The Finger Lakes of New York State is a cool climate wine-growing region. Years ago, that might have spelled trouble for budding winemakers who were looking for a place to settle. But today, it is attracting some of the most heralded producers in the industry.
Cool climate means that the grapes have a shorter growing season. There are also more elements to battle, like freezing weather, which can kill the more fragile vines, and winter storms, which can damage parts of your vineyard. So why are people flocking to make wine here?
It is because cool climate can make some of the most bracing and lively wines on the planet. Despite the growing challenges, the grapes are able to retain an inherent acidity that helps to balance the sweetness and the alcohol, thus resulting in wines that are crisp and food friendly.
This is nothing new. They have known it for centuries in Europe. The northernmost regions of winemaking are the coolest, and include Germany, Austria, and parts of France (like Alsace and Champagne). It is there where many of our beloved Finger Lakes grapes originated. And thanks to our similar climate, they have successfully been transplanted here to make New World versions of their worshipped European cousins.
We have something else in common. It is the proximity of natural bodies of water that help to regulate the spikes in temperature. You’ll notice that the best vineyards here are close to a lake. The lake helps to hold the winter cold into the spring, preventing the vines from breaking their buds too early. The lake also helps to hold the summer heat into the fall, to help prevent the vineyards from experiencing early frost. The lake is a vineyard’s best friend, and we have eleven of them to keep the vines quite happy!
In Europe, you will notice that many of the cool climate vineyards align the major rivers. The Rhine River, in particular, winds its way from the Swiss Alps through France and Germany before emptying out into the North Sea in Amsterdam. Along the way, you’ll find a plentitude of vines that are garnishing every bit of reflected sunshine off the river to fully ripen. The rivers are their protectors and their nourishment. The wine regions even take their name from the rivers—the Rhine, the Nahe, the Mosel, etc.
And the grapes! These are the foundation of the stunning wines we know as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Muscat for the whites. There are even reds that flourish in these conditions, like Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Lemberger (also known as Blaufränkisch). Few of these grapes would rather trade their present turf for warmer destinations like the Mediterranean or Napa Valley. They like it just where they are.
The Finger Lakes is getting some great recognition, thanks to these wines. The region has received more accolades, ninety-point scores, and awards in the last year than ever before. Every week, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation announces, “More Gold!” It is overwhelming. We have had feature articles in the New York Times and Wine Spectator magazine. Our wines have been winners at top competitions around the world. Evan Dawson’s book, Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes, won International Wine Book of the Year at the Louis Roederer Wine Writing Awards in 2012. Our own local Finger Lakes International Wine Competition attracts wine judges from fourteen countries. Tierce Riesling wine was served at the Presidential Inauguration Luncheon in January.
On top of all of that, there’s the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, which is the first big one of the year. It is also the largest in the nation with over 5,500 wine entries. Each year, they have a series of “Best of Class” awards. For example, a winner is chosen for each white wine varietal (best Chardonnay, best Sauvignon Blanc, best Pinot Gris, etc.), and then out of all of the winners in all of those categories, one wine is picked to be the Best White Wine of the entire competition. In three out of the past four years, that honor has gone to a Finger Lakes producer.
Our time has arrived. As more people are recognizing the prowess of cool climate wines, other states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Vermont are also being noticed. These wines are winning top awards as well, and joining the ranks of world-class status. So celebrate our wines this summer, and stay “cool” by sipping local!