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SPARKLING RIESLING? SHINE ON, YOU CRAZY DIAMOND!

Updated: May 15

Riesling-based bubbly was never any American winery's idea of a showcase product. We recently tasted an exceptional version that could be.


Heart & Hands 2021 Sparkling Riesling...

One of America's best sparkling wines, period.


Make no mistake-- the Riesling grape is one of the noblest of the noble white wine varieties, with a pair of co-equals and yet no superiors among the top tier of royal white wine grapes. (See THE ROYAL SISTERHOOD.) It is no wonder, then, that Riesling is so optimistically planted in regions of borderline climatic viability, where even Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc refuse to properly ripen... regions where cold-loving Riesling alone can patiently endure autumn's flirtations with potentially ruinous frost and then yield, when Bacchus smiles, incomparable liquid gold.


Such is the possible œnological jackpot that, like mythical Greek sirens luring seamen to their doom, has drawn Finger Lakes viticulturists into the pursuit of the quintessential New York Riesling. The first efforts of note-- by the Ukrainian-born viticulturist Dr. Konstantin Frank-- were not universally successful and yet confirmed that excellence was possible.


One of my very favorite wine labels of all time; I've personally hoisted trout from that lake in

the background. "Natur Spätlese" indicates a naturally-attained degree of ripeness

rarely achieved by Finger Lakes Riesling back in the pre-climate-change 1960's.


New York State's FARM WINERY ACT of 1976 enabled and financially incentivized the establishment of small, top-quality ("boutique") wineries in the Empire State region where cheap, high-volume jug wines had long been the norm. The creeping effects of climate change-- i.e., warmer global temperatures and accordingly riper grapes in all of the world's major wine regions-- began to be felt in earnest in the late 1990's. In the roughly two-decade interim, the upstart, quality-oriented Finger Lakes wineries needed some way to re-purpose the all-to-frequent underripe harvests from their newly-planted Riesling vineyards.


And thus was fostered the development of SPARKLING RIESLING as a vehicle for turning underripe grapes into money... a clever trick they surely learned from the French.


(Champagne can be at least partially explained as the French making a virtue of necessity, i.e., developing a fantastic and widely-loved style of wine in a chilly region where Pinot Noir and even Chardonnay traditionally had trouble reaching full ripeness. The high acid levels of slightly underripe grapes is a blessing in bubbly production, and the lack of natural sweetness is easily fixed by the addition of cane sugar for the second fermentation and then again for the dosage.)


But these days, with significantly greater heat accumulation and thus reliably ripe Riesling in the Finger Lakes vineyards, many of the region's vignerons have dropped Sparkling Riesling from their slates of offerings...


...but fortunately, one fantastic exception in particular is still making it.


During my numerous visits to Heart and Hands Wine Company ("THE IMPOSSIBLY PERFECT WINERY") I resisted the temptation (if any) to purchase or even try their Sparkling Riesling. That's because the few examples I've previously tried from other producers were more akin to cider than wine, and during my decades of wine business experience I never heard anyone mention German Sekt and French Champagne in the same paragraph.


But Heart & Hands co-proprietress Susan Higgins-- the brilliant, energetic, omnipresent force of nature at this operation (I'm still wondering whether her husband Tom is actually some sort of AI hologram that Susan manages from her iPhone)-- can be very convincing. And when she told me that "The 2021 is REALLY good!" I believed her enough to try it. She was correct, as usual, and I immediately added two bottles to my order. I arrived home an hour later with one of them already chilled, thanks to my trucking cooler. After one sip my bride Andrea demanded, "Order a case! It'll be our anniversary present."


Not for nothin,' but how'd that work out?


Dear Reader, I've been following the growth and development of the modern American Sparkling Wine renaissance since 1972, when President Nixon and the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai shared a "toast to peace" with the 1968 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs. A year later the venerable Champagne firm Moët et Chandon went live with Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, blazing a path to California soon followed by fellow Champagne houses Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, Taittinger, Roederer, and others. I've tasted many examples of these as well as a great number of Champagne-method (a.k.a, methode champenoise) American bubblies from American producers, including Lieb Cellars's rare and fantastic 100% Pinot Blanc version from Long Island and even the surprisingly wonderful 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc from (gasp!) the Trump Winery in Virginia.


And so I speak from a considerable base of knowledge and experience in declaring the 2021 methode champenoise Sparkling Riesling from the Heart and Hands Wine Company not just the best Finger Lakes wine of any kind I have ever tasted... not just the great domestic blanc de blancs for which I've long been searching... it is among the very finest American sparkling wines ever made, from any grape at any price. As such, it is a fantastic bargain (if not an everyday sipper) at $37 per bottle. It is brut-dry, yet varietally recognizable as Riesling. Indeed, it deftly straddles two rarefied worlds-- those of great Rieslings and great bubbly-- without fully committing to one at the expense of the other. The razor-sharp winemaking streamlines the flowery frills that so readily accompany Riesling while avoiding any "beeriness" that might ensue from extended yeast contact or cheaper production methods. I can imagine no more perfect flute-ful to enjoy with top-quality smoked salmon... or a plate of fresh raw oysters... or Thai food... or any other dish or occasion that calls for delicious and well-made bubbly.


The only problem I see here is deciding whether this wine is a great Riesling with bubbles, or rather a fantastic bubbly that happens to be vinified from Riesling. Without any other examples in the same league as this gem from Heart and Hands, I'm still having trouble reconciling the two ideas in a single glass...


...but I'm really looking forward to working on that.


"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is an especially cool masterpiece by Pink Floyd on their 1975 LP "Wish You Were Here." The song has nothing to do with bubbly, but the title struck me as apt for this wine.





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