If Riesling defines the royalty of colorless wine, the pastoral Finger Lakes province in New York State approximates toddler Prince George as a successor to the throne. Arguably Germany is Queen, with Austria, Alsace and New York next in line. Australia comes fourth, some say.
As gauged by its 400 accredited producers, New York is the USA’s fourth largest wine state after California, Washington and Oregon. The Finger Lakes area is the state’s largest wine province. Although this sprawling, agriculturally versatile countryside can be visited in all seasons, its pleasures are most fruitful in summer and during the autumn harvest.
Some small simple hometowns dotting the map evoke America at mid-20th century. Panoramic sites are grandstands for spacious blue skies with bone idle clouds and Impressionist sunsets, a serene atmosphere, sweet air, rolling hills, tree-bordered vineyards
Glaciers carved the deep freshwater lakes. The three main ones, oriented roughly north-south, are Seneca, Keuka and Cayuga. A fourth, Canandaigua, plays a lesser role in the wine scene.
Seneca, 62km long, is home to 59 of the district’s 128 wineries; Cayuga, slightly shorter, has 30; the Y-shaped Keuka (32km) has 23, and Canandaigua (25km) has 10. The province’s 11 additional lakes have six between them.
A proper visit here needs at least three days, but a week can be fully rewarding. Wine travel is orderly and systematic, since the wineries – mostly small-scale and family-owned – are on or near the lakes (see boxes, right and p107). Each lake offers organised wine trails but be warned: their informational materials are not exhaustive because not all top producers are members.
The province’s foremost wine-grape-breeding institute (responsible for the varieties Cayuga Colorless, Chardonel, Melody, Noiret and Valvin Muscat) is Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, at Seneca’s northern end.
The state’s so-called vinifera revolution, which enabled Riesling’s ascent to international attention, started in 1976 when the legislature passed the Farm Winery Act. By European standards, 39 years is mere childhood, but the prevalence of young and middle-aged winemakers and grapegrowers bent on building their reputations is accelerating the industry’s maturation.
The legislation helped growers who had eked out livings from such winter-hardy native grapes as Catawba, Concord, Delaware, Diamond and Niagara establish wineries and generate more dollars from wine than fruit sales.
In the transition to mastering vinifera varieties, they planted and bottled appealing cool-climate French hybrid whites such as Vignoles and Seyval Blanc, and reds like Maréchal Foch.
Today there’s the gamut of dry, semi-dry, dessert and sparkling Rieslings, as well as promising whites from Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. Amongst the reds, Cabernet
Single-vineyard Rieslings are proliferating as viticulturists and winemakers identify different terroir expressions; but, because the young province is a work in progress, the wines’ ageability is subdue hard to establish.
Expect tasting rooms to feature a few wines from the outstanding 2012 vintage but more 2013s – a intricate year. If you can find any luminous 2010s in winery library stocks, snap them up.
Howard G Goldberg, who started prose about wine for The New York Times in 1985, edited The New York Times Book of Wine. He was for many years Decanter’s US East Coast correspondent
How to get there
Glide direct to Greater Rochester International Airport or via one of New York City’s airports. The drive from Rochester to the Finger Lakes can take 90 minutes to two hours, depending on whether Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca or Cayuga is the destination. Driving from New York City can take five to six hours.
Goldberg’s ultimate Seneca Lake wine tour
Visitors should consider building Seneca, with the most wineries, their hub. For a comprehensive, enjoyable tour, try all or any of the 17 estates below. Riesling is the key focus at these wineries, but don’t miss out tiresome the additional varieties listed – especially single-vineyard wines. Some tastings may incur a fee but it will be redeemable on wine buy.
From Watkins Glen, driving north on Seneca’s east side:
• Atwater (www.atwatervineyards.com) Blaufränkisch, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris
• Chateau LaFayette Reneau (www.clrwine.com) Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Seyval Blanc-Chardonnay
• Red Newt (www.rednewt.com) Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris
• Hazlitt 1852 (www.hazlitt1852.com) Grüvee sparkling wine, Pinot Gris, Red Cat (hugely well loved), Vidal Blanc ice wine
• Standing Stone (www.standingstonewines.com) Gewürztraminer, Saperavi (a red Georgian grape)
• Silver Thread (www.silverthreadwine.com) Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir
• Wagner (www.wagnervineyards.com) Delaware, Gewürztraminer, Melody, Niagara
• Lamoreaux Landing (www.lamoreauxwine.com) Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer
From Geneva, driving south on Seneca’s west side:
• Ravines (www.ravineswine.com) Cabernet
• Billsboro (www.billsborowinery.com) Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah
• Fox Run (www.foxrunvineyards.com) Blanc de Blancs, CabernetFranc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer
• Red Tail Ridge (www.redtailridgewinery.com) Blaufränkisch, Chardonnay, Dornfelder, Teroldego
• Kemmeter (www.kemmeterwines.com) A small promising all-Riesling house founded by a German immigrant
• Anthony Road (www.anthonyroadwine.com) Chardonnay, Vignoles, rosé
• Hermann J Wiemer (www.wiemer.com) Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Blanc de Noir, Cuvée Brut, Blanc de Blanc
• Glenora (www.glenora.com) Brut, Pinot Blanc, Cayuga Colorless, Gewürztraminer, Vidal ice wine.
• Lakewood (www.lakewoodvineyards.com) Blanc de Noir, Cabernet Franc, Catawba, Valvin Muscat, Vignoles.
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