Postcard From the Finger Lakes
News editor Dana Nigro goes back to New York State's Finger Lakes in a nostalgic visit that teaches her how contemporary the local wines are in this installment of our occasional series of postcards from Wine Spectator's globe-trotting wine tasters.
With some trepidation, I returned to the Finger Lakes after a six-year absence. My wine education began here as a student in Ithaca, N.Y., where I found myself easily enticed away from my more academic studies by the region's low-key, welcoming wineries clustered on the lakeside slopes.
Finding a friend with a rare free weekend afternoon, we'd wander off along Cayuga and Seneca lakes, stopping to pick up $6 bottles of the simple, sweetish whites and rosés characteristic of the region. We also sampled more complex bottlings, and it was on these trips that I learned to love the tartness of Riesling, the floral nose of Gewurztraminer and the honeyed texture of late-harvest wines.
I feared that my palate, having since been exposed to wines my college wallet could never have dreamed of, would find the familiar Finger Lakes wines uninteresting. But much has changed since my last visit. The number of wineries has grown to about 60, up from about 30 in 1985, and several more plan to open this year. Meanwhile, many of the more established wineries have done quite well for themselves, expanding production and adding on new wine shops, large tasting rooms and cafes to accommodate the recent boom in tourism.
Even more noteworthy in this region known best for white wines is that almost every vintner is now tackling reds -- and not the sweet, grapey kind -- in an effort to be taken more seriously. The majority of new plantings are varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Merlot.
The trip started off auspiciously, despite the fact that Ithaca is notorious for its less-than-perfect weather. Summer lasts just long enough for parents to drop off their kids at school, believing they've left them in an educational paradise. Warm weather returns, hopefully, in mid-May, just in time for those same parents to see their loved ones graduate. In between is a week or two of fall and then a long, cloudy winter characterized by that bizarre phenomenon known as "lake-effect" snow -- in which cool air moving across the water picks up moisture and dumps the white stuff on shore even if it's not snowing anywhere else.
This cool growing season makes versatile, hardy Riesling the region's dominant grape, accompanied by a variety of hybrids not seen elsewhere, many created at Cornell University specifically to withstand the cold weather. For most of the area's viticultural history, farmers grew the native American labrusca grape varieties, such as Concord and Catawba, selling them to large jug wine producers, including nearby Canandaigua. But in the 1950s, a winemaker familiar with cold climates -- Ukranian-born Konstantin Frank -- planted Pinot Noir and proved that vinifera grapes could indeed grow in New York. German-born Hermann Weimer followed Frank's success with vinifera varieties in the early 1970s, doing much to increase Riesling's appeal.
We set out from Ithaca on one of its rare perfect days, with bright sun, cloudless skies and temperatures high enough to draw out sweater-weary residents in shorts, though the weather had not been warm long enough for buds to form on the vines. We followed Route 89 along Cayuga Lake before cutting over to Seneca Lake -- home of more than 25 wineries, the largest grouping in the region. The empty road dipped among hilly forests and fresh-mown fields and rose to expose long, narrow expanses of cobalt-blue water. These lakes make the growing of wine grapes possible here; their deep waters maintain temperatures above freezing throughout the winter, keeping the surrounding air warmer and minimizing damage to the vineyards that line their steep shores.
Labrusca and French-American hybrids were still predominant in these vineyards through the 1970s, when grape prices crashed and desperate local farmers turned to winemaking themselves to earn more money from their grapes. Ultimately, they discovered that vinifera produced the table wines that garnered the most acclaim, and they also found success with Pinot Noir- and Chardonnay-based bubblies. But even now, many winery lists are heavy with names like Cayuga White, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, which make light, refreshing wines that are quickly snapped up by tourists.
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