New York was a key part of a journey of personal and professional discovery. ‘My last trip before the pandemic was to the Finger Lakes. Having been caught up in the European side of wine through most of my career, being able to develop a wider wine list has been exciting. And discovering New York wines has been at the forefront of that excitement.’ This echoes the journey experienced by many in the industry.

Mara Rudzinski, of Contento

Some, like Charlie Marshal, went a step further and reverted to a New York-only wine list. The head chef and owner of eponymous The Marshal, a small wood-fired farm-to-table restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, only features local produce in his menus. ‘At almost any other farm-to-table restaurant that I know – although this is starting to change – the concept stops with food. We wanted to change that and have a 100% New York wine list. We believe that by representing New York and its producers throughout all our menus we’re doing a more thorough and realistic job as a locally-sourced restaurant.’

Marshal explains that his move was made possible, if not inevitable, by stronger distribution networks, availability and focus on quality. Once relying heavily on cellar-door sales, the increased interest of sommeliers and chefs catalysed the consolidation of other distribution channels to support a growing presence of New York producers in bars and restaurants, within the state and beyond.

Across the counter

Boundaries have been blurred, with key players bridging the two sides of the counter and developing wine projects while also hosting diners. Pascaline Lepeltier MS, partner and Head Sommelier at Racines, has forged a successful partnership, chëpìka, with winemaker Nathan Kendall, championing hybrid and native varieties. Christopher Bates MS is another outstanding driving force, both as the mastermind of FLX Hospitality and as co-owner of Element Winery, a project that has long been turning heads, beating iconic European powerhouses at infamously fantastic blind tastings.

‘We [Bates and his wife, Isabel Bogadtke, a German-born winemaker] started Element Winery back in 2007, after a period living in Italy and Germany, and really wanted to explore the potential we believed Finger Lakes had to produce really great wine.’ While witnessing the rapid development of the Finger Lakes’ wine community, Bates realised it needed to go alongside that of hospitality for the region to fully bloom. The realisation has led to the investment in Element, on the one hand, and on their many venues, where wine plays central stage. The famous popcorn chicken and B&B fried pickles, on the menu at FLX Fry Bird, are arguably some of the most delicious, if unlikely, companions to the region’s Rieslings.

‘We need to attract a new group of wine-loving consumers,’ says Bates. He has been surprised by the interest and attention New York wines attract in some of the world’s key markets, such as the UK or Japan, which in turn made domestic communication and sales easier. ‘It’s easier to overcome stereotypes and price barriers in places where people don’t know you and are genuinely, spontaneously excited.’

Eagerness to explore

Are consumers ready and confident about buying a quality New York wine, potentially more expensive than a better-known international counterpart? ‘Ten years ago it was really difficult to sell New York wines to the general consumer,’ Marshal confirms. ‘There have always been real supporters but, in general, when people came in a decade ago and were confronted with an all-New York list, it was a tough sell. This has changed dramatically. And the reason why this has happened is that New York wines have really ‘grown up’.’ Bates agrees: ‘Wine professionals need exposure to NY wines to sell them and the maturity of distribution networks and the strong relationships with producers has facilitated this. It’s a snowballing process: the consumer is no longer sceptical, on the one hand, and the wine professionals have a stronger knowledge-base to lead them. New York wines are on the table now.’

Charlie Marshal of…. The Marshal!

Rudzinski adds that the Empire State’s wines also offer outstanding quality alongside value. ‘This meeting of quality and relative affordability has been instrumental. Finding – or rediscovering – something that is unique, has character and is also quite affordable is very rare.’ She says the role of sommeliers like herself is to embark on the journey for and with the customer, making them willing to pay the price if they understand the quality. And make them open to the new and exciting wines coming from NY wine regions. ‘At a restaurant we’re part of the customer’s voyage through food and wine. Having wines with a point of difference, such as those made with non-vinifera varieties and/or with extended maceration, that also have incredible food pairing potential for their aromatic expressiveness and texture can be a great way to invite people to discover the wines of NY.

‘There has been a tremendous technical and creative effort from winemakers to increase consistency, quality and availability. Today New York really is part of the cutting-edge of the winemaking movement. There are so many exciting wines and such exciting talent in New York,’ sums up Marshal. ‘That makes it very easy for us to sell them.’

Six sommelier-favourite NY wines to try:

Tasted and scored by the Decanter team

Element Winery, Syrah, Finger Lakes 2015
94 points
A truly outstanding cool-climate Syrah, from the multi-talented husband-and-wife team Christopher Bates MS and Isabel Bogadtke. The savoury complexity of olive tapenade, black pepper and dried oregano, rest over earthy notes of wet leaves and petrichor. Underneath, a layer of red plums and sour cherry adds freshness, crunchiness and drive. The tannins are firm yet silky, and so well presented. Mineral precision to the mid palate and a lingering softness of velvety plum juice.

Ryan William, Pinot Noir, Finger Lakes 2017
A truly beautiful Pinot Noir, at once delicate and intense. Filigreed aromas of red cherry, pomegranate, cranberry and pomegranate, with touches of cardamom, nutmeg and dried roses. Assertive subtlety to the palate with fine-grained tannins and a beautiful, soft acidity. Lingering spice – white pepper – adds freshness and lift, as do the subtle zesty touches of blood orange and bergamot.

Milea Family Wines, Estate Cabernet Franc, Hudson River 2020
With an ethereal character offset by a broody depth, this is a characterful expression of Cabernet Franc, at once drinkable and complex. Fleshy black plum and black cherry rest on very well presented tannins, with a spicy lining. Robust and with good weight on the mid palate, but with good drive on the attack and a long, refreshing finish.

Six Eighty Cellars, Chardonnay Sandstone, Finger Lakes 2020
A beautiful showcase of Chardonnay’s potential in the Finger Lakes, fermented in 1000 litre, French Sandstone vessels and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The fruit is rich and so pure, with transparent flavours of lemon zest, yellow apple and white grapefruit. Mineral precision and a fleshy texture, with an almost tannic quality to the fruit’s grip. Delicious.

Anthony Road, Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes 2020
Classic, unpretentious and very approachable, this Riesling focuses on drinkability, with its soft acidity and enveloping sweet fruit. Juicy citrus – squeezed lemon, white grapefruit – and yellow orchard fruit are topped by a touch of beeswax. The perfect midweek white wine.

RGNY, Viognier, North Fork of Long Island 2021
A pure, mineral-driven Viognier, with sinewy edges and elegant precision. Crunchy pineapple, pear and the slightest hint of jasmine, sprinkled with a touch of seaspray – a truly maritime take on the variety. Fresh sour finish with lingering white grapefruit, lemon pith and kiwi.

Discover more about New York State wines and producers

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