During my first visit to the Finger Lakes in west-central New York a decade ago, I shipped home to California several bottles of wine.
That’s basically what you had to do to get your hands on Finger Lakes wines.
Today, it’s a bit easier, thanks to the Internet. But still, Finger Lakes wines aren’t much distributed in California. The competition is keen here, and the cool-climate varietals for which the district is best known, including riesling, gewurztraminer, cabernet franc, seyval blanc and traminette, aren’t much in demand hereabouts.
That accounts for my surprise when, while browsing about the wine department of Corti Brothers not long ago, I came across three varietals from Ravines Wine Cellars, one of the wineries where I’d selected several wines during my first tour of Finger Lakes.
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When I visited Ravines it consisted of a cozy tasting room and a small vineyard overlooking Keuka Lake. That site now is complemented with a second venue – the former White Springs Winery – and an additional 48 acres of grapes, both at Seneca Lake about 30 miles northeast.
Finally, the wine business looks to be working out all right for Morten and Lisa Hallgren, though not as they originally envisioned it.
In the late 1970s, when Morten Hallgren was a teen, his parents moved the family from Denmark to Provence in the south of France, where they’d bought a 270-acre estate, Domaine de Castel Roubine.
The family, which had made money in commercial real estate, had no winemaking experience, but that was their dream. However, Hallgren split for the United States for a college education, earning an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Texas, Austin, and a master’s in physics at Boston University. He also met and married Lisa and had developed an appreciation for wine.
By 1994, just as he and his siblings were poised to succeed their parents at the Provencal estate, a series of mysterious financial maneuvers that Hallgren is convinced were manipulated by criminals caused the family to lose everything at a fraction of its worth.
As legal proceedings played out, Morten and Lisa returned to her home state of Texas, then migrated to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., and later to the highly regarded Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars along Keuka Lake where Morten landed in 1999 as head winemaker.
The next year the Hallgrens bought a rugged 17-acre spread also along Keuka Lake and began to lay plans for Ravines Wine Cellars, which they formally established in 2003. Two years later he left Vinifera.
After a decade on his own, Hallgren has evolved into one of the Finger Lakes’ more individualistic and colorful winemakers. He is admired for his daring and passion, represented in part by his penchant for letting grapes hang on the vine until they are as ripe as he feels they should be, despite the region’s capricious weather. “We tend to leave grapes in the vineyard longer than our friends and colleagues,” Hallgren acknowledges.
His wines are respected for their clarity, liveliness and elegance. They often are likened to European styling in their knack for balancing authority with grace. Hallgren attributes this breeding in part to the cool climate of the Finger Lakes and in part to insights he gleaned during his early apprenticeship at the Bordeaux estate Chateau Cos d’Estournel.
In defining his goals, Hallgren talks of making wines characterized by moderate alcohol and the sort of zesty acidity that makes his releases ideal companions at the dinner table. The grapes of the Finger Lakes need little manipulation to accomplish those ends, he says. His French grounding, he adds, is reflected in his “striving to make winemaking as transparent as possible, to reflect the vineyard origins in the finished wine.”
In contrast to many of his neighbors in the Finger Lakes, where French/American hybrid grape varieties and native American grapes account for about 80 percent of acreage, Hallgren is committed to riesling, chardonnay, gewurztraminer and cabernet franc.
“Part of it is for my comfort zone, it’s what I know best, and part of it is where I see the potential for Finger Lakes,” says Hallgren. “Hybrids occasionally can produce a truly magnificent wine here, but the reputation of Finger Lakes has been and will continue to be built on vinifera wines.”
Back in France, meanwhile, his parents continue to live in Provence, not far from the estate they lost. They’ve returned to their roots, establishing a real-estate agency specializing in helping foreign land buyers “who don’t necessarily trust the locals,” says Hallgren, relishing the irony.
For him, he’s found his niche, saying: “Things are working out beautifully. I will take whatever challenges the weather gives us and whatever challenges we face in this little remote region over the challenges we faced in France any day.”