Fanatical about the Finger Lakes
This On the Road article highlights the little known Finger Lakes, New York wine region and its cool climate wines. This article was originally published in the December 07/January 08 issue of Wine Access magazine.
This blissful region is easily reachable, only a four-hour drive from downtown Toronto or Manhattan, which likely explains why more than a million visitors descend annually. But wineries are spread out across the network of parallel lakes, so wine touring never has the frantic, overcrowded feeling that is all too common in places like Napa or the Okanagan Valley.
Smack dab in the heartland of New York State lie 10 slender lakes. On a map, the five largest, named Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Skaneateles by the Iroquois, approximate the fingers of a human hand. Although icy cold winters with warm, but short, summers define this wine region, the lakes’ mass of water tempers the extreme climate in a crucial way.
These deep, cold slivers of water slice through some of the earth’s most spectacular geology and create very special growing conditions for grapes. Grapevines love rocks, and the Finger Lakes offer 400 million-year-old Devonian sediments, pressure-fused to form flakey layers of shale and sandstone. Geologists flock here, as well as wine-lovers.
The softened climate, combined with welldrained soils atop the layers of shale, slate and limestone, supports scores of grape varieties. There is a long tradition of growing characterful but rustic native labruscas (Concord, Catawba, Niagara) and hardy hybrids (Cayuga white, seyval blanc, vignoles and baco noir). But thanks to the pioneering work of Odessa émigré viticulturist Dr. Konstantin Frank in the 1950s, vinifera vines now dominate. Frank guessed that if noble vines could withstand Ukrainian winters, the Finger Lakes were a no-brainer. He was resoundingly and famously right.
Riesling is the star white performer, but gewürztraminer, pinot gris and chardonnay are also outstanding. For reds, cabernet franc and pinot noir can be stunning, especially in vintages like the generously warm and balanced 2005. Unabashedly cool-climate with vibrant purity, precise varietal character and an enviable refreshing quality, Finger Lake wines exhibit a distinct regional character. And as the vines get older and ongoing site and clone selection are lovingly finetuned, the distinctiveness will become even more pronounced.
Tasting wines in Finger Lakes has a very special spirit of conviviality. Wineries enthusiastically welcome visitors and there are many delightful spots to lunch, dine or just bask in the lake-reflected sun. Inns, B&Bs and modest motels make lodging easy and comfortable, and there are plenty of diversions like farmers’ markets, gorges, vistas and even Watkins Glen’s famous NASCAR speedway if you need a break from incessant imbibing.
THE FINGER LAKE EXPERIENCE IS FINE
The New York Wine & Culinary Center, Canandaigua , NY
For visitors from Southern Ontario travelling east into New York via the I-90 from Buffalo, Canandaigua is the gateway to the Finger Lakes. It is a classic Upstate New York town. Like Geneva, Hammondsport and Watkins Glen, it is full of beautiful nostalgia-inspiring Neo-Classical and Federal-style houses. But it also happens to be home base for Constellation Brands, the world’s biggest wine conglomerate. This is not insignificant: Canandaigua’s splendid New York Wine & Culinary Center is a shining example of private/public partnership, with funding from Constellation, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, Rochester Institute of Technology and local supermarket Wegmans. All in the name of sustainability: the Center’s tagline is “Agriculture, Food, Wine.” Ontario and British Columbia should take note.
The facility is state-of-the-art and not to be missed. It features a stunning educational theatre sponsored by Wine Spectator and an equally stunning, hands-on teaching kitchen sponsored by Viking Range. Those who make a beeline for the upstairs tasting bar and restaurant will not be disappointed. Skillful executive chef Daniel Martello stars local ingredients matched to a wine list showcasing a generous cross-section of New York State wines, including the Hudson Valley, Long Island and Finger Lakes. The mission is simply “to celebrate New York wine and food,” and they do it with a vengeance: goat cheese and beet salad with dry riesling; duck and pinot noir; spicy pork sausage with cabernet franc; or any wine you like with spectacular local cheeses. Bonus points for a superlative list of artisanal New York beers. Very useful wine shop, as well. Highly recommended.