Story by Kelsey O’Connor and Jacob Mroczek
ITHACA, N.Y. — With the natural beauty of its glacially cut lakes, gorges and state parks to explore and a growing number of award-winning wineries, the Finger Lakes region has risen in the ranks as a top wine destination in the U.S.
Winemaking has a long history in the Finger Lakes, but to learn why it was named America’s top wine region in USA Today this year, The Ithaca Voice spoke to an expert in the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva about the climate, the top wines, and what challenges growers face.
Visitors to the Finger Lakes can sample from more than 100 wineries on Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka Lakes. Wine tastings are usually affordable and offer tastes of wines made with dozens of varieties of cool climate-friendly grapes. Hand in hand with the abundance of wineries is beautiful scenery, great visits to local cities (like Ithaca) and excursions hiking on some of the many gorge trails. All of these considered, it’s no surprise USA Today readers selected the Finger Lakes as America’s top wine region this year.
To come up with the ranking, USA Today editors partnered with a panel of experts to choose 20 initial nominees and the top 10 winners were chosen by popular vote. The small blurb about the Finger Lakes states, “New York’s picturesque Finger Lakes region is home to three distinct American Viticultural Areas, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake AVAs. Visitors to the area will find more than 130 wineries, many specializing in Riesling.”
Many people still associate the region with sweeter wines in the Vitis labrusca species like Catawba, Niagara and Concord, which are turned into wine and grape juice. While Labrusca does account for about 60 percent of Finger Lakes grapes processed for wine, 25 percent are hybrids (like Baco Noir and Frontenac), and 15 percent are Vitis vinifera, according to Cornell.
Riesling is classified under Vitis vinifera and is featured in most wineries in the region. Dr. Konstantin Frank, who came to the United States from Ukraine in 1951, is credited with igniting the “Vinifera Revolution” in New York. Though the region has produced wine since the 1860s, Frank believed Vitis vinifera — which includes traditional European varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay — could be grown in the region with proper rootstock despite the cold. Frank, who held a Ph.D. in viticulture, took a position at Cornell University’s Geneva Experiment Station in 1951 and in 1962 founded Vinifera Wine Cellars, which earned a reputation for its Rieslings. The winery exists today as Dr. Konstantin Frank on Keuka Lake.
Cornell’s Geneva station, about an hour north of Ithaca, is still active and holds a research winery. They do research fermentations, evaluate grape breeding selections and look at different ways of growing grapes. To learn what makes the Finger Lakes wine region a favorite, The Ithaca Voice spoke with Chris Gerling, laboratory manager of Cornell University’s Vinification & Brewing Laboratory.
Gerling said what may contribute to the region’s popularity among USA Today readers is the “striking geography” and diversity of wines available.
“It makes for a really diverse and beautiful exploration to find the wines here,” Gerling said. He added that wineries in the region are also very approachable and affordable.
Aside from the Finger Lakes, New York contains several wine regions including Long Island, Niagara Escarpment and Lake Erie, and the Hudson River Region and the climate in each region varies. The advantage the Finger Lakes region has, Gerling said, is the ability to grow cool-climate grapes like Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Cabernet Franc. He said the region can grow most of the popular big red vinifera like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Merlot, but they do better some years more than others depending on the weather and amount of heat accumulation.
“We are somewhat limited in most of the state in terms of what we can grow, but that also means that some of the grapes we can grow, we can grow more successfully than warmer places,” Gerling said. “A variety like Riesling if you put it in the Central Valley of California, that’s too much heat for it, it will lose the characteristics that we really appreciate: the bright acidity, the nice crisp mouthfeel, and the fresh fruit. Those won’t work in a place where there’s too much heat.”
The region also faces several challenges when it comes to grape growing. The biggest Gerling noted were the variability of the climate and pests.
“I think it’s getting increasingly difficult to grow grapes, year in, year out, in this area. Every year it seems like we hit a record for rainfall or lack of rainfall. We set a record for humidity. Every year we say we’ve never seen ‘X’ or ‘Y’ weather situation before and so that’s really challenging for the growers to deal with. And the pest situation is getting more and more challenging. The global economy means we’re having global pests … that are invasive and really destructive.”
One pest of concern, which has been found in Pennsylvania, is the Spotted Lanternfly. The invasive planthopper is native to China, India, and Vietnam. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture says the insect has the potential to greatly impact crops like grapes and hops.
As the climate continues to change, those challenges will only get worse, Gerling said.
To hear more from Chris Gerling, watch the video below produced by Jacob Mroczek for The Ithaca Voice.
Featured image courtesy of Bill Davis.