17 Aug Finger Lakes 101: The Basics on this Upstate New York Region
Returning from my first ever Wine Blogger Conference in the Finger Lakes region of New York State on the East Coast of the US, I have to share my version of the “what I learned on my summer vacation” essay. While we’ll definitely do a podcast on the Finger Lakes, I thought I’d supplement by writing a post because I think some of this info needs visuals to be effective.
Those of you who are regular listeners or readers, know that I grew up on Long Island (see map, right for where that is!). So naturally, it would make sense to assume that I know something about the Finger Lakes region. But this really isn’t the case because to a Long Islander, this part of New York is sort of like Outer Mongolia. It’s got a different pace, culture, and is much sleepier than the areas surrounding New York City.
So that means the closest I ever came to visiting was on a camping trip to a nearby site with my dad and sister where I distinctly remember that my dad told us to collect firewood. I was so proud of my ingenuity when I beat my sister back from our mission, bringing back a stack of pre-burnt wood from other people’s fire pits (I was 5, I think, so forgive my stupidity if you will). It’s a family story of legend, especially because I was emotionally destroyed by both my sister’s cackles and by the fact that my “Mighty Mouse” t-shirt was forever ruined. I didn’t even realize that this legendary campsite was nearby until I was driving out of Ithaca and saw a sign for “Buttermilk Falls.”
But I digress. Let me get to the story of the gorgeous, friendly, fabulous Finger Lakes region.
I’m starting here because in case you don’t care about anything else, you’re most likely reading so you can find out a thing or two about the wines. So here goes…
There are 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes. Most of them focus on Riesling, which, in a cool climate, makes perfect sense. With what I’ll describe below about the lakes and importance of vineyard location, it will soon make sense that the quality of Finger Lakes wine is directly affected by the vineyard’s proximity to the water, the soil type, and the slope. Microclimates make or break quality.
Here’s something pretty amazing: I didn’t taste a bad Riesling while in the Finger Lakes. But I did taste some that were meh and some that were stunning (I’ll cover those in a round-up post on producers and wines). Each great wine had beautiful lime, peach, pear, or apple fruit, a steel-like acidity, and a finish as clean as the flavor you get from drinking a bottle of mineral water. They were unlike other versions of Riesling elsewhere and they were memorable and mouth-watering!
So what else is in this region besides Riesling? Well, although lots of folks had me try their Cab Franc or red blends, I was unimpressed by all the reds I tried. When I go again, it will be whites only. The whites are absolutely glorious – not just the Riesling but aromatic grapes like Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Grüner Veltliner. When you visit this region, you do it for the whites.
The Finger Lakes is the biggest wine growing region in New York State, but a lot of that is vitis labrusca (native grapes) and French-American hybrids – that’s the stuff that bears a resemblance to Welch’s grape jam/juice, if you live in the US and are familiar with that very grapey essence. Vitis vinifera (Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc etc) is just 20% of the pie but growing. As for grapes apart from Riesling, there are 2.5 times as many plantings of Riesling as the next biggest grape, Chardonnay. It IS queen here.
To function here, the grapes grow on the roots of American vines, but don’t acquire their grapey flavors. Growers do this to prevent phylloxera — the root-eating, vine murdering bug that has decimated vineyards the world around — from destroying these vines. The methods of grafting vinifera onto American roots in the Finger Lakes is a bit of an art, since it proved to be the reason the grapes could grow here in the first place. The stock is hardy and cold tolerant and that allows it to survive in cold temperatures. Often you’ll see vines with numerous trunks from this type of grafting, and in the winter, there will be dirt mounded up against the base of the vine, which serves as a blanket to keep the roots warm. Here it is all about protecting the roots so the vines have the best shot at flowering and making grapes, despite the cool weather.
The terroir of the Finger Lakes is complicated. This area’s terrain is the product of glaciers, which moved in, covered the entire region, and then retreated, leaving lakes and complex soils in their wake. Here there is limestone, shale, gravel, and silt and sometimes a combo of all of them plus more stuff.
This complexity is a big reason there is variability in wine quality. The soils are mixed and change even within a plot of land, It’s hard to figure out what will grow best and what flavors the grapes will pick up once you stick them in the ground.
Even with 60 years of experience growing vinifera, growers specialize in experimentation – some of the better producers seem to have figured it out, but even they are still learning about what will work on their land and what won’t.
The Lakes and Climate
Here’s an easy thing about the Finger Lakes region: if you’re going to understand the wine, the key is in the name: the big story is the lakes. Without them, no grapes could grow here. Vineyards have to be near a lake to exist.
The benevolent overlord of the region is Lake Ontario, the huge lake to the north that warms southerly currents in the freezing winter and helps cool down the temps in the summer. Then there are the 11 lakes that run north-south and are among the deepest lakes in North America. The three main ones for premium viticulture are:
- Keuka: (KUKE-a)
- Seneca (SEN-eh-ka)
- Cayuga (KAY-oo-ga)
These lakes do the same thing Lake Ontario does but on a local level– they warm the vineyards in the winter so the vines aren’t destroyed by cold, and cool down the heat in the summer to allow the grapes to gather acidity. The depth of the lakes means they retain heat and radiate it in the cold weather, keeping the Finger Lakes vineyards alive and viable in the freezing temps of winter.
Growers have learned how to work with the land. The best spots on the lakes for vineyards are gentle slopes a bit above the lakes that receive the benefits of the lake effects (this works well for everyone, since lakeside vacation homes line the lakes but don’t take up prime vineyard space!).
So the warming/cooling thing is the key to the success of this region — without the lakes these wines could never exist.
The Finger Lakes is an old grape growing region but it is pretty new to vitis vinifera. The region got its American Viticultural Area status as “Finger Lakes” in 1982.
That said, Finger Lakes is home to the oldest bonded winery in the United States – Pleasant Valley Winery, which began in 1860 in Hammondsport. But most of the grape growing here was native American grapes and it tasted nothing like the wine most of us chug now.
After more than a century of experimentation, lots of frustration, and confusion about why only native American or French-American hybrid grapes would grow in the region, most winegrowers resigned themselves to the fact that vitis vinifera was not happening in the Finger Lakes. Their reason: it was too cold. So they made wine that tasted like grape jam and people bought it and everyone was ok with that.
But that all changed when Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukranian immigrant who held a Ph.D.in viticulture came to the viticulture station of Cornell University in the Finger Lakes and persisted in telling people they could grow vinifera until someone finally listened. The guy knew what he was talking about and an industry blossomed from his work in the 1960s. You can check out the podcast with Fred Frank, Konstantin’s grandson, to hear the whole story!
Fast forward 60 years later and the region is alive and teeming with talented, smart, savvy, passionate winemakers who are determined to make outstanding wine in this very challenging climate. This is a community of winemakers and growers dedicated to producing outstanding wine and to helping each other to make the region a success. In my view, they are making it happen. The Rieslings, specifically, in the Finger Lakes rival those of any world-class region that makes this grape shine.
I’m thrilled to have visited the region. If you’re a white wine lover, especially, this region is a total bounty of great wine. And it’s a beautiful place to vacation and do outdoor stuff too! A must visit if you can figure out how to get yourself there (their biggest challenge is the lack of good airport. It costs about the same price for me to fly to Paris as it does to Ithaca or Elmira!).
Thanks to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance for furnishing graphics and info for this post! Visit them to learn more about the Finger Lakes! https://www.fingerlakeswinealliance.com/finger-lakes-ava.html