( The view east from Sheldrake's vineyards. Another no-so-hot day for photos. Beautiful nonetheless. )
Dave Breeden, the winemaker for Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid, NY is a wine-maker’s winemaker. Not knowing what that is could render this post elusive, so I’ll explain what I mean in examples as I guide you through our visit to Sheldrake in early February.
Thank you very much to Antoinette DiCiaccio and Dave Breeden for their hospitality and time with Margot and I on our recent visit. This was our first visit of the weekend. Antoinette met us in the tasting room and we set about introducing ourselves and the exploration we were on. When the WineMaker Magazine Conference hits the ground in June there are so many places that folks with even a little time will be able go to experience what the region has to offer. I didn’t know this firsthand until recently however. Since last summer I have made two trips and personally tasted over 250 wines from the region to find out. If you linked through to here from the WineMaker Magazine blog section you’ve likely already read some part of that story in my trip reports from the region.
For this point I’m going to share observations and thoughts on my time with just one of the wineries I visited and a tasting of their unfinished wines.
Dave Breeden joined our small group in the tasting room during a funny story about how a friend of ours decides when to taste the homemade wines. If it is in a small bottle, typically a fortified, dessert or specialty wine, cider or mead, he drinks it. That’s knowing what you like in a very specific way!
Antoinette bid us farewell, and Dave, Margot and I set off to the winery, a short walk up the hill behind the tasting room. When we arrived we had to quickly check on the bottling equipment to make sure it was ready for an early week bottling run. Check. We picked up glasses in the lab on the way to the tank and barrel rooms.
( Margot remarked that I always take her to the nicest places! )
Right off the bat Dave shared a glimpse of who he is with an example of the one-liners that would easily be kitchsy if they weren’t delivered contextually and authentically. In explaining the barrel regimen he has in operation he use the quip “If I wanted my products to taste like oak, I’d make furniture”. Hey wait, he sounds like my dad! No offense, and my dad can be funny. We laughed, but it was the whole group, experiencing the truth of the statement and the connection to the moment we were in that made the difference. Dave further explained that used barrels are bought when they need to rotate something out, but the neutral barrels seasoned in-house are actively used to keep the oak influence under control. When I share my feedback on the reds below you will note that I agreed with the balanced influence of oak in the pre-release wines we tasted. Most of Sheldrake’s barrel aged wines see no more than 8-9 months of oak.
The 2011 harvest was challenging for the region, and Dave confirmed that staggered and late harvests were the end to one of the worst years in memory for the active winemakers in the area. After the quantity of the fruit was determined the overall quality of the grapes was quite good, albeit a bit low in sugar. This isn’t an uncommon problem in cold-climate growing areas and one of the dynamics of an agricultural business. Tasting the wines however, it is hard for me to say that the weather alone will be any reason to judge them.
We started off with two Chardonnay’s one with, and one without oak; the oak being administered using staves of NY State oak. The oaked version is big on the lemon, with a good deal of peach and not much other than a hint of spice to make you think it was oaked. The un-oaked version was fruitier, but with a reduced lemon punch. Its acidity was a little more pronounced, making the truth of the oak influence in the first sample much clearer. It was more mellow, smoother and a tad creamy, perhaps?
Next up were a Pinot Gris blend and the Lucky Stone White. The Pinot Gris was dry and dominated by lime for me. Margot gave it her “hot day wine” designation. I agreed. The Lucky Stone White is a Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer blend. The nose gives away the Gewurztraminer, and really drew me in. It is a tart finishing wine with plenty of citrus and a small streak of sweetness. Here’s to the next hot day and I have these wines to try!
I asked Dave if Sheldrake grew any hybrid grapes for their wines. He said that they don’t and they luckily don’t have to because of the micro-climate and local geography conducive to vinifera grapes. This idea was summed up in what I think was his leading quote. With regards to the Sheldrake vineyards, “it’s a really sexy property.” I get that, rock on!
Riesling and Gewurztraminer! As I have said in earlier writings on the region, these are the wines that make up the leading story. You’ll come here for the aromatic whites wines that project the natural acidity of the grapes to just the right place, and then you will find so much more.
The dry Gewurztraminer has a beautiful palate of sweet aromas, including ripe stone fruits, white flowers and citrus peel. The density of the wine coats the tongue a bit making it almost taste sweet, but then it speeds to a dry finish.
The dry Riesling smelled and taste like ripe peach with island fruits playing a big part as well. Margot called in “pineapple juice”, which seemed apt to all. This is another nearly dry and dry finishing wine. This is really no surprise given the harvest report.
