Empire Sate of Wine – New York’s Finger Lakes Region

Sunrise over Keuka Lake – photo courtesy of Dr Frank.

Understandably most UK wine drinkers think that American wine is pretty much all from California. Certainly California is the most important of the wine producing states, but there are some superb wines made elsewhere in the US too.

Some consumers are aware of wines from Oregon and possibly Washington State, but usually my students are astonished when I tell them about wines from Virginia, Texas, Utah or New York state.

Wine is actually made from freshly gathered grapes in all 50 states – yes even Hawaii and Alaska.

The United States is currently the fourth largest wine producing country in the world, after Italy, France and Spain, and California accounts for around 85% of it. Washington State, in the Pacific North West, is next at just over 5%, while New York comes in third by making about 3.5% of American wine.

And it is the wines of New York that are the subject of my article this month. In particular a region called the Finger Lakes.

Lake Erie has around 20,000 acres of vineyard is by far the biggest producing wine region in New York, but about 95% of that is Concord grapes destined for use in Welch’s Purple Grape Juice.

So the Finger Lakes, with around 10,000 acres (4,500 hectares) and some 120 wineries – Lake Erie can boast a mere 19 producers, is actually the most important wine region in New York state.

The Finger Lakes is a beautiful part of the world and I was totally captivated by it when I visited. I think what makes it especially magical is that we all have a mental picture of New York in our heads and this area is picturesque and very rural, so completely different. 

Wine has been made here since the early nineteenth century, but in the past it was almost solely vitis labrusca, the indigenous type of North American vine, rather than vitis vinfera, the European strain of vine used for wine.

Wine map of New York State – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Dr Konstantin Frank

It was not until 1958 that Dr Konstantin Frank showed that vitis vinfera grapes could successfully be grown here as long as a hardy American root stock was used. Frank was a Ukranian immigrant with a PhD in viticulture and had a great deal of experience growing grapes in his cold homeland.

Dr Konstantin Frank – photo courtesy of Dr Frank.

Ever since Europeans arrived in North America they had been trying to grow European vitis vinfera vines. This is because the abundant indigenous grapes produce wines with a distinctive ‘foxy’ smell that can be musky and off-putting. From my limited experience of wines made from these grapes – especially Concord – the only way round this is to make the wines sweet enough to mask the foxy qualities. However, phylloxera lives on the Eastern seaboard of North America and these aphids feast on the leaves and roots of grape vines and ultimately destroy the plant, so settlers in America found it impossible to grow European vines. American vines are hardier and immune to the ravages of phyloxerra.

Vitis Vinifera left, American grape variety right – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Even after the solution of grafting the vitis vinfera vine onto an American vine root was discovered, no one had found a way to make it work in upstate New York. Most growers were convinced that it was the extreme cold of the winters killing the vines, but Dr Franc was convinced that it was because they were not using suitable rootstocks for the particular vines. Initially he worked at the Cornell University’s Experiment Station in Geneva, at the top of Seneca Lake, before finding an ally in Charles Fournier. Charles ran Gold Seal Vineyards making sparkling wine from French-American hybrid grapes – which are crossings of vitis vinfera and American grape varieties. However, he was anxious to find a way of growing vitis vinfera as he knew that would improve the quality of his wines. Dr Frank worked here throughout the 1950s and the breakthrough came when he imported Native American Rootstock from Quebec, which proved both phylloxera resistant and capable of surviving the harsh Finger Lake winters. Dr Frank set up the first modern winery in the region, Dr Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Cellars, in 1962.

Dr Frank’s vineyards – photo courtesy of Dr Frank.

The Finger Lakes AVA

Cayuga Lake Aerial View – photo courtesy of New York Wines.

Today the Finger Lakes is a fully fledged AVA or American Viticultural Area, which is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States. The AVA rules guarantee where the grapes are grown, they do not stipulate or restrict grape variety, yield or wine making techniques and so are more akin to PGI (Vin de Pays) regulations than European PDOs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlé).

As you might imagine from their name, the Finger Lakes are long and narrow. Cayuga is the biggest at 40 miles long and just 3.5 miles wide. Seneca is 38 miles long and 3 miles wide, Canandaigua 16 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.

Traditionally grape growing and wine making in the Finger Lakes is centred around the four main lakes of Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga. The last two lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, are especially deep which creates different climatic conditions, allowing for a longer growing season, so these lakes have their own AVAs.

Keuka Lake Aerial View – photo courtesy of New York Wines.

There are actually eleven lakes in total, some very small, and all of them, except Hemlock, have Native American names. 

