In the world of fruit growing, the choice of location is key. Climate and length of season can really dictate your choices for any particular region. Oranges grow perfectly in Florida. Apple trees love New York State. And pineapples are a signature of Hawaii. If you tried to switch any of those orchard-to-state pairings around, the end result would just not be as successful—or as tasty.
It is the same with grapes. Certain types of grapes grow well in a cooler climate, some in a warmer climate. Some like short seasons, some like long seasons. Some vines prefer more gravelly soil, some prefer limestone. And the list goes on.
Most “indigenous” grape varieties around the world started out with ideal lodging. at is why they were born where they were. But, over time, these vines have been transplanted by winemakers into soils outside of their homeland. Sometimes they like it. Sometimes they don’t.
Over the past few centuries or three, the wine regions of the world have been experimenting with the different grape varieties to discover which ones take best to their “terroir,” or their own particular soil conditions, climate, humidity, etc.
For example, the chardonnay grape that originated in Burgundy, France, has taken nicely to the warm climate of the Napa Valley. The sauvignon blanc grape of the Loire Valley has found a happy new home in Marlborough on the southern island of New Zealand. And the Malbec grape that grew up in Bordeaux has now planted its roots firmly in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, and is loving it.
The exciting thing about these transplants is that they bring a whole new dimension to the variety itself. The resulting flavors in the wines that are produced are slightly different, thanks to the new set of environmental settings to which they are exposed.
As everyone knows by now, the German Riesling grape has taken quite nicely to the Finger Lakes region of New York State! With its inherent ability to ripen in cool climate and its love of mineral-driven soils, it has shown itself to be a standout here.
But lots of other grapes are being grown in the Finger Lakes right now, and there is room for a few more heroes.
Let’s take Syrah for example. This grape is best known for its prowess in the long-lived wines of the northern Rhône Valley of France like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. It is also used in the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends in the south. Years ago, Syrah was introduced to the hot climate of Australia where it morphed into an amazingly spicy and rich red known as Shiraz. And it has developed its own unique personality in the Central Coast of California where it makes lip-staining, high alcohol monster reds. Being such a fan of hot weather, Syrah is probably the last grape that anyone would think to plant in the Finger Lakes. But thanks to a few visionaries, this grape is suddenly one of the most talked about trends of the region.
Much of the credit goes to the Hazlitt family of Seneca Lake. They planted some of the first Syrah vines here in the mid 1990s. And they chose the perfect location to do it.
The magical place is called Sawmill Creek Vineyard, located in Hector on the eastern shores of Seneca and, it was planted by Jim Hazlitt, a retired farm owner. This area is referred to locally as the “Banana Belt” because it receives more sun than any other part of the lake. The vineyard is also near one of the deepest parts of the lake, which is hugely helpful in moderating the temperature.
Today, husband and wife team Eric and Tina Hazlitt manage the Sawmill property. When asked why the Syrah grape was chosen, Tina tells us, “Jim did quite a lot of traveling to wine regions all over the world. When he would find a wine he enjoyed, he would do the research and plant a test row. When the first vines succeeded here, he planted a full acre in 1998, followed by 2.1 acres in 2003.”
Over the last decade, the Hazlitts have sold their fruit to wineries like Red Newt, Damiani, Hector Wine Company, and Atwater, all known for their prowess at producing stellar Finger Lakes red wines.
Another customer of the Sawmill Syrah is Element Winery, located in Arkport, New York. It is co-owned by Master Sommelier Christopher Bates, who also brings great cuisine to the area via his two restaurants, the FLX Wienery and the FLX Table. Christopher founded his winery in order to explore cool climate terroirs, and experiment with different grapes and soil types here. He is a Syrah believer, and says, “Vintners and consumers alike are under the impression that Syrah is a hot climate grape. This could not be further from the truth. Syrah ripens beautifully in the Finger Lakes, and its thick skins allow it to hang late into the fall for flavor development.”
The handful of vintners here that champion the Syrah grape have definitely helped to create a murmur over the last few years about the future of this grape in New York. That murmur became a loud shout on August 10, when Billsboro Winery’s 2013 Syrah won the coveted Governor’s Cup award at the New York Wine & Food Classic held in Watkins Glen. This annual competition, the Oscars of New York wine, selects one wine out of the entire competition as the best wine of the year.
No one is ever surprised when a crisp Riesling or aromatic Gewürztraminer wins the Big Cup. Those grapes are our rock stars. But a Syrah? It was not only surprising, it was history making! Most people were unaware that the Finger Lakes region was even growing the stuff. But Vinny Aliperti, winemaker and owner (with wife Kim) of Billsboro Winery on the west side of Seneca Lake, has always maintained that Syrah has a place in the Finger Lakes.
“Of course, I’ve been spoiled by working with Sawmill Creek grapes!” Vinny admits. “Syrah can be site-sensitive, and it does best in heavier shale-laden soils that can retain rainfall in drier years, and retain heat from the warm summer days. It also profits from lots of sunny days and good air flow. West facing vineyards are key.” Vinny is also the winemaker at Atwater Vineyards on Seneca Lake (just south of Sawmill Creek), where they planted their first Syrah vines in 2007, and have continued to plant each year.
What about our cold winters? Well, it is true that sub-zero temps can be a challenge, but not if you choose the right plot of land that can protect the vines. Tina Hazlitt explains, “Syrah can be susceptible to winter injury, but the Sawmill Creek vineyard has a steep slope to the Seneca shores, which makes for an ideal location.” The lakes are a saving grace when it comes to temperature control.
The Finger Lakes Syrah wines have their own unique personality when compared to hotter climate Syrahs worldwide. They are less jammy and rich, tending rather towards medium body with a nice balance of acidity and fruit. “This is true of any red wines,” Vinny points out. “Cooler climate does not mean you are sacrificing flavor. Instead, you are able to taste the distinct flavor of the grape, without it being influenced by heavier oak and higher alcohol.”
One taste of Billsboro 2013 Syrah from Sawmill Creek is all the proof that this wine writer needed. I poured it blind at a recent tasting, and no one would even believe it was from New York. Aged for ten months in a combination of neutral Hungarian and French oak, it tastes of ripe black berries, leather, and spice. It is elegant and expressive of its sense of place. The Billsboro Web site recommends it with lamb chops or tarragon pot roast. Yum.
Sadly, this award-winning wine has already sold out at the winery. However, look for it in your local wine shops. There may be a few bottles left. If not, I can assure you that there will be plenty more tasty vintages ahead when it comes to Syrah. Yes, this grape really seems to like our digs.
Syrah also has shown great potential in the Finger Lakes blended reds, especially with the Bordeaux varieties. Atwater Vineyards makes a stunning Syrah-Cabernet blend, where the Syrah adds a delicious note of black pepper to the mix.
Kudos to the Syrah pioneers of New York. They have taken it from a speculation to a sensation. As far as the future, we can only guess what surprises lie ahead. Whatever will be, will be!