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Getting A Handle On Finger Lakes

An aerial view of Finger Lakes
© Wikimedia | An aerial view of Finger Lakes
Tyler Colman discovers the magic of a newly popular region.

A decade ago, Finger Lakes wines weren’t discussed a lot outside upstate New York. But now that the wines have received glowing media attention, a book-length treatment, and choice placements on restaurant wine lists, some outsiders are asking, “What’s all the fuss about?”

The region is 3,000 miles and a world apart from California. Instead of the abundant sunshine of the Golden State, which makes 89 percent of American wine, Finger Lakes winemakers reach for a parka or a fleece more days of the year than shorts. As the lakes rarely freeze, they provide a moderating effect for the region’s 9,393 acres of vineyards. With every state now having at least one bonded winery and climate change threatening to redraw the U.S. viticultural map in the next 50 years, it has become hard to dismiss any region a priori.

That said, while some emergent wine regions in the U.S. suffer simply from a lack of renown and a healthy dose of skepticism, the Finger Lakes has had to emerge from vinous stigma. This was thanks to a stream of treacly sweet wines (sometimes kosher) and a cataract of wine from native grapes (such as concord and catawba), or hybrids (such as cayuga and chardonel – both developed at the nearby Cornell University at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station). Further, a big producer, Canandaigua, dominated the grape market on its way to growing by acquisition to become the largest wine company in the world, now dubbed Constellation.

Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Ukraine, was the first to believe that grapes from Vitis vinifera – the non-native grape vines that produce the world’s finest wines – could thrive in the region. In the 1950's, he logically planted riesling at his eponymous winery, given its affinity for cooler climates. However, it took a few decades for momentum to build. When it did so, it was in part due to the Farm Winery bill of 1976 that opened bureaucratic doors to an influx of small wineries across the state. According to "American Wine," by Jancis Robinson MW and Linda Murphy, there were 19 wineries in the state before 1976 and 320 today.

In the geologically diverse region of the Finger Lakes, hybrids and native grapes still account for about two-thirds of the grapes. But it is the rieslings that have captured the attention. 

Eric Asimov of the New York Times has called them “seriously good world-class rieslings.” Members of the trade concur, and Jesse Salazar of Union Square Wines goes further: “I try to avoid hyperbole, but the single-vineyard wines such as the Argetsinger Vineyard from Ravines are mind-blowingly good.”

L-R: One of the Dr. Frank vineyards in Finger Lakes; pioneering winemaker Dr. Konstantin Frank
© Dr. Frank Wines | L-R: One of the Dr. Frank vineyards in Finger Lakes; pioneering winemaker Dr. Konstantin Frank

Salazar says Union Square Wines gets inundated with requests to stock New York wines, so they have to be selective. They are even more choosy about which wineries they allow to do in-store events. Last week they had a seated seminar with proprietors Mort and Lisa Halgren of Ravines, who poured eight wines.

“I can’t think of anyone who makes better white wines in the U.S. than the Finger Lakes, particularly [Hermann J.] Wiemer and Ravines,” Salazar said.

The reds remain a work in progress. No consensus has emerged as to which red grape should be the signature variety for the region, but cabernet franc and pinot noir have been planted with some success.

I caught up with Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at New York City's The NoMad restaurant, on a Wednesday – which is when he receives deliveries. Simply having enough space in the cellar was his biggest problem. Similarly, the wine list is replete with ne plus ultra wines – the hardest to find from the small estates of the world, particularly Burgundy and the Northern Rhône. Producers and importers jockey to have their wines on his list, which is perhaps the hottest in town.

Given that, Pastuszak's decision to include 30 selections from the Finger Lakes is proof of his assessment of the region's wines. He professes a love for cool-climate regions of the world and the way they complement chef Daniel Humm’s food. Other sommeliers agree: the lists at prestigious NYC eateries, including Eleven Madison Park, Rouge Tomate, Terroir, and Gramercy Tavern, have a selection of Finger Lakes rieslings.

 “A lot of people in the restaurant world are looking for wines that are unique, express a sense of place,” Pastuszak says. And the Finger Lakes has got it.

He marvels at the geological diversity of the region, saying the wines exhibit site specificity:  Ravines’ Argetsinger Vineyard Riesling, from limestone, is “as lean and taut as a Wachau,” while a slate-style wine such as Wiemer Magdalena Dry Riesling is comparable to ones from the Mosel.

Salazar agrees that these wines stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the best rieslings from Europe. In his view, the Wiemer late harvest is “outrageously good.”

L-R: The bar at the NoMad Hotel; Ravines Wine Cellars' tasting room
© NoMad Hotel/Ravines Wine Cellars | L-R: The bar at the NoMad Hotel; Ravines Wine Cellars' tasting room

That the wines offer value is part of the appeal. Even though excellent estate wines from Europe are available in the U.S. for under $20, compelling domestic offerings under $20 are few and far between. Yet most of the Finger Lakes rieslings are between $10 and $20, making them rare value. But how long they will continue flying under the radar remains to be seen. 

While wine enthusiasts may rejoice in the higher-acidity wines, I have poured some at consumer events to mixed reviews. Some consumers simply see the long, fluted bottle and run away saying, “I don’t like sweet wines!” Even if the wines aren’t technically sweet, some tasters have expressed reservations or incredulity – especially when they have seen the label beforehand.

Pastuszak is such a believer in the category that he sometimes pours the wines for guests – blind. He’ll ask if they would like him to make a selection in a certain price range, then he selects a Finger Lakes riesling, decants it, and brings it to the table. “Removing preconceived notions is extremely important,” Pastuszak says.

So far, no one has sent a bottle back.

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  • Comments

    Sue Chambers wrote:
    10-May-2013 at 09:22:19 (GMT)

    The acclaim of these wines spreads further than the US domestic market. They are making a real impact on the Michelin starred lists of world renowned restaurants here in the UK. Wine Equals Friends represents 14 Finger Lakes and Long Island wines here in the UK and the wines are being well received - not just Hermann J Wiemer, from the Finger Lakes also: Lamoreaux Landing, Red Newt Cellars, Dr Konstantin Frank , Fox Run, Sheldrake Point, Lakewood and from Long Island: Grapes of Roth, Lenz Winery, McCall Wines, Paumanok, Wolffer Estate, Red Tail Ridge and Channing Daughters with more to follow. The wine region of New York State has a stellar future ahead on the International stage, particularly in the UK. The US local market needs to keep up, although not too well as we want to make sure there's enough for the UK! We love New York!

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