Trying To Put My Finger On A Region

I just spent four weeks in New York’s Finger Lakes region, right on Cayuga Lake next to Cornell University where my wife Ami was taking summer classes. On July 4th, we sat at a table at Good Life Farms overlooking a variegated expanse of small farms with clusters of trees, corn, vines, flowers, and feed ponds. The view and the warm and hazy day reminded us of trips to European wine country; specifically, of our trips to central-southeastern France from Burgundy down to Provence. Those lazy weeks are, sigh, in our relative far distant memory, before we embarked on child-rearing. Repeat, sigh.

During our stay in the Finger Lakes, I did my best to drink as many wines from the region as I could find. In some pursuits I can be dogged, and this is one, but I was not exhaustive and I am not an expert on the region. But it was a fun exercise and the task was not challenging to meet as the Finger Lakes is as provincial as European wine country where the Bordelaise only drink Bordeaux, the Burgundians only swirl Burgundy, etc. The whites from the region had some high spots with lovely, on-point: Riesling from Ravines, Empire Estate, and Randolph O’Neill, among others; Chardonnay from Weimer; Rkatsiteli from Konstantin Frank; and Rosé from Atwater and Sheldrake Point. I had a little more trouble finding red wines from the region that achieved balance, complexity, and deliciousness, yet they were almost all moderately priced.  I asked myself why the reds lagged the whites in quality? Is it due to the impact of the geological history? The nature of the climate? The history of the region as a source of grape juice, sacramental wine, and wine coolers? I took a two prong approach to answering these questions. First, I drank the wines and came to my own conclusions about their character and quality. Second, I started gathering information from anyone involved with wine in the region, even some who no longer live here, in the case of Thomas Pastuszak the wine director at NOMAD in NYC who studied and lived here and makes wine from the region. Here is what I concluded about the region and its potential from my rigorous inquiries.

The Finger Lakes experience a classic continental climate with summer temperatures in the 80s with occasional afternoon rain showers, patchy cloud cover, and ample humidity. The northerly latitude and interior nature of the region results in a relatively short growing season with hazardous “shoulder” seasons that can be cold and wet delaying shoot development in the spring and abruptly ending much needed ripening weather in the fall. The deep and cold glacial lakes moderate some of the heat during very warm days (and importantly cold fronts during winter) but this is not cool temperature grape growing terroir. Yet, it is also not hot, sunny, and dry like many continental warm grape growing regions (think Tuscany, Rioja, Napa).  Due to the northern latitude, the winters can get brutally cold with cold snaps below zero that kill many vines. Turns out most red wine vitis vinifera cannot handle extremely cold winter temperatures with exceptions like Pinot noir, Cabernet Franc, and a handful of others. A somewhat warm climate with a short and often humid growing season can be very tricky for a vigneron. The threat of downy mildew from spring, summer and fall rain can adversely affect quality and shorter hang time does not always allow some grapes to achieve sugar and, more importantly, the phenolic ripeness required for tannins to resolve, for fruit character to gain depth, and for wines to achieve harmonious balance.  For a full explanation of the effect of phenolic development and hang time on creating high quality wine grapes, please see my 2007 article, I am Cooler Than You at our web site.  Thus, looking only at climate, it is critical to grow grape varieties in the Finger Lakes that do not require very long hang time for phenolic ripeness and can thrive in a warm climate with occasional wet weather and cold winters. That is a challenge.

The geological history is also fascinating. The lakes were formed by retreating glaciers that carved finger-shaped gashes in the earth depositing a myriad of soils. You may find a mélange of soil types within a 100 yard radius. The underlying soil is shale (Ithaca is Gorges because of the plane, erosive nature of shale, ya know) with clay and limestone among other soils heaped on top. It can take time—even many generations—to discover where the optimal soils lie in a piece of land and to plant the right material. They have been at it for 7 or 8 generations but soil and material matching for achieving quality wine grapes was not considered until very recently.