Canandaigua means ‘The Chosen Spot’, Keuka ‘Canoe Landing’, Seneca ‘Place of the Stone’ and Cayuga ‘Boat Landing’.

In effect it is the presence of the lakes that makes viticulture possible here. The region actually sits just above 42˚ latitude, the same as Rias Baixas in Galicia, but upstate New York enjoys a climate of extremes with hot summers and very cold snowy winters – so much so that nearby Lake Placid has twice hosted the Winter Olympics.

However the lakes temper the extreme continental climate and keep it mild compared to the surrounding conditions. The Lakes are deep, Seneca just shy of 200 metres, Cayuga over 130 metres, Canandaigua 80 metres and Keuka just under 60 metres. These deep bodies of water keep the air that little bit warmer during the winter, so preventing frost, and cooler during the summer, so lengthening the ripening season. The lakes also give better sun exposure, as the vineyards are mainly south facing and slope down towards the lakes.

The Cauyga Effect

I visited Sheldrake Point Vineyard early on in my trip to the region and it taught me a great deal about the Finger Lakes. 

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Sheldrake Point is a relatively new winery, founded in 1997 by Chuck Tauck. Like the region’s pioneers, Dr Frank and Hermann Wiemer, he chose a sheltered site on the western shore of one of the Finger Lakes – Cayuga Lake in this instance.

Cayuga vies with Senaca for being the largest of the Finger Lakes, both are around 40 miles long. Although Cayuga is not as deep as Seneca, it is still a large body of water that helps to temper the climate and keep the conditions that little bit warmer than the surrounding countryside, so allowing the delicate vitis vinfera grapes to survive the harsh winter conditions.

Sheldrake Point comprises a single block of vines that slopes down to the lake and they have only ever wanted to grow vinifera grapes and they stick to that – that is one reason they chose this site.

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Time and time again in the Finger Lakes region I was told that if vitis vinfera are to survive, let alone thrive, then they must be grown within sight of the water. Sheldrake Point is an actual point or peninsula sticking out into the lake which puts the shore of the estate – and so its vines – right at the lake’s deepest spot. That means that this mass of water, which cools and heats more slowly than the land, protects the vines over winter and gives a longer growing season in the summer as well. In addition the east facing site gives them a little bit more sunshine each day in the spring than their colleagues on the eastern shore of the lakes – this helps to prevent frost and diseases, which are both serious problems in the region.

The slope is not dramatic – the top is 176 metres above sea level with the bottom at 140 metres above sea level, which is 6 metres above the level of Cayuga Lake – but it is vital, allowing excellent air drainage. 

The cold air flows down to the lake where it displaces hotter air that then flows up – this gives them a degree or so higher temperatures than inland. It’s not much but in a marginal climate like this it can make a big difference to ripeness, complexity and the grape varieties that you can grow. The warmest conditions are at the shoreline, so that is where the more demanding vines are grown, those that need more sun and ripeness, in particular Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. They call all this the Cauyga Effect, but there is a similar lake effect for every vineyard in the region.

Jetty on Cayuga Lake at Sheldrake Point Vineyards – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Making wine in a region like this is not easy. It is a marginal climate with vintage variation and sometimes very unkind weather, so estates often grow a wide range of grape varieties just to ensure that they actually get a crop despite the weather. Before the vitis vinfera revolution vitis labrusca and hybrids were grown successfully. If you ever travel around the Finger Lakes, do try the local red wines made from Concord grapes and some of the intriguing blends such as Lakewood Vineyard’s Long Stem Red which is made from 40% De Chaunac, 25% Vincent 13% Frontenac, 12% Leon Millot and 10% Baco Noir!

It is undeniable that vitis vinfera varieties seem to the best and most complex results in the Finger Lakes, especially Riesling for the whites.  Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris can all do well here too though, as can Rkatsiteli, which is originally from Georgia (Joseph Stalin Georgia, not Jimmy Carter Georgia). Chardonnay can produce good results on particular sites as well.

As for black grapes, Pinot Noir is the great success story here, but you also find lovely examples of Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Blaufrankisch – often called Lemberger around here – as well as some Cabernet, Merlot and blends of them in especially favoured sites. Georgia’s Saperavi also seems to be doing some good things. 

Recommended wineries:

Dr Konstantin Frank, Keuka Lake

Fred Frank Demonstrating the Traditional Method – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The original Finger Lakes estate that focussed solely on vitis vinifera and very much the big producer here. That being said they are still family owned and being run by third generation Fred Frank and his daughter Meaghan. Because they have been growing vinifera grapes here longer than anyone else, with some parcels dating back to 1958, they have some of the oldest vines in the Eastern United States.

