I recently spent a few days in the Fingerlakes, and though I certainly had my fair share of Riesling and Cabernet Franc, I was also excited about some unexpected wines that several wineries are producing. Chardonnay, Merlot, and even Saperavi are being made with increasing success, not to mention the myriad sparkling wines (both Riesling and non) that have begun popping up. It may be a few years before these are perfected, but as the region continues to grow in technique and tradition, it’s only a matter of time.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that vitis vinifera first made its way to the Fingerlakes region, although before that native grape varietals were being grown and made into wine for at least a century. Many places are still producing these wines, as well as some French hybrids (most notably Vignoles), and in fact only about 15% of the region is planted to vitis vinifera. Of that 15%, the most widely planted grapes are Riesling and Cabernet Franc.
Due to the extreme climate, with often very hot summers and below zero winters, sturdy, early-ripening grapes fare best. Initial planters thought Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would do well, and while there are some places where indeed this has been successful, on the whole it doesn’t work. Where it does succeed is typically in vineyards closest to the deepest of the lakes, Seneca.
And the lakes have an interesting effect on the climate, and in particular, Seneca Lake. Due to its depth, it takes a long time to warm up in the summer (locals like to say that it warms up just in time for the weather to get cold), and conversely a long time to cool down again in the winter– it hasn’t frozen over since 1912! Because of this, vineyards located close to the lake stay warmer longer, allowing grapes to fully ripen in the fall and avoiding early spring frosts that might otherwise damage vines.
I had the opportunity to work for a few hours at the winery of Hermann J. Wiemer, and it was a pleasure to help (even in a very small way) make wine that will be on our shelves next year. Currently we have their Cabernet Franc 2014 ($24.99) and Dry Riesling 2016 ($19.99), both excellent examples of what the region has to offer.