Discover The Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York
The Finger Lakes is an American Viticultural Area located in central New York. The region consists of eleven lakes tucked amongst rolling hills, farmlands and villages, each of which provides unique micro-climates to the affiliated vineyards. Of these lakes, four in particular are known for wine, including Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga.
The History of the Finger Lakes
While it has only recently been recognized as a major wine region, the Finger Lakes have been producing internationally-recognized wine since the late 19th century. The first record of successful wine production in Upstate New York was in 1829, and comes from Hammondsport located at the southern end of Keuka Lake.
By the end of the 19th century, Keuka and Canandaigua Lake had vineyards that were commercially producing wine for sale across the United States and Europe. Production was focused on primarily native grapes, like Catawba, Niagara, and Concord, with a preference for making Sparkling Wine.
In 1867, Pleasant Valley Winery on Keuka was awarded honorable mention at the Exposition Universalle in Paris for its Sparkling Wine, and in 1873, that same wine was awarded first place at a competition in Vienna. Production stalled in the 1920s due to Prohibition, and many wineries folded. But the region persisted, and the larger wineries like Pleasant Valley survived.
Due to the climate, commercial growers continued to focus on native grapes, believing that European varieties would not thrive. That changed in the 1950s, when a Ukrainian immigrant named Dr. Konstantin Frank began experimenting with grafting European varieties onto hardy native rootstock. This combination enabled him to grow the classic European grapes, and led to the rise of varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon flourishing in the Finger Lakes.
Since then, the region has continued to grow, going from a handful of wineries scattered across the lakes to over 200 tucked in its hills and along their shores. In between, there are also breweries, cheese producers, chocolatiers, and cideries for those who want a range of edibles and beverages. For a break from tasting, there are state parks, paddling and kayaking, local artisans and antique shops to explore and enjoy. With so much to do, there’s something for everyone.
Finger Lakes Grape Varieties
The Finger Lakes built its reputation on Riesling, and it continues to be a noteworthy grape. It is no surprise that the grape flourishes in the area given it does well in the cooler climates of Germany and Alsace. Every winery in the region produces at least one Riesling, and a variety of clones are grown. They range from bone dry steely and citrusy to sweet and tropical, and can be produced into still, sparkling, late harvest and ice wine.
This grape has increasingly become the signature red variety of the region. Despite often being a blending grape in other regions such as Bordeaux, in the Finger Lakes it is often a standalone. The wines are often peppery and vegetable-forward, but with a bright cherry fruit note and tart acidity.
Spicy and floral, Gewurztraminer is a prominent variety, and in some ways similar to Riesling. It does well given the climatic similarities with Germany and Alsace. Usually done in an off-dry to sweet style, Gewurztraminer is a spicier alternative to Riesling with a waxy texture.
This Austrian grape is gaining strength as a leading variety in the region, though it may be called Blaufrankisch or Lemberger depending on the winery’s preference. It produces wine that is a lighter to medium bodied, with notes of black currant, blackberry, pepper and spice.
The largest and deepest of the lakes, Seneca is home of the highest number of wineries. With Geneva at the North end and Watkins Glen at the South, it is one of the most popular lakes to visit.
As the first wine producing lake in the region, Keuka has a depth of history that can still be experienced today. Wineries like Pleasant Valley and Dr. Konstantin Frank continue to thrive, and newer wineries have popped up in between.
This lake has fewer wineries but is still a wine lovers destination producing excellent wine. With Ithaca and Corning to the South and Aurora on its Eastern side, it’s perfect for those looking to explore.
Canandaigua celebrates the idea of the “grape,” both as a fruit and for the production of wine. Naples to the South holds a festival for grapes, and grape pies are a popular treat.
Finger Lakes Wine Recommendations Available Nationally
Finger Lakes wines vary in terms of accessibility, but many wineries will ship across the United States. Wineries that are more commonly available include Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hazlitt Cellars, Forge Cellars, Ravines Wine Cellars, and Hermann J. Wiemer.
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Written By Kate Meyers Emery
Kate Meyers Emery is a Finger Lakes wine evangelist, sharing the love and knowledge of her region through the classes she teaches and in her writing. She is the author of VinifeROC, a personal chronicle of her adventures in exploring the wines of New York, with a particular focus on Rochester and the Finger Lakes. Follow her wine adventures on Instagram at @kmeyersemery.