Saturday, December 19, 2009
German Winemakers in the World: Hermann J. Wiemer, Finger Lakes, USA
“Wiemer is considered by many to be one of the top Riesling producers in the United States.”
The New York Times
Hermann J. Wiemer is regarded as one of the pioneers of viticulture and winemaking in the Finger Lakes region in upstate NewYork. He was born and raised in Germany, and arrived in the US in 1968. His first wine was released in 1980. In the 30 years since then, the winery has been lauded as one of the nation’s premier white wine producers, in particular of Riesling.
Hermann J. Wiemer was born in Bernkastel into an influential family in the wine business. Hermann's father was the head of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Bernkastel and was responsible for restoring vines in the Mosel region after WWII.
Hermann Wiemer came to the US in the early 1970s. When he arrived, wine making in the Finger Lakes area was dominated by native American grapes and crossings between American and European grapes. Riesling, for example, for which Hermann Wiemer became famous, was not grown. Initially, he made hybrid and native American wines for Walter Taylor at the Bully Hill winery on Keuka Lake.
The struggle for the best suited grapes in this part of the world goes back many centuries. In the original charter of every one of the thirteen colonies from Maine to Georgia was a royal commission to pursue three luxury items that England was unable to provide for itself: wine, silk, and olive oil. Every colony made repeated attempts to satisfy the requirements of its charter.
The problem was that on the one hand there were the native American grapes. All of these native American grapes were cold tolerant and disease and pest resistant, but unsuitable for winemaking, due to their coarseness, high tannins, and "foxy" flavors. On the other hand, the European tis vinifera were not cold tolerant and uniformly unable to survive long enough to produce a crop.
Despite many years of failure to produce good wine from native grapes, the early Americans persisted in their efforts. They planted several different native varietals in the same vineyard and over time some natural mutations occurred. The results from some of these hybrids were far better than any of the unadulterated natives. A big success came in 1740 when a natural cross pollination occured between a native American grape and a European vinifera grape. The new hybrid was named after its discoverer and became known as the Alexander grape. It was the first of a long series of semi-successful efforts to cross American and European varieties.
When Hermann Wiemer decided to experiment with European tis vinifera, others were on the same track, in particular Konstantin Frank. In 1973 Wiemer bought 140 acres of land, the barn and a mid-19th-century house on the west side of Route 14, which runs along Seneca Lake and turned it into one of the premier vineyards and nurseries in the region. Starting with four acres, he developed the right root stock for grafting European vinifera on them. The first vintage, a 1979, was released in 1980. Hermann Wiemer quickly became known for his German-style vinifera wines. He claims that he made the first dry Riesling in the US and said that many scoffed at him for making Riesling even though today it's the flagship wine grape variety of the region.
Picture: Finger Lakes Region in New York State
The Finger Lakes AVA in upstate New York encompasses seven glacial lakes, although the majority of plantings are around Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Most vineyards are planted on hillsides overlooking the lakes. These deep lakes help to moderate the climate, as stored heat is released from the lakes during the winter, keeping the weather mild (relative to surrounding areas) and preventing early frosts. The reflection of the sun off the lakes during summer extends the growing season. This cool-climate region is often compared to the Mosel winegrowing region of Germany, and like that region, has had special success with Riesling.
Hermann Wiemer was not the first to insist that the climate, altitude (650 feet) and land contours of the slopes leading to the lakes were ideal for vinifera. Dr. Konstantin Frank discovered that in the early 1950's. But he probably was the first to plant vineyards exclusively of European vinifera and was bucking the corporate wineries, where the belief endured that the European vinifera, more fragile than the American lubrusca, could not withstand the Northeastern cold and was too susceptible to disease. For years, the large commercial wineries had been using hybrids of the vinifera and the native American labrusca grapes (of which the Concord grape is a variey).
On the floor of the winery, Mr. Wiemer has installed German stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. Wiemer has three estate vineyards within 10 miles of the winery on the west side of Seneca Lake: Magdalena, Josef, and HJW. The vineyards are farmed under strict sustainable agricultural practices.
Herrmann Wiemer has retired a few years ago. Today the winemaking process is managed by Hermann J Wiemer’s long-term winemaker Fred Merwarth who has worked closely with Hermann as one of his winemakers for the last 8 years. Hermann is still passionately and practically involved in the life of the winery, and Fred continues faithfully executing the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard legacy and heritage.
I visited the winery in the spring of 2009.
Schiller Wine --- Related Postings
This is part of the series German wine makers in the world:
Anton (Antoine) Mueller, 1800s,France, November 28, 2009
Dr. Konstantin Frank, 1900s,USA, November 14, 2009
Christian Woelffer and Roman Roth, 1900s/2000s, USA, November 12, 2009
Robert Anton Schlumberger, 1800s, Austria, November 7, 2009
Robert Stemmler, 1900s/2000s, USA, November 3, 2009
Eduard Werle, 1800s, France, October 29, 2009