Less than five hours away from New York City lies a place where the sky opens up clear and perfectly blue. The sun illuminates the waters, and the rows of vines on the surrounding slopes seem to sparkle in its dazzling light.
This place is the Finger Lakes, a picturesque wine region in central New York dotted with quaint little towns. It’s the largest winemaking region in the state, yet if you travel 100 miles outside of the Finger Lakes, people barely know it exists.
Take one sip of a Finger Lakes Riesling, though, and you’ll quickly discover what the locals love about wines from the region — the Finger Lakes produces refreshingly buoyant wines with depth as deep and complex as Seneca Lake.
And it’s not just Riesling the Finger Lakes excels at. The region is ripe with diverse grapes that have adapted to the cool climate and varying soils types.
Though, given the region’s not-so-glamorous history of sweet table wines, it’s been a challenge for the many other styles to capture the attention and interest of city sommeliers at top restaurants and retail shops. For the longest, it seemed that drinkers couldn’t find Finger Lakes wine anywhere outside of the Finger Lakes. However, an increased focus on quality and a new generation of ingenious winemakers are helping reshape the region’s image.
“We have many young, talented professionals in our wine industry, all of whom have a shared commitment to making quality wine sustainably and ethically,” says Laury Ward, president of Finger Lakes Wine Country.
The history of the Finger Lakes
Grape growing and winemaking in the Finger Lakes dates back to the 1820s. However, the region didn’t become an officially recognized American Viticulture Area until 1988, according to “The Oxford Companion to Wine.”
What makes the region prime for winemaking is the Finger Lakes’ climates, influenced by 11 narrow and deep lakes, sloping hills, well-draining soils, and temperatures that tend to be less extreme in the winter and summer.
“Finger Lakes wine wouldn’t be what it is without our deep, glacially-carved lakes and the shale-rich soils of our region,” says Ward. “Our lakes set us apart from other wine regions, but it’s our people who really make this place — and our wines — that much better.”
In the early days of wine development in the Finger Lakes, much of what was bottled was sweet, simple table wines made with American grapes like Concord and Catawba. Then came Dr. Konstantin Frank, the first vintner to successfully plant European grapes in the region in 1958.
A native of Ukraine, Frank determined the region benefited from the lake effect, an aspect that causes large bodies of water to retain summer heat year-round, helping the surrounding land stay warm even on the coldest of winter days. Frank knew that certain European varieties like Riesling were a perfect match for these conditions, and planting began. Not long after, wineries like Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and Glenora Wine Cellars took note and followed suit.
Over the last decade, the emphasis on quality has increased.
“We’re lucky in this region in that we have really good programs at Cornell University and Finger Lakes Community College that are training the next generation of winemakers in more of a scientific background and doing a lot of research in this area specifically to help the industry advance and overcome the challenges of this region,” says Edward Miller, winemaker at Glenora.
Miller adds, “I’d say the passion and the knowledge of the general winemaking pool here have increased quite a bit. We are standing on the shoulders of the pioneers and the people who have been doing it for a long time here, but I think there’s a lot of focus on quality and taking more of a scientific approach to winemaking.”
Though Riesling has long been the supreme grape of the Finger Lakes, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and the region’s traditional method sparkling wines have taken off, too. And the German grape Blaufränkisch has popped up in more recent times.
“We’ve been growing grapes here for a long time, but we’re not yet bound by tradition like some of the more established wine regions. So we have this opportunity to explore and try new grape varieties to make a huge range of wines here,” says Miller. “We’re going to start to see a lot more really interesting and complex reds coming from the region.”
Miller adds, “I think the Lemburger Blaufränkisch variety will grow nicely in this area. I really want to start working with that and pushing the limits of that grape.”
Winemakers are finding success with Georgian varieties, too. At Dr. Frank, winemakers have continued to impress drinkers with Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, the latter of which was recently used to make orange wine in the traditional Georgian style with amphora aging. At Inspire More, Zweigelt, an Austrian variety, is getting the rosé treatment.
Even the production of hybrid grapes has improved significantly from the bottles of the 1980s.
“The hybrid grape Seyval Blanc is one of my favorites,” says Miller. “It’s a grape that I love to promote because it has a lot of potential here. It screams to be drunk.”
“We have this amazing pool of different grape varieties that we pull from. The wines we make tend to be more acidic, have lower alcohol, and are more food-friendly … The value to quality ratio here is excellent. There are some really delicious, amazing wines coming out for under $15 a bottle.”
A community effort
While winemakers have dedicated themselves to advancing the quality of wine in the region, the rest of the Finger Lakes wine community is devoted to spreading the word about it.
“There’s a full community of like-minded winemakers who are also very supportive of each other, and there’s a lot of collaboration with everybody in the same boat of trying to help develop the region. I felt it was important to showcase some of the outstanding wines we have here in the Finger Lakes,” says Antonio Arias, the owner of Once Finger Lakes, a wine tasting room in Penn Yan, New York with a range of Finger Lakes wines by producers all across the region.
Since the pandemic, the Finger Lakes has seen plenty of tourism. That’s only expected to continue as more people fall head-over-heels for the approachable, well-made wine at affordable price points.
“We have this amazing pool of different grape varieties that we pull from. The wines we make tend to be more acidic, have lower alcohol, and are more food-friendly. That is a big draw for the region.” says Miller, adding, “The value to quality ratio here is excellent. There are some really delicious, amazing wines coming out for under $15 a bottle.”
With such commitment to quality wine and the freedom to experiment, there’s a sense that the Finger Lakes is just on the cusp of becoming a well-known, highly regarded wine region that more than the locals know.
“I think now, finally, the time is coming where the Finger Lakes really solidifies itself in the wine industry. Soon the average wine drinker will be grabbing bottles of Finger Lakes wine off store shelves,” says Arias.
Bottles to try:
Dr. Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes Saperavi 2019 (~$30)
This nearly violet-colored full-bodied wine is rich with dark fruit and smoky aromas. Plum, black cherry, and earthy nuances get a lift from fresh acidity, while polished tannins elevate the long finish.
Glenora Wine Cellars Finger Lakes Seyval Blanc 2017 (~$13)
Fans of Pinot Gris will get a kick out of this refreshing crisp wine. Pronounced aromas of citrus fruit and apple lead the aroma while the palate radiates with fresh minerality and delicate oak flavors.
Hermann J. Wiemer HJW Vineyard Finger Lakes Riesling 2019 (~$33)
A wine that critics have consistently scored over 90 points, this fine dry wine is elegant with intense aromas of lemon peel and chamomile. The palate drips with mouthwatering acidity and ripe apple and peach characters. The finish is long, creamy, and delicious.
Weis Vineyards Finger Lakes Blaufränkisch 2019 (~$24)
This is a bright, easy-drinking red wine. Aromas of cherry and pomegranate flavors are plentiful while the palate evolves into a melody of savory herbs. The breezy finish is long and memorable.
Damiani Wine Cellars Bollicine Finger Lakes Sparkling Wine NV (~$19)
A blend of Cayuga, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Franc are used to make this sparkling wine, made using the tank method. The wine is ripe with zesty tangerine and citrus aromas and flavors. The tiny little bubbles are clean and persistent.