They also lead the way in hand riddled and very fine traditional method sparkling wines, which are not exported. Their Old Vine Pinot Noir is not exported to the UK either, which is a shame as it is excellent and one of the best value American Pinots there is.

Try: Dr Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling, a very fresh style with lime acidity, green apple crispness and a softness from five months lees ageing – a great introduction to the region and what they do.

Also try: Dr Konstantin Frank Cabernet Franc, a light red for sure but with lovely violet notes, juicy plums and crunchy red fruit as well as a little savoury earthiness and spice from gentle ageing in French oak.

Dr Konstantin Frank’s wines are distributed in the UK by Matthew Clark.

Hermann J Wiemer, Seneca Lake

Hermann J Wiemer Vineyards and Winery in Winter – photo courtesy of Hermann J Wiemer.

Hermann Wiemer was from Germany’s Mosel region. His father was in charge of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Bernkastel where he was responsible for restoring vineyards after World War II and it was this connection that led him to work at the research station at Cornell University and so to New York’s Finger Lakes. Here he soon realised that he had stumbled across a region capable of producing great cool climate wines.

Wiemer was drawn to Seneca lake and in 1973 he purchased 140 acres on the lake’s west shore. Unusually for the region in the 1970s Hermann decided only to grow vinifera grapes. He planted many different grape varieties but Riesling was and remains the focus of the winery.

Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The estate is now owned and run by winemaker Fred Merwarth and agronomist Oskar Bynke, both of whom trained and worked with Hermann before he retired. They farm sustainably and are moving towards biodynamic status. The wines all have a lovely texture because of spontaneous fermentations and long lees ageing.

I find it strange that these wines are not available in the UK as when I went to the region and every time I attend a Finger Lakes tasting, Wiemer really shines out – come on someone bring these wines in, please.

Try: Hermann J Wiemer HJW Vineyard Riesling, a selection from the oldest blocks that Wiemer planted in the mid 1970s. It is a very complex and delicious style that shows a purity and minerality on the finish.

Also try: Hermann J Wiemer Riesling, as great as the HJW Riesling is, this wine is their calling card and is much cheaper, but still very fine.

They recently also bought Standing Stone Vineyards, which was originally planted by Charles Fournier in the 1970s. Standing Stone makes a gorgeously suave and juicy Saperavi.

Hermann J Wiemer’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Forge Cellars, Seneca Lake 

Forge Cellars, Seneca Lake – photo courtesy of Forge Cellars.

A new artisan cellar created by three friends  – Frenchman Louis Barruol (whose family have owned Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas for generations), Rick Rainey and Justin Boyette – who all love terroir wines, share a passion for the Finger Lakes and believe it to be a world class wine region.   

They farm their vineyards sustainably and practice biodiversity, with plants, fruit trees and farm animals around the vines. They also help other grape growers, whose grapes they use, to manage their vineyards to achieve the very best results that they can – such professional help is very useful and beneficial to the region as a whole, given that many local grape growers are not as experienced.

As is normal in the Finger Lakes, the aim here is purity, to express the terroir of the place rather than a winemaking footprint.

Vineyards on Seneca Lake – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Forge Cellar Classique Riesling, an extraordinary wine, bright and pure with pithy lime and dense, stony minerality. The silky texture is backed up by a kiss of oak.

Also try: Forge Cellar Classique Pinot Noir, one of my favourite Finger Lakes Pinots, it is scented and has palate has vivid red fruit and delicate, smoky, savoury, herbal flavours and a suave, refined texture.

Forge Cellars’s wines are distributed in the UK by Bibendum.

Nathan K, Seneca Lake 

Nathan Kendall – photo courtesy of Nathan K.

I was fortunate enough to bump into Nathan Kendall at an event, just before lockdown. He was charming and fascinating. He comes from upstate New York and always wanted to make wine in Seneca Lake, but he chose to travel the world and make wine in other regions first, including Sonoma, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia and, perhaps most tellingly, the Mosel. All these places specialise in cool climate varieties, because the plan was always to go back to Seneca. He eventually returned home and now focuses just on Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as some sparkling wine.

Like the other wineries here he is excited by low interventionist winemaking, minerality and texture as well as the purity that a cool climate can produce in these grapes. Long spontaneous fermentations, used French oak and long lees ageing helps to give complexity and mouthfeel, even to his Rieslings.

Seneca Lake panorama – photo courtesy of Red Newt.

Try: Nathan K Dry Riesling, a pure, vivd, lime-drenched and mandarin-scented wine that leaps out of the glass at you.

