“Pinot Noir is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work…and it’s not forgiving of mistakes.” I’m catching up with Tom Higgins, owner and winemaker at Heart & Hands Wine Company. Tom, along with his wife, Susan, created Heart & Hands in Union Springs, NY ten years ago. They focus on two varietals, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Some are from their own estate vineyard, and others are sourced from growers throughout the Finger Lakes.
Union Springs is just north of Aurora, NY, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Heart & Hands is not on a major “wine trail” and it’s really not very close to much at all; in fact, all of the times I’ve been there, I’ve only been going there specifically. It isn’t on the way to much of anything. So, why here? Why in the middle of nowhere did Tom and Susan choose to start Heart & Hands? The soil, the bedrock, the limestone — the sense of terroir you get with this very specific limestone site, very close to the northeast shores of Cayuga Lake.
Susan and Tom started Heart & Hands Wine Company, “Heart & Hands,” in 2008. Susan focuses on the business side of things, as the owner and business manager. Her husband, Tom, focuses on their estate vineyard as the owner, vineyard manager, and winemaker. 2012 was the first harvest of Pinot Noir and 2013 was the first for Riesling. They carefully chose their location for their tasting room and their estate vineyards based on the limestone, Onondaga limestone, to be specific. After careers in New York City, and frequent weekends back “home,” where Tom grew up here in the Finger Lakes, they decided they needed to make their dream a reality. Thus, Heart & Hands was born.
As I’m talking to Susan, I’m quickly taken back to chemistry and geology classes as a boy. We’re discussing the pH, the acidity, the quarries, the soil, and best of all, she has the maps and science to show the research they have put into their precise location. Ancient quarry maps and timeless soil paths are spread about the tasting room counter. In the world of grape growers and viticulture, this is the end all be all, along with the climate and weather of course. It’s because of this, and her passion about the wines they produce, that I’m even more excited to delve into the exquisite Pinot Noir and Riesling for which they have quickly become known.
In addition to their own estate vineyard, approximately (expanding to) 14 acres, Heart & Hands works closely with growers from five additional vineyards near three other Finger Lakes: Skaneateles, Seneca, and Cayuga. The advantage to this approach is having different Pinot Noir and Riesling having very different characteristics. Whether it’s from a higher elevation, different soil, a warmer stretch of a vineyard, etc., each vineyard was selected to bring a specific quality to the repertoire and portfolio at Heart & Hands.
“We’re very proud of the vineyards we work with,” says Susan. “Each has a sense of place…a sense of terroir. We want to work with like-minded growers who are farming sustainably, and are taking extra care and attention to detail in their viticulture practices. It’s very important to us to work with like-minded growers. It really is like a marriage in a way.”
Heart & Hands’ estate vineyard is farmed without insecticides and herbicides. This attention to sustainability and quality is evident in the wine. I’ve been coming to Heart & Hands for a few years now, and have tasted multiple vintages of the Riesling, the Pinot Noir, the Dry Rosé, the traditional method Riesling, and the Polarity (an incredible white wine made from Pinot Noir).
Of course each vintage has been different, depending on the weather each year, the climate variation of each vineyard, but Heart & Hands has developed a level of quality – and purity – that is rare to find at a consistent level at many wineries.
Can we diverge to talk about limestone for a minute? And specifically why it’s great for wine? On their main vineyard there are two types of limestone, mainly Onondaga limestone, and a little dolomitic limestone, both of which are very similar to various parts of Burgundy, France. Limestone is calcium carbonate (yes, we’re going back to science class), when soil contains calcium carbonate it is naturally going to have more alkaline. This creates the ideal environment and soil pH for grape roots to extract the most nutrients as they can from the soil.
Let’s get to the fun part, the wine: As I mentioned, two varietals, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Why only two? With the focus on two varietals, for now, there is a pristine attention to detail, an attention to make sure that everything is done right across the board from start to finish. However, with Heart & Hands growing more and more, there is a possibility of increasing the wine offerings as well.
“I’d consider some close variations…some that are tangential to Pinot Noir,” says Tom. With the possibility of a few more things in the works in future years, there is only room to grow.
Pinot Noir is very much the heart and soul of Heart and Hands. “This is it,” Tom says with a proud smile, “I want to showcase Pinot Noir. Riesling is a close second, but I really want to show the diversity of Pinot Noir and what the Finger Lakes can do with Pinot Noir.”
With approximately 150 wineries in the Finger Lakes region, and 98% of them making Riesling, it makes sense for Riesling to take a slight backseat to Pinot. Don’t get me wrong, there are some exquisite Rieslings on all parts of the Riesling spectrum here (dry, semi, sweet, sparkling). However, when someone asks me about Pinot Noir in the Finger Lakes, I immediately think of Heart & Hands Wine Company. When someone asks me about Riesling, I think of countless wineries; even of the Riesling “specialists,” there are many.
Even though there are different microclimates in the Finger Lakes; overall, it is very much a cool climate region. Because of this, it’s almost doesn’t make sense to compare the Pinot Noir here to Pinot from much warmer climates. A Finger Lakes Pinot Noir compared to a Pinot Noir from California, or some parts of Oregon, or warmer parts of France, is going to show very different than the (overall) lighter bodied Pinot Noir’s from Heart & Hands and the Finger Lakes.
