Following the vines to upstate New York
From left: The vineyards at Dr Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars; Buttermilk Falls State Park; a Seneca Lake dock in Watkins Glen.
Until recently, the Finger Lakes wine region of upstate New York was little more than a tiny dot on the world’s wine map. Not because of its size -- more than 100 wineries dot the sloping, tree-lined shores of the Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Canandaigua lakes -- but because for much of its life, the often-chilly region has been plagued by a reputation of quantity over quality. Many of the early producers focused on using native concord grapes, which resulted in a sugar-sweet flavour more fit for jam than fine wines.
But in the last decade, several hard-working locals and European transplants have blown that reputation to pieces, following in the footsteps of winemaker Dr Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian who in the 1950s forged a new path for the Finger Lakes by proving that old-world vinifera grapes could grow in the region’s wet, cool climate.
Now several vintners are making world-class wines that rival those from Europe and other regions in the US. Riesling is arguably the region’s flagship grape, followed by other white varietals like gewürztraminer and chardonnay, but recent warmer winters have also lead to fantastic red vintages for cabernet franc, merlot and even the notoriously finicky pinot noir.
“It’s a different pinot than those found in California,” said Morten Hallgren, winemaker and owner of Ravines Wine Cellars, who came to the region by way of Denmark and France and opened his winery in 2003. “It’s not about strength and boldness, it’s about elegance and softness. But it’s just as good and it is grow-able.” Today, a whopping 45% of Ravine’s production is red varietals.
As Finger Lakes’ wines have evolved, the region’s amenities have followed suit. Two-lane roads still cut through the area’s rolling hills, which are sprinkled with dairy farms and seasonal roadside stands, but a few new affordable upscale hotels have joined the area’s many B&Bs, adding luxury accommodations for less than $200 a night in the off season (winter and spring). Local restaurants are adopting regional wine lists, and a burgeoning farm-to-table culinary scene is emerging at half the price of similar New York City-based restaurants, only 250 miles to the southeast. Off the wine route, the Finger Lakes has a growing microbrew scene and an abundance of waterfall-filled hiking trails during the summer. Plus, tasting fees (for beer or for wine) are rarely more than $5, making the region an excellent destination for wallet-conscious wine lovers.
Visiting the Finger Lakes (which are closer to Canada than New York City), you can taste the excitement about the region’s impending success. It is the type of place where restaurant servers remember your name when you visit for a second year running, and local cheese makers happily give impromptu tours of their facilities. Unlike other wine regions, where you may never meet the artist behind the glass, Finger Lakes winemakers and winery owners are extremely accessible, ever-present in the tasting room and eager to share their vision for the region’s future. They also view the region’s other winemakers as collaborators as opposed to competition – a refreshing difference from elsewhere in the industry. For example, in 2005, the winemakers from Anthony Road Wine Company, Fox Run Vineyards and Red Newt Wine Cellars pooled their finest riesling grapes to create one wine: Tierce, a dry blend derived from three distinctive subregions of Seneca Lake.
“The Finger Lakes region offers potentially the most fascinating tapestry of stories anywhere in the winemaking world,” wrote author Evan Dawson in his book Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. “In old-world wine regions, the winemakers so often come from a family line. But in the Finger Lakes region, the dozen or so high-level winemakers have had to seek out this land and chose to stay when the prestige of so many other regions was calling.”
Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard, a winery located on the western side of Seneca Lake, was founded by Hermann Wiemer, a native of Germany who emigrated to the Finger Lakes in the 1960s. Today, Fred Merwarth is at the helm, having taken over the winery from Wiemer in 2007.