Wines From the New York Finger Lakes That Deserve Your Attention

This is one wine region to watch

In late September of this year, my wife Laurie and I traveled with our good friends and neighbors, Jim and Marcia Wolfe, to upstate New York where Jim and Marcia were born and raised. We had many great visits during our stay, including Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, Niagara Falls and the beautiful small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, the Corning Glass Museum, the Saint Lawrence Seaway and Boldt Castle, and the Adirondacks (the latter we just happened to visit on the day that the fall foliage was at its peak). The scenery was beautiful and the visits all extremely interesting. But, the primary focus was on visiting wineries in the Finger Lakes and tasting the wines.

This was my first visit to the area. We had made plans for the trip in the spring. And, as fate would have it, when we arrived in late September the harvest was underway. We were told that 2012 was the earliest harvest on record and there was even a bit of rain. But, we had a great tasting experience and I was surprised and impressed with many of the wines. Known primarily for rieslings that compare favorably with the best in the world, there are also other varieties that thrive here including pinot noir, chardonnay, grüner veltliner, and lemberger. The increased number of varieties being planted offers great opportunity for the future as vineyards mature and more vineyards are planted in new and upcoming varieties. This is an area to watch. And, even though most of the wines produced here are sold in New York, they do trickle into other areas. And, depending on where you live, they can be purchased direct from the wineries.

The history of winemaking in the area dates back to the 1800s, with the first commercial plantings of American grape varieties in 1862. Shortly thereafter the area had established a reputation for making sweet sparkling wines, and by the end of the century plantings had increased to around 25,000 acres. In the early 20th century, production declined sharply as a result of phylloxera vine disease, competition from California wines, and Prohibition. After Prohibition ended, production resumed, but after World War II soldiers returning from Europe had developed a taste for the drier wines made from European Vitis vinifera grape varieties. Unlike in California, these grape varieties would not grow in the harsh New York winters. Experiments were made with French-American hybrid varieties with limited success.

Then in 1951 Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a Ph.D. degree in Plant Science, came to work at the Cornell University Geneva Experiment station. And, even though he held an advanced degree, the only job he could obtain was that of a janitor. That, compounded by the fact that he could not speak English, made it difficult for him to use his knowledge of plant science. Although native grape varieties were widely planted and producing wine, the belief at that time was that the European Vitis vinifera varietals could not grow in the cold Finger Lakes climate. But after successfully planting the Vitis vinifera varietals in the cold Ukraine climate, Dr. Frank was sure they could be grown in the Finger Lakes area if they were grafted onto cold hardy native rootstock. With support from a sparkling wine producer with whom he shared knowledge of the French language, he began planting Vitis vinifera vines in 1958. In 1962, Dr. Frank started Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, where he began to produce riesling, pinot noir, chardonnay, gewürtztraminer, cabernet sauvignon, and rkatsiteli. Plantings of these varieties spread throughout the region and new wineries soon emerged. Today the number of wineries in the Finger Lakes is more than100. And with increased plantings, new varieties such as grüner veltliner have emerged and are becoming increasingly popular.

We visited a total of eight wineries located on Cayuga, Keuka, and Seneca Lakes. During these visits we tasted many lovely wines. Despite being there at harvest time (which we were told was the earliest on record), we were privileged to meet many wonderful, friendly, and knowledgeable people. Our goal was not just to visit a few of the best wineries and taste their wines, but also to purchase wines to taste later and enjoy with our at-home meals. The wines purchased allowed us the opportunity to taste them over several days with food. This is a really good way to understand and appreciate a wine and see how it matches with food. We were quite impressed. The wines were very food friendly, balanced, and easy to drink. They went well with a wide variety of food from sushi to vegetables, pastas, chicken, and meats.

Click here to find out more on the wineries in the Finger Lakes, and what wines to try.

— John Tilson, The Underground Wine Letter

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