To make a semi-dry Riesling from the 2011 harvest a batch of dry Riesling will be blended with some ice wine to provide additional sweetness and aromatics that will no doubt catch the fancy of many. We were lucky enough to taste a trial blend with a still fermenting ice wine in it! Still peachy but with additional exotic fruit notes and some hard candy leanings. It also had a more pronounced tartness from CO2 still likely trapped in the Riesling used as the based. It has plenty of potential and should be available soon I can’t see what the final decisions and process did to hone the blend.
( Dave Breeden retrieving a sample, this was for a "secret" blend. )
We also tasted the ice wine on its own. The nose emanated of tropical fruits, where the wine was still quite sweet and had the “wildness” I am familiar with in dessert offering made from Riesling grapes. A kit-based Riesling dessert wine I made a few years ago was a hit because of the more lively “green” or “wildness” it expressed. This wines needs time to finish and should come together nicely.
When we got on to the reds and the Cabernet Franc, there were three to try. The first two were from the same block harvested on different dates and aging in barrels, and the third was a different block aged in stainless with the NY oak staves mentioned above. My immediate impression was of dill pickle from the nose. That could be oak. The flavor didn’t trend that way and the aromas dissipated quickly as I tasted it. Tart cherries with moderate structural tannins and a dry finish. The second sample smelled and tasted like cherries and had a certain measure of dustiness as I call it, sort of a dry soil blown into the mouth. It was also quite tart, but without the nose of the first sample it felt more exciting. The third is the same wine as the first sample aged with oak staves instead of by barrel. It was cherry driven with a little heat and a big tart finish. There are at least two wines in there, I think the first two will develop further, and could make for great blends, but the full potential of them is beyond my experience. That’s what makes firsthand exposure to the process of making artisanal wine and other fermented products so exciting, it won’t be the “same thing” every time! None of the samples was over oaked or trending close. That restraint on cool climate red wines helps retain their delicate aspects that can’t be covered up by fruit and tannins.
( Some of the newest barrels in the house. )
We tasted Merlot from the barrel, but it isn’t expected to make it into the bottle in its current form. Re-enforcing a point about “picking what you do well” and putting “focus on it”, Dave shared that a varietal Merlot was no longer made because it wasn’t creating wine that returned for the time and investment, and the Merlot actually works great as an agent in their Meritage blend, the most recent from 2010.
The 2010 Meritage reminded me of freshly picked cherries and a touch of wild herbs. The tannins were already pretty mellow, but present, and the acidity helped keep things tart and dry along the finish. I’ve said a lot about these types of blends before and my tastings keep turning up evidence that these wines attract my attention the most. Complexity is more often amped up in blends. I’ll spend the time to think about my wine. I’m looking for a downside.
There are a lot of reasons to increase the production of a winery, and if it is to keep up with demand that is clearly growing, all the better. There are plenty of reasons not to make more wine and again Dave had the perfect quote. “Having grapes is a very bad reason to make wine; sales are the best reason to make wine.” This ethic is carried out in part by selling excess of varieties of grapes they don’t have production targets for each year to other producers, something that depends a lot on the weather. In 2011 Sheldrake Point Winery opened a second tasting room, placing the newest outlet on east side of Seneca Lake, not far from the main winery on the west side Cayuga Lake. In preparation for the opening, production of some wines from the 2010 harvest was doubled. What an exciting reason to make more wine!
I asked Dave what his noteworthy wines from 2011 were and was met with the same list I felt really imparted the most character, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc. Despite the report of the challenging harvest I think the wines are expressing plenty of character and might all develop into focused aromatic and tart wines that have immense drinkability with and without food. One other thing Dave said he endeavored to do was “not to screw with the wine”. Minimal intervention in these wines certainly hasn’t hurt them!
We finished with and apple ice wine, something that caught both Margot and my eyes when we toured the tasting room. Made from Cornell apples and a blend of heirloom and vintage varieties it is full of flavors and “wild”. It is plenty sweet with a dose of acidity to clean up a bit. Margot knew she was taking this home before she even tasted it!
In June Dave Breeden will be presenting to the WineMaker Magazine conference attendees in a presentation about fining. I fully expect this presentation will be experience-based, informative, provocative and funny. I’m not going to miss it. I found a video interview with Dave during my research where he discusses the Art & Science of Winemaking. In the second to last paragraph of the accompanying article there is a very compelling point about the potential for variation in the shared taste genes from one human to another. Stay tuned for more content here and at WineMaker Magazine on sensory evaluation and the science of wine tasting.
Much thanks to Annette and Dave for hosting us. We also met and would like to thank Kit, the tasting room manager, and Victor, one of the two assistant winemakers for their time with us. SheldrakePoint Winery is located on the west side of Cayuga Lake about 40 minutes North of Ithaca, NY. There are daily tasting hours both during the on and off seasons. Unfortunately they no longer have a restaurant on site and if you expect to go with a group it was be smart planning to call ahead.