Wines of the Finger Lakes
Wines of the Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes region of New York has recently emerged as one of the most dynamic areas for wine in the United States. Its name is derived from the series of long, skinny lakes that streak across its landscape. Carved by drifting glaciers during the last ice age, these trenches filled with water as the glaciers above them melted.
The climate of the Finger Lakes is forbiddingly cold, with vine-killing frosts an annual threat. The lakes, especially those that are too deep to regularly freeze, provide the necessary thermal insulation for vine cultivation. The lakes are so essential, in fact, that the majority of vines are grown within direct sight of the water. And while there are nearly a dozen lakes, only a handful provide enough of a buffer to be viticulturally significant. These are Seneca, Keuka, and Cayuga.
The region has a long tradition of wine-making but was historically associated with bulk and kosher production. Fine wine, in a variety of guises, was more of a fringe pursuit. That has been slowly changing since 1976, when a law was introduced to allow the formation of smaller wineries. More recently, during the past decade, there has been a dramatic spike in both the number of small-to-micro producers and in the quality of their wines.
The local specialty is undoubtedly Riesling. As with German examples, Finger Lake Rieslings can range in style from bone dry to syrupy sweet, with excellent examples found at all levels. But though Riesling is known for having high acidity all around the world, the extremely marginal climate of the Finger Lakes makes for an exaggerated brightness. As such, I tend to gravitate towards those examples with a small amount of residual sugar; still technically a dry table wine, but with a little extra charm and cushion to balance all that acid. Your local sommelier or merchant should be able to tell you how much residual sugar (RS) is within a given wine, but many bottles also feature a sweetness scale on the back label. Developed by the IRF (International Riesling Foundation), this scale attempts to communicateperceived sweetnessusing the ratio of acidity to sugar. While hardly precise, this is undoubtedly a helpful tool for consumers.
Many other types of wine thrive in the Finger Lakes. I found the sparkling wines, made from both Riesling and the traditional Champagne combination of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to be often excellent. Cabernet Franc is the area’s most successful red, and the best examples tended to be elegant and slightly earthy, with an herbal edge to the nose. Dry Gewürztraminers were floral but precise, and Lembergers (AKA Blaufrankisch) were generally quite meaty and peppery. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also regularly found in the Finger Lakes, but the quality was more uneven. That said, the good ones can be exceptional, so the categories well-worth investigating.
Consumers should always keep the cold conditions in mind when imagining these wines, as the climate truly informs the style. The vast majority of whites are dry and bracing, while the reds favor nuance and finesse over power. Those seeking concentrated, impactful wines might be better off looking elsewhere.