The Finger Lakes wine region has come a long way in the last 50 years, with wines worthy of worldwide interest, affordable upscale hotels and a burgeoning farm-to-table culinary scene.

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.”

Where to drink
The region’s many wineries are concentrated around four of the 11 lakes: Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Canandaigua, with the Keuka and Seneca wine trails being the most popular.

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.

Unlike most Finger Lakes tastings rooms, which have expansive, lakeside views, Hermann J Weimer conducts its tastings in a cathedral-like 90-year-old barn, amid the stainless steel tanks of the production facility. Be sure to try the 2010 Late Harvest dry riesling, a full-bodied white with apricot and honey flavours, and the 2010 gewürztraminer, a medium-bodied white with a wonderful bouquet of rose petals, peaches and spice.

The tasting room at Ravines, on the other hand, is much more traditional: minimalist on the inside, with just a few windows framing an uninterrupted view of Keuka Lake. On one side of the tasting room is the winery’s Ravinous Kitchen, where owner Hallgren’s wines are paired with local cheeses and artisan chocolates, such as the Rochester-based Hedonist Chocolates. This June, Hallgren plans to open an additional tasting room on Seneca Lake, where vineyard and production facility tours may also be on offer. Pick up a bottle of the vintner’s 2010 cabernet franc, a fruit-forward wine with a hint of spice, and the aromatic 2010 dry riesling. The 2009 dry riesling was recommended by the New York Times as a favourite to accompany Thanksgiving dinner.

Just minutes down the road is McGregor Vineyard, a winery founded in 1980 by Bob McGregor, a local resident that took a chance on some Russian grapes. Now his son John runs the show, and the Russian grapes -- namely a blend of saperavi and sereksiya charni -- produce one of the most well regarded wines in the region, the Black Russian Red. The tasting room at McGregor is decidedly laid-back and cosy, with clusters of picnic tables under strings of Christmas lights woven through the wooden rafters. Visitors are encouraged to sit, relax and enjoy a selection of light bites like cheese, pesto and crackers with their tasting selections. While the Black Russian Red is on the pricier side of the spectrum, more affordable red wines include the 2009 cabernet sauvignon, a vibrant wine with hints of fresh berries and oak, and the 2009 seresksiya (pronounced “sir-rex-see-uh”), of which McGregor might be the only producer in the US.

Back on the eastern side of Seneca Lake, Red Newt Wine Cellars is home to the award-winning Red Newt Bistro, a pioneer in the area’s farm-to-table culinary scene and one of the only restaurants in the region to have an all-Finger Lakes wine list, with more than 200 wines on offer. The dining room’s expansive windows look out onto Seneca Lake, with one of the best restaurant views in the area. In the warmer months, diners can bring glasses of wine onto a large deck that overlooks the valley, perfectly positioned to watch the setting sun. The menu, which changes regularly, recently featured items like pan-seared sea scallops served with asparagus butter and rosé risotto, and an egg pasta roulade made from oven-roasted vegetables, ricotta, cream cheese and homemade egg pasta. In the tasting room (or dining room), try Red Newt’s 2010 semi-dry riesling, a blend of apricot, peach, apple and pineapple flavours, and the 2010 cabernet franc, which has hints of violets and pepper spice.

Off the wine trail
For a break from the vineyard tours, stop by Finger Lakes Distilling, a craft distillery on Seneca Lake that uses locally grown fruits and grains to make vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy and liqueurs. The second-floor tasting room, which was built using reclaimed wood and features a hanging 15ft canoe, overlooks the production facility���s gleaming, copper-coloured pot still. Of note is the Seneca Drums Gin, a fresh tasting spirit with notes of citrus peel, juniper and cucumber.

A 30-minute drive away, on the western coast of Cayuga, is Bellweather Hard Cider, an unassuming building that looks out onto an orchard and also serves as a home for many of the owner’s cats and dogs. There are 10 varieties of hard ciders, ranging from dry (like the Lord Scudamor, a champagne-style cider made with tart, Northern Spy apples ), to semi-sweet (like the Liberty Spy blend, made from Liberty and Northern Spy apples).

The Finger Lakes Beer Company opened in 2010 at the base of Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, which Budget Travel magazine named America’s coolest town in 2012, for the hamlet’s laid-back atmosphere and artsy shops. The Finger Lakes Beer Company is one of many craft breweries in the area, but is worth a stop for a pint of the Ring of Fire, a medium-bodied ale brewed with malts from four different countries.

For a less alcoholic adventure, spend a morning hiking one of the region’s many trails, most of which remain open from late spring through late autumn. The two-mile gorge trail in Watkins Glen State Park is one of the Finger Lakes’ most popular, featuring 200ft cliffs and more than 15 waterfalls. As an alternative, visit Buttermilk State Falls in Ithaca. There are fewer waterfalls to see than in Watkins Glen, but the park has five different trails, a large natural swimming hole at the base and often opens earlier in the season than many of the surrounding parks.

Where to stay
The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, opened in July 2008, sits at the base of Seneca Lake, making it a central location for touring wineries on either side of the lake, and an easy drive from the Keuka Lake Wine Trail to the west, or the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail to the east. Half of the hotel’s 104 rooms look out onto Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes.

Hotel Clarence, at the top of Cayuga Lake, is a historic hotel that was restored in 2009. The 48 rooms are styled after the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, since the hotel’s town of Seneca Falls claims to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the setting of the movie. Clarence is the name of the main character’s guardian angel.