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Ines Salpico dips into the hidden potential of the Finger Lakes

Published:  30 August, 2019

It is both baffling and refreshing that there can still be wine regions, in not exactly remote corners of the world, that remain mostly unknown both to consumers and to the vast majority of wine professionals. Mention the Finger Lakes to a random friend and you might simply get an inquisitive frown. And yet the upstate-New York region is home to a very interesting wine landscape that has been undergoing a vibrant process of transformation. Still, while having become a ‘darling’ among New York sommeliers, the Finger Lakes still fly under the radar.

The reason why the region has been chronically under-represented in export markets has a lot to do with the business model of most of the local historical estates. These long-standing operations rely on a strong cellar-door market to sell as much as 85% of their production. In an attempt to tackle the issue the New York Grape Foundation has recently started a dynamic export program which younger (in spirit as well as age) and forward-looking producers were eager to join.

Diversity and innovation

The region’s geological and topographic complexity lends itself to the production of quality fruit from a multiplicity of varieties. Easily labelled as a cool-climate region, the fact is that Finger Lakes consist of – particularly as climate change plays its wicked tricks – a complex pattern of terroirs and microclimates.

The valleys where the narrow and deep Finger Lakes rest are the result of southward glacial movements from the Hudson Bay area. Because the lakes vary greatly in depth and width, and because the origin of the sediments along the banks is so diverse, the Finger Lakes is an incredibily rich region both in terms of geological strata, microclimates and relief, from Mosel-like escarpments to gentle green slopes.

This explains why you’ll find Riesling as well as Syrah plantings, but also why – freezing winters posing an obvious challenge in some sites – the development and introduction of hybrids, such as Cayuga, Catawba, Traminette and Vignoles, has a long successful history in the region. (See below for the prominent varieties and styles grown here.)

The proximity of Cornell University in nearby Ithaca, with its renowned viticulture and oenology programme, has played a fundamental role in local viticultural research and has guaranteed a steady output of highly skilled vineyard managers and winemakers with a deep connection to the region. Some of them went on to intern and/or work abroad only to return with renewed awareness and appreciation for the Finger Lakes’ landscape.

Together with a number of ‘outsiders’ who fell in love with the Finger Lakes, they form a bold new community of winemakers and investors determined to change the world’s perception of the region and to penetrate export markets, departing from the old-school business model that has historically entrenched the local wine trade ecosystem.

Vibrant community

Christopher Bates MS is one of such leading figures. He founded Element Winery with brother Bob Bates and wife Isabel Bodgatke, upon returning from harvests in Germany and Italy.

During a recent visit to the Finger Lakes, Bates guided us through a challenging and eye-opening blind tasting (such an appropriate oxymoron!) that, we would eventually discover, set his wines against household names such as Lafarge, Trimbach and Clos Rougeard. Element’s wines stood up really well - some of them outstandingly – to the unbiased and rough scrutiny of wine writers and sommeliers from all over the world. (His Syrah 2014 outdid a Domaine Janet of the same vintage in everyone’s assessment.)

Ben Riccardi is another native son who came back to start his own project, Osmote Wine. With a viticulture degree from Cornell and experience working in France, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Sonoma and Manhattan, Riccardi returned with a fierce determination to contribute to the region’s development. His craftmanship is yielding amazing results with vinifera and hybrid varieties alike.

An example of a passionate ‘outsider’ is Mel Goldman, of Keuka Lake Vineyards’. Goldman spends most of his time in the vineyard and the focus on terroir is obvious when you taste Keuka’s wines - namely the range of exquisite single-vineyard Rieslings and a vibrant dry Vignoles with incredible character and ageing potential.

These are but a few of a names from a talented pool of yet-to-be-exported producers. Their wines have a strong winemaker footprint but also clear expressiveness of variety, place and vintage.

Immense potential

The Finger Lakes wines will never be a supplier of competitive references on generalist retailers’ shelves. Production levels are low and prices not attractive enough for a cost-conscious audience that is yet to be educated on the region’s very existence.

The potential in the on-trade and specialised off-trade, by contrast, is immense. The Finger Lakes currently offers a range of wines, varieties and labels that can truly stand out on a restaurant’s list at non-prohibitive price points. Furthermore, most of the region’s wines have relatively low abv’s - something consumers are increasingly looking for. And, crucially, the sense of novelty, the charisma of producers and their appealing stories, easily make them sommelier favourites - a phenomenon that, as mentioned, is already happening in NYC. As sommeliers and consumers look for subtler pours with a story to tell, the Finger Lakes might just have what it takes to become the new kid on the block.

Varieties and Wine Styles in the Finger Lakes

Modern viticulture in the Finger Lakes built its reputation upon the introduction of vinifera cool-climate varieties, in the 1950’s, by Dr Konstantin Frank, an Ukrainain viticulturalist. The region’s flagship grape has long been Riesling, closely followed by Cabernet Franc. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were also widely introduced.

French/American hybrids and crossings have a much longer local history, with Cayuga, Catawba, Seyval Blanc, Traminette and Vignoles still being widely grown. They were long thought to be the best answer to disease pressure and freezing winters.

The introduction and exploration with other vinifera cultivars has been happening steadily over the past few years and you can find great examples of Blaufränkisch, Gewürztraminer and Syrah being produced in the Finger Lakes

Local wine production has historically been geared towards a serial and formulaic approach of single varietals, more often than not with residual sugar (something the local cellar-door market particularly craves). Many of the wines were sweetened and/or chaptalized.

The trend and styles could not be more different among the new wave of producers and winemakers: the focus is now on site specificity, sustainable viticulture and hands-off winemaking. They produce dry, lighter, expressive wines, at relatively low abv, often relying only on indigenous yeast. Any residual sugar will result from arrested fermentation.

While Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir remain headliners, the other vinifera varieties are growing in both vineyard area and bottles produced.

Hybrids Cayuga and Catawba, vinified as Pét-Nat’s, are creating (very funky) waves in NYC restaurants and wine bars. Leading sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier MS has even partnered with Nathan Kendall– one of the Finger Lakes’ most talented young winemakers – to make an exclusive Pét-Nat range for her TriBeCa restaurant, Racines. Vignoles meanwhile, though traditionally vinified in sweet and semi-sweet styles, is currently being explored for its potential for dry styles, with great – quasi-Burgundian – results.