Also try: Nathan K Pinot Noir, a pale Pinot with plenty of flavour. Fruit forward with enticing raspberry and cherry notes and savoury complexity from oak ageing.

Nathan K wines are distributed in the UK by Top Selection.

Red Newt Cellars, Seneca Lake

By Finger Lake standards Red Newt was a pioneer as it was set up in 1998 as the brainchild and passion of David and Debra Whiting. The region is in their blood with David having been the winemaker at Chateau Lafayette Reneau (who make superb Riesling), Swedish Hill Vineyards (who make the best Concord I have ever tasted, and Standing Stone Vineyards, now owned by Wiemer. 

Glacier Ridge Vineyard, Seneca Lake – photo courtesy of Red Newt.

David’s wife, Debra, was a fine chef and opened the Red Newt Bistro at the winery in 1999. I was fortunate enough to meet her and to eat a memorable meal with her not that long before her untimely death. Her influence in this region that has very few restaurants cannot be denied. More wineries now have restaurants and that is in no small way because of her.

David has now taken over the restaurant and passed on the winemaking to Kelby Russell who is utterly charming, knows the region inside out and is another winemaker who has worked around the world in cool climate regions.

Red Newt panorama – photo courtesy of Red Newt.

Try: Red Newt Cellars The Knoll Lahoma Vineyards Riesling, complex and generous Riesling, with a smoky, leesy quality and an explosion of lime and grapefruit. 

Also try: Red Newt Cellars Glacier Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, Fermented with wild yeast and given 10 months ageing in older barriques, then bottled without fining or filtering. A glorious Pinot with bright cherry, savoury earth and refined tannins.

Red Newts’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake 

Sheldrake Point Vineyards, Cayuga Lake – photo courtesy of Sheldrake Point.

Sheldrake Point is not a large estate, currently they have around 60 acres of vines – 25 hectares – although they own another 30 that can be brought into production. From this they make some 8,500 cases of wines and in keeping with the general trend of the region over 70% of this is sold on site, through their shop and restaurant – they have a beautiful winery shop and gift shop full of tempting things as well as the Simply Red Lakeside Bistro where I enjoyed one of the best meals of my trip.

Try: Sheldrake Point Gamay, a delicious take on the Beaujolais grape. French oak gives texture and spice, while the fresh, bright red fruit is immediately appealing.

Also try: Sheldrake Point Gewürztraminer, a nicely balanced, aromatic example with plenty of spice and a hint of sweetness, but there is some nice fresh acidity too.

Sheldrake Point’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Ravine’s Wine Cellars, Keuka Lake 

Morten and Lisa Hallgren of Ravines Vineyards – photo courtesy of Skurnik Wines.

Ravine’s Wine Cellars is the creation of Morten and Lisa Hallgren. Morton is originally from Copenhagen where he lived right by the Carlsberg Brewery, but at the age of 14 his family moved to the Vars region of France where his parents owned and operated Domaine de Castel Roubine. He trained in winemaking at Montpellier University, worked at Cos d’Estournel with Bruno Pratts and eventually ended up in the Finger Lakes where he worked as the wine maker at Dr Frank’s.

Morton sustainably farms 130 acres of his own vineyards on Seneca and Keuka lakes. In addition he buys fruit from vineyards that he deems to be especially good. When I visited Morton’s wines really stood out and other commentators have confirmed to me that they still are among the very best wines in the Finger Lakes region.

Try: Ravine’s Argetsinger Dry Riesling, made from a single parcel on Keuka Lake, it has purity and energy and remains amongst the best Rieslings that I have ever tasted.

Also try: Ravine’s Maximilien (Bordeaux Blend), for me this is the best Cabernet-Merlot blend – or indeed any red made from grapes other than Pinot Noir – from the Finger Lakes that I have tasted.

Ravine’s wines are not currently exported to the UK.

Wines Worth Discovering

The Finger Lakes has a marginal climate and therefore never produces big blockbuster wines. They tend to be fresher, lighter and lower in alcohol. However the winemakers really understand their land and what it can do. So by concentrating on delicate varieties like Riesling and Pinot Noir, other than in certain special sites, they are producing some really exciting wines that show a very different side to American viticulture. There are plenty of really delicious and interesting wines made here that can offer us something different, exciting and a little challenging.

The region is also well worth a visit as it is very beautiful. More information is available at these websites:

https://www.fingerlakestravelny.com

https://www.visitfingerlakes.com

https://www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com

https://www.fingerlakes.com

https://www.iloveny.com/places-to-go/finger-lakes/

https://www.fingerlakes.org

 

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