Photos courtesy of Geoff Worden.
Tourists seek local dining, embrace tasting local beers but all too often shun local wines. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit winery tasting rooms, especially if they make wine from local grapes. My excitement at being near Finger Lakes wineries was piqued during Taste NY and I wanted to explore further. Fortunately, there are three tasting rooms, one with a restaurant, all within one mile of one another in (and near) downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
In a place so focused on horses that is has avant-garde horse sculptures, a horse on a roof of a defunct diner and on a mayoral campaign sign, you should allocate plenty of time to enjoy racing. I spent my day at The Spa until just after the next to last race and still made it to all three, with dinner at the last.
HORSE SCULPTURES IN SARATOGA SPRINGS
Halfmoon Cellars on Caroline Street was my first stop. The relatively small room was empty but my hosts made me feel welcome. After explaining my goal, tasting wines made from local grapes, I learned there might be a challenge. “All of our grapes come from California ... ,” one of my hosts said. I have nothing against California wines but they are available everywhere, no need to come to Saratoga to taste those. Then I heard some magic words, “...a little place called Suisun Valley.” My ears perked up and my mouth watered. I know the region, a relatively unknown American Viticultural Area just east of the world famous town of Napa. For years, Napa Valley producers have added delicious, but less expensive, fruit from this area to their wines. I have only seen a few wines produced solely from the region. We talked and tasted for quite a while.
The reds are big and intense, as anticipated. The Pinot Noir 2014 was meaty and built for steak and wild game. The Malbec 2014 was a happy midpoint between sometimes boring Merlot and sometimes too tannic Cabernet. Riesling gets a bad rap for being too sweet, this one (2013) could change your mind. Itʼs not bone dry but it has great texture and layers and you need to try it. My final wine, Reserve Chardonnay 2013, showed bright acid with some botrytis (a mold that can transform grapes into dessert wines) notes but no sweetness. This is striking but I wasnʼt entirely sure what to make of it. Like lemons and mushrooms in the same glass. Well worth a taste.
HALFMOON CELLAR RIESLING
Put your money where your mouth is: I bought the Riesling and Reserve Chardonnay. My hosts, Mikayla and Kelsey, displayed infectious enthusiasm for the wine and you will enjoy visiting. When you do, expect the reds to be poured first, just as many producers do in Burgundy. Donʼt worry, it works beautifully. There are also some gorgeous photos on the wall from John Bulmer, one in particular caught my eye, a rocking chair with wine barrels felt incredibly real and made me want to climb into the picture and enjoy the view with a glass of wine.
Swedish Hill, located on Broadway, about two blocks from Halfmoon, has a long room that lures you back into a cozy space surrounded by bottles. No surprise sourcing here, this is all Finger Lakes fruit. A couple arrived shortly after I did and my visit was less full of chatter than the first because the lone employee was busy, though she remained attentive.
Surprisingly, the Riesling here (2013) was similar to Halfmoonʼs despite nearly 3,000 miles separating them. This was a bit lighter but also racier. Marechal Foch is a hybrid grape and this version (2012) is full of wild blueberry flavor and light in tannin. Think Beaujolais on steroids. At $12 a bottle, this is a steal. I was consistently impressed by Cabernet Franc from local producers and this 2012 was no exception. The palate is soft and delicious with none of the herbal greenness that can turn off some tasters.
SWEDISH HILL TASTING ROOM
Put your money where your mouth is: I bought the Riesling and the Marechal Foch. Swedish Hill is a great stop to get the flavor of the Finger Lakes. Bring friends, thereʼs plenty of room. I thought the Twenty to One white, Viking red (what else from a Swedish family?) and Cabernet Franc/Lemberger were also well worth trying.
Thirsty Owl Wine Company was at Taste NY in the afternoon but since I planned to visit them later and eat, I waited to experience the wines. The kind people pouring that afternoon pressed some free tasting coupons and a dining discount coupon into my hand and they all came in handy.
After seeing the woman who was pouring 1911 ciders at Taste NY walking around town, I ran into three other people from the event at Thirsty Owl. If you ever want to know good places to hang out, follow the people who work at wineries/breweries. As an added bonus, it turned out a fantastic band was playing that night. The Coteries, who bill themselves as “Acoustic Americana” were a perfect way to wrap up a marathon day of wine tasting.
Thirsty Owlʼs location offers lots of different spaces, allowing you to find your most comfortable spot: a lengthy, wrap-around porch along with a secluded patio, dining room and bar. I chose the bar, where the music was, and boy am I glad I did!
THIRSTY OWL CHOWDER AND CHARCUTERIE BOARD
I ordered a calamari appetizer with a lemon caper aioli and devoured it. Lightly fried, the calamari were tender and impossible to resist. Hunger made me forget the photo until too late. A cup of the Crab, Sweet Corn and Pork Belly Chowder came next and, since I knew I would be tasting for a while, a charcuterie plate as well. Iʼve never had chowder with pork before but now I feel like I have wasted a good portion of my life. It was amazing. The meat plate included two cured meats, crackers, bread, grapes, peppers (with a nice level of spicy kick) and some nuts. It is a perfect order if you have a group and want to taste some wine. I took most of it home.
The Pinot Gris 2014 is great example of the grape that would make lots of producers in Oregon jealous. The nose on the 2014 Chardonnay is subtle, with some apple, mostly green, and the wine is a very friendly style. Dry Riesling 2014 is delicate, you almost feel it more than taste it but it is also fantastic, pure and perfect for the porch.
Aromas of warm fruit leapt up out of the glass of Pinot Noir 2013. I think the word elegant is appropriate but the word can damn with faint praise. This is Pinot Noir for fish, chicken and roasted vegetables. A hybrid of two hybrids seems like it could turn into some awful remake of a mediocre film but the Chancellor 2013 had dark, intense and “cellary” aromas - there is a little funk with the fruit. It was brilliant with grilled wild Coho salmon a few days later. Lot 99 2013 (65% Chancellor and 35% Pinot Noir) had notes of cedar and plenty of red and black fruit. All of the same return on the finish. A fun blend and a great price.
Some others I though worth tasting are the Malbec, Syrah (a bit woody for me, but some people love that) and the Cabernet/Syrah/Malbec. I also didnʼt get to everything. Bring a crowd, try all the wines and feast on some great food!
This was an impressive showing for a region many people do not know. I hope this helps you plan your visit, let me know what you enjoy when you go.