According to Native American legend, the lakes in upper New York State were created when the Great Spirit placed a hand down on earth in a blessing that left an imprint of the sacred fingers on the land. According to science, they were formed by the Ice Age glaciers that retreated a million or so years ago, creating in their wake enormous basins gouged into ancient streambeds. Whether divine fingerprints or glacial sinkholes, the colossal depressions filled up with water and became what is today known as the Finger Lakes.
Located about midway between Manhattan and Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes region is a land characterized by rolling hills and bucolic valleys punctuated by deep gorges and plunging waterfalls. The actual wine appellation is centered around four main lakes: Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, and Keuka. Seneca and Cayuga are among the deepest freshwater lakes in the world, with bottoms below sea level (Seneca, the deepest, is 618 feet deep).
The lakes’ great depth is the principal reason viticulture is possible in this chilly northern country. In winter dry winds distribute the residual warmth that’s been stored in the lakes over nearby slopes and valleys. In spring vines are protected from late frost by cool air wafting off the lakes, thereby keeping vines from blossoming too soon; conversely, in fall wind blowing across sun-warmed lakes wards off early freezes and extends the growing season.
Compared to other new-world wine-growing areas, the Finger Lakes region has an estimable record. The first commercial wineries were established in the mid-nineteenth century; by 1900 there were more than 50 wineries and 20,000 acres of grapes. The burgeoning industry skidded to a halt with the passage of Prohibition in 1919, but a handful of the largest companies managed to survive by making grape juice and sacramental wine. Even so, by the time Repeal finally came in 1933, most wineries had folded. Less than half the vineyard acreage survived, and of those remaining vineyards, almost all had been replanted with grape varieties best suited for juice and jelly, not wine. The industry was dominated by four giants: Gold Seal, Great Western, Widmer, and Taylor.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the first rays of hope for quality appeared in the form of two foreigners—a Frenchman, Charles Fournier, and Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from the Ukraine. Visionaries both, they began experimenting with Vinifera grapes, despite local opinion that the challenging climatic conditions would doom them to failure. In the 1970s German-born Hermann Wiemer planted 20 acres of Vinifera on an abandoned soybean farm on the east side of Seneca Lake. (Today, Konstantin Frank’s descendants at Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars and Hermann Wiemer at his eponymous winery produce some of the best Riesling made in the US).
In 1976 the Farm Winery Act was passed, making it easier for grape growers to segue into wine production. But despite this law, additional legislation supporting the wine industry, and advances in cool-climate viticultural techniques, the 1980s were tough, with major wineries consolidating, then crashing. Prices plummeted, and vineyards disappeared (between 1985 and 1990 grape acreage shrank by a third). None of the four big producers survived.
Road to Riesling
In the 1990s, revival began in earnest, with significant structural changes in the method of marketing grapes and the arrival on the scene of a handful of visionary vintners. Among the most influential in this group were Scott Osborne (Fox Run Vineyards), Mark Wagner (Lamoreaux Landing), Tom and Marti Macinski (Standing Stone), Bob Madill (Sheldrake Point), Dave DeMarco (Seneca Shore), and Dave Whiting (Red Newt). A few of the pioneers came from outside the region, bringing with them advanced winemaking and vineyard techniques. “I brought VSP [Vertical Shoot Positioning, a trellising system],” Scott Osborne recalls. “This seemed to spark interest locally in the fact that there were different things we could do in the vineyard that would positively affect flavor in the wine. But as a group, it wasn’t just that we started out making good wines—we also knew how and where to market our products.”
Ushering in the first generation of boutique wineries, their stated goal was to raise the quality bar and make wines that could compete stylistically with the best from California and Europe. They hired winemakers trained in Australia (Peter Bell at Fox Run), Germany (Johannes Reinhardt at Anthony Road), and France (Jean-Michel Jussiaume at Chateau Frank). “These guys arrived with a whole new range of cutting-edge information about winemaking and vineyard practices,” Osborne comments. “Some of the older wineries—the ones who started in the ‘70s and ‘80s—realized we’d brought something valuable to the table, and they began to change their practices in the vineyard and cellar.”
Inevitably, the more creative thinkers among long-established wineries, such as Anthony Road and Lakewood, joined forces with the farsighted newcomers. Among the contributions of the newly unified group was a determined cohesiveness—sharing information about viticulture and winemaking—and marketing themselves as a region rather than as individual producers. But it was their recognition of Riesling as the region’s flagship wine that may have been the most valuable contribution of all. “Riesling was something we all produced,” notes Osborne. “It was a recognized variety in the world marketplace, and it gave us an opportunity to unite under one banner.”
Indeed, more grapes are coming; more wine is coming. The Finger Lakes now has almost 100 wineries in operation, with more in the wings. Some of the newer producers—Ravines and Rooster Hill, for example—are already attracting considerable attention. Vineyard land is expanding with newcomers and established vintners alike grabbing up potential land for grapes. Among the recent arrivals is Nancy Irelan, who left her position as vice president of enology and viticultural technology at E. & J. Gallo to establish Red Tail Ridge, a vineyard and winery on the shores of Seneca Lake. “When we decided we wanted our own winery, my husband and I could have stayed in California or gone anywhere,” insists Irelan. “The Finger Lakes appealed to us for many reasons, most importantly for the great potential we see here.”
What Is a Finger Lakes Wine?
Riesling, the most widely planted wine grape in the Finger Lakes, and Cabernet Franc have proven themselves the region’s signature wine grapes. Riesling is crisp, with high acidity that is usually refreshing rather than abrasively tart. From bone dry to voluptuously sweet, the best Finger Lakes Rieslings are beautifully structured and often include a beguiling flinty/mineral component. Strong fruit sensations vary subregion to subregion, from lime-peel austerity to bright tangerine and orange flavors to more supple apricot elements.
Cabernet Franc is notable for intense fruitiness, with overt notes of cranberry and red raspberry. As with other Finger Lakes reds, the tannins tend to be soft and supple.
The best Rieslings show impressive potential for aging, with both dry and sweet styles continuing to evolve and gain complexity for ten years and more. Semidry Rieslings are generally best consumed within a year or two of release. Cabernet Franc has a fairly predictable aging curve: it’s good after a couple of years in bottle and even better after three or four years, but then it tends to spiral downward.
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