Which brings me to the history of grape growing in the Finger Lakes. Starting in the 1800s, a handful of people planted clones of Chardonnay and Pinot noir from Champagne and some native species for sparkling wine production. Mostly people grew native grapes like Concord for juice (Welchs), for sacramental wine (Manischewitz), and for other wine beverages (Amber Mist., e.g.) Constellation Brands, the Fortune 500 alcohol conglomerate, was once called Canandaigua due its roots in Canandaigua, NY. It was not until the mid–1900s that anyone considered growing vitis vinifera for table wine—the species of European base material that most high quality table wine is made from. After Repeal, Ukranian born Dr. Konstantin Frank was hired to work at Cornell’s Geneva Experiment station and he convinced non-believers that certain vitis vinifera could survive the cold winters due to the moderating effects of the deep lakes but you needed to be careful which vinifera you planted. He looked to northern European varieties and started Vinifera Vineyards in the ‘60s finding success with Riesling. His protegé from Germany, Hermann Weimer, followed suit and planted over 100 acres of Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and other varieties. Most grapes were not grown by wineries (the estate model), however, but by farmers who did not have a long history of growing for quality and were accustomed to farming for high yields which can be very high here due to rich soils. This can be problematic for not only making quality wine but high yields also delay ripening exacerbating the already short season’s negative effects on achieving phenolic ripeness. Winemakers and viticulturists with experience growing grapes for quality wine are a recent phenomenon and there has been a  focus on planting the right clones (for Pinot and Chardonnay, for example) and for using more advanced farming practices like leaf pulling, row orientation, canopy management, etc. The potential of the region for producing great wines is likely to come.

So, what varieties will work in the Finger Lakes region? Pinot noir accumulates sugar quickly in a warm area (sugar accumulates based on heat, not hang time) so it can most likely be within an ideal sugar window when it is time to harvest. Pinot grapes are thin-skinned and susceptible to rot, however. Also the clones planted are mainly Champagne clones and they were not chosen for their fruit quality but for their acidity and for high yield. The best Finger Lakes Pinot noirs I tried were pretty but a touch simple and, in many cases, very tannic and vegetal. I suspect the clonal material and the short hang time contributed to the lack of depth of flavor and color I experienced.  What about Cabernet Franc? It is thicker-skinned, does not require as much heat as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, and the slightly herbal, green flavors (slightly bell pepper, from pyrazines) of the grape found in cool climate Cab Francs can be part of its charm. Not a bad choice but I tried 4 or 5 and found they lacked a depth of flavor but were not bad for $20 a bottle. I heard there are really good ones out there, especially along the eastern side of Seneca Lake where it is a touch warmer. What about Gamay or the hippest of hip grapes that thrives in the Jura, Trousseau?  I didn’t find either. Yet.  Both Gamay and Trousseau are best when they get to show off their natural acidity, tartness of fruit, and freshness. Neither, in my opinion, requires depth of flavor for intrigue (though cru Beaujolais can be profound) and neither is a very complex wine (okay, now I said it, start slinging arrows at me.)  I think these varieties could do really well here but I have been told by a person in the know that the cold winter temperatures below zero would likely kill the vines.

Should Riesling reign alone in the Finger Lakes or can other whites thrive here? Well, as a whole, it is easier to make good aromatic whites in a broad range of climates than it is to make age-worthy reds and whites. Fruit depth, length, and complexity require hang time and barrel aging and these attributes are less important in aromatic whites where raciness and vibrancy are key. Unripe and green notes oftentimes are prized in fresh whites (think petrol notes in Riesling). Konstantin Frank’s Rkatsiteli was an eye opener to me though the variety name needs, um, re-branding. I wonder when someone will try out Chenin Blanc? Not only is it very on trend right now, but it likes moderate temperatures, can handle dampness, does well in northerly latitudes in the Loire Valley, and is best when it has racy acidity that a short growing season would retain. I’d like to try a Finger Lakes Chenin Blanc. Who’s with me?

As Nick intimates in his article on micro-climates, the geographic nuances of a region—heck, within a vineyard—dictate the climate and therefore what varieties you can successfully grow and what style of wine you can make. The Burgundians had a thousand years to determine that the Côte D’Or was the ideal place to grow elegant, structured Pinot noir and Chardonnay. The Finger Lakes is only recently beginning to discover what is ideal for their conditions. At our estate vineyard, we are an even younger project as we were the first folks out on the far northwest Sonoma Coast to grow grapes for quality wine production. We used our accrued wine and winemaking knowledge, along with a little intuition from what others have achieved in various places around the world, to find what we think might be the best spot for us to farm but we only have 17 years of empirical evidence. We think we landed in the ideal, Goldilocks spot. Maybe we have. Maybe. Just maybe.

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