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USA: THE FAR EAST – FINGER LAKES

Let’s cross the Atlantic and go to the USA. For once we don’t go until the Far West and California but we stay to the East in New-York State. Let me bring you to the North of this State close to the Canadian border. No wandering inside the Big Apple but through vines and lakes. Maybe you spot it, we are going to explore Finger Lakes region!

Few numbers:

This region is part of the seven wine regions of New-York State which is the third most producing wine region of the country after California, Washington state but before Oregon. Finger Lakes totalize around 150 wineries and 4000 hectares of vineyards. It is also the second grape juice producer of the country!

Six finger’s shape lakes constitute the region. There is Canandaigua Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake, Owasko Lake and Skaneateles Lake. It is around Seneca Lake (the biggest one) that are found the vast majority of wineries. Keuka and Cayuga Lakes come next. Seneca and Cayuga Lakes have their own AVA (American Viticultural Area) showing the willingness of the winemakers to highlight their terroir.

Location and History:

It is mostly thanks to the grape juice production that this region is well known in the US but we can find tracks of wine growing back to 1829. Reverend William Bostwick grew hybrids such as Catawba and Isabella in his garden. It is said that hybrids are resistant to diseases, highly productive but lack aromatic intensity giving fewer interesting wines than those coming from vitis vinifera grapes. By going there and by having tasted the wines I can tell you that it is not that obvious. Let’s go back to the genesis of the FLX (Finger Lakes nickname) viticultural area, because yes, vitis vinifera grapes are grown.

Located on the 43rd North parallel (Bordeaux being between the 44th and 45th), climate here is considered as cold and winegrowing is only possible thanks to two factors:

lakes of the region (which are deep) that play a moderating role in terms of temperature, especially in winter from one side; Ontario Lake from the other side, more to the North that plays a huge role, protecting the region from the cold northern temperature. Otherwise these extreme temperatures would be harmful to the vine.

Vines are also planted on steep slopes around the lakes that give them full exposure to their moderating effect. These lakes are from glacial formation and this means that here soils are poor and draining. This, in conjunction with high water disposal gives good conditions to the vine, especially on the slopes of the lakes. This plenty of water brings also fungal diseases risk. Vines that are located on top and beyond slopes are on more fertile soils that promote vigor. You can already guess that winegrowing in the FLX is not something easy. Not all grape varieties thrive here.

FLX satellite view in winter. Ontario Lake to the North is a perfect shield to the northern temperatures. Finger lakes too, Seneca Lake in the middle and Cayuga Lake to its right. Image: Wikipedia image.

Few experiments were performed but it has to wait until end of 1950s with the arrival of Dr Konstantin Franck, pioneer of winegrowing in the FLX, to observe the « Vinifera Revolution » begins. For the record, Dr Konstantin Franck passed his PhD in viticulture in 1930 in Odessa University, Ukraine. He was a recognized expert all over eastern Europe, survived WWII and the Russian Revolution. He decided, at 52 years old, to emigrate to New-York to give a better future to his family. At this time, he discovered Finger Lakes region and this specificity about poor soils on steep slopes to the lakes. This was a playground for him to plant vitis vinifera grapes. He began with Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Thanks to the Urbana Wine Company he succeeded in reducing the use of hybrid grapes, which were perfectly acclimated, to the use of vitis vinifera ones. Using his 30 years of experience in eastern Europe where the continental climate can be similar to the one of the FLX, he planted more and more vinifera grapes during the 70s. In addition to the previous mentioned grapes, Müller Thurgau, Aligoté, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc but also Saperavi and other Georgian grapes were planted. In total, 25 grape varieties are grown alongside to other autochthonous grapes and hybrids.

Dr Konstantin Franck. Picture

In 1976 the New York Farm Winery Act reformed tax and marketing regulations to allow New York winegrowers to sell directly to the public. Until then lots of grapes were sold to cooperatives. This was the beginning of what is Finger Lakes wine scene today.

What about wines?

Wine is made around the six lakes today. Seneca Lake is the one who host the most wineries. It is the deepest and the longest.

Exceptional Riesling are made here, with vivid acidity and high tension. Aromas are concentrated and citrus driven. When you taste one of them it brings you back to German Mosel Riesling. Pinot Noir is also amazing here and produced in a fresh and fruity style still being concentrated. The use of old oak barrel is preferred to new oak to preserve fruitiness and to avoid bringing oaky notes (vanilla, spices, smoke) as it can be found in Californian wines. Gewürztraminer is delicate and light as opposed to more classical style that can be found in Alsace. Cabernet Franc performs well in warm vintages that are more likely to happen with global warming.

The common link to all FLX wines is the freshness and vivid acidity. For premium wines, concentration and intensity can be tasted. It is also a perfect playground for sparkling wine producers… Ice wine is also produced, for which the region is recognized on the other side of the Atlantic.

wine wander
Hermann.J Wiemer winery and tasting on top of Seneca Lake, Lakewood Vineyard.

We couldn’t end this journey without talking about the emerging trend on Saperavi grape and other Georgian grapes. The first Saperavi festival is taking place on the 14th of May 2022.

And you…are you ready to discover this wine region?

Gauthier Bernardo DipWSET

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