The grapes are harvested by hand. The attention to detail is complex and thought provoking, as you can quickly tell by talking to Tom and Susan both. In each glass, in each bottle, there’s a beautiful, elegant, delicate, revered sense of patience. To me, a sense of patience is what I want in a great glass of wine; to know that from start to finish, from soil and limestone all the way to my glass of wine, that I’m getting an incredibly focused, cool-climate Finger Lakes wine. This is that, in its finest, most alluring and graceful presentation.
Shall we dive into a few wines from Heart & Hands?
Continue reading below to hear about a few options from Heart & Hands Wine Company.
2016 Pinot Noir:
From Heart & Hands:
Overview – Elegant wine crafted from grapes grown on Seneca and Cayuga Lake. Beautiful aromas of ripe cherries on the nose, followed by plums and currants on the palate, and medium-firm tannins on the finish.
Winemaker Notes – The hand-picked grapes were received from the vineyard in small individual picking lugs. We hand sorted the grapes, selecting only clusters and berries which met our quality standards. Fifty-percent of the fruit was destemmed while the other fifty-percent remained whole cluster and the blend was co-fermented in one-ton bins. Fermentation lasted for 13 days, after which point, the grapes were basket pressed and gently transferred into barrels using gravity flow methods for 12 months of aging in Francois Freres French oak barrels. In mid-summer of 2016, we tasted through all of the individual barrels from the vintage, and selected the barrels for inclusion in the final wine. The wine was then bottled under the Vino-Lok glass closure to preserve the essence of the wine.
Beautiful light Ruby. Up front, soft, luscious, ripe cherries and a touch of rubbery licorice. Soon, the cherries turn even more vibrant, and more tart crunchy cranberries and early-season rhubarb come through. The licorice is marinating, taking it’s time. A subtle linger of smoke. A Gamay like peel of earthy, foresty, herbaceousness is singing quietly in the back. French Oak but not overwhelming. Tannins are medium, pronounced, integrated, and evolve with time. Pop of floral notes, potpourri not white. A perfect grip, a comforting rasp, a coating of leggy strawberries driving the acid. A gorgeous, delicate, voluptuous bold yet still light bodied cool climate Pinot.
2016 Sparkling Riesling:
From Heart & Hands:
Overview – Hints of chalk, white peaches and tropical lychee fruit on the nose. The stone fruit continues on the palate, along with fresh granny smith apples. The dry finish is fresh, vibrant and racy.
Winemaker Notes – A mild winter was followed by a late April bud break and early June bloom. Spring and summer were exceptionally hot and dry in the Finger Lakes. Some well-timed rain in September allowed the grapes to reach full maturity prior to harvest. The grapes were basket pressed, and the juice was gently transferred to stainless steel tanks for a primary fermentation. This sparkling wine was crafted in the traditional method. In early 2017, the wine was bottled, and yeast was added as part of the tirage to induce a secondary fermentation. The wine rested en tirage a year to create fine bubbles. A final dosage at disgorgement was added to finish the wine in a brut, or dry style.
This is a top Sparkling option (Riesling or otherwise) from the Finger Lakes in recent years. I’m taking a bit of a risk (I like to stick to three wines) by having my only white be a sparkling Riesling, of all things, but this one is so good I couldn’t bring myself to leave it off the list. First off, it’s very unique, there just aren’t too many sparkling Rieslings in the Finger Lakes. I can think of 5, but there aren’t more than 10. This is traditional method (not forced carbonation). This one is a light straw yellow color. It was on lees for 13 months, so you can imagine the creaminess and mouthfeel. There is a little bit of citrus zest, but it’s dominated by the yeast, brioche-laden nutty feel. A little bit of that green apple peel too. It’s slightly chalky, very dry (Brut), to me.
2013 Mo Chuisle Estate Pinot Noir:
From Heart & Hands:
Overview – Second release of Pinot Noir grown on our limestone-rich estate vineyard. Raspberries and cherries on the nose, cassis and earthiness on the palate, beautiful structure and finesse.
Winemaker Notes – The grapes were hand picked in multiple passes over the course of several weeks to allow each clone of Pinot Noir to be harvested at optimal ripeness. After carefully hand-sorting the grapes, each clone was separately whole-cluster fermented in one-ton bins. The grapes were gently basket pressed and transferred into French oak barrels (18% new) for 22 months of aging. 269 cases produced.
This is an elegant, Burgundian-style Pinot Noir. This only gets better with time. This is the second vintage of “Mo Chuisle” and it’s easy to tell how well it has continued to develop. It’s a wet slab of concrete after a late summer rain storm; cool and slippery, bits of gravel and flint. Just like the flint and stone in a good Chablis, the same crunch – likely from the limestone – is coming through here. Bits of creamy vanilla, crunchy wet red berries, pomegranate crunch, slightly earthy, but not like the 2016 Pinot Noir that has a little more dirt and grit. A refined, precise, delicate sense of finesse. This is one to celebrate, one to share with those special dinners, one to share with friends and family (at least the ones you like).