New York State Wines (1) Introduction, and the Finger Lakes

In August, I travelled to New York State, to take a good look at the wines being made here. Of chief interest were wines from the Finger Lakes and Long Island, the two most significant regions in the state. They’re geographically quite far apart, but they have one thing in common: proximity to water moderates the hot summers and cold winters so it’s possible to grow interesting wine grapes here. In this series of articles, I’ll tell you about the producers I visited, report on my favourite wines, and try to argue why these regions, little heard of outside of the USA, deserve more attention.

Some history

The Eastern United States has a long history of growing grapes for wine. The English made a permanent settlement here in 1607, and by 1609 they had made 20 gallons of wine from grapes found growing in the wild. Vitis vinifera, the Eurasian grape, arrived from Europe in 1619, but repeated early efforts to make wine from these vines were doomed to failure because of the presence of downy and powdery mildew, and, of course, phylloxera. And the wine made from grapes found growing wild wasn’t all that good: they have small bunches with small berries, and the resulting wine is quite low in alcohol and very high in acidity, although it does have good colour.

The first commercial winery in the USA was in Spring Mill in Philadelphia, established in 1786. They made wine from Alexandra, which is what is known as a chance hybrid. The hybrid grapes, resulting from a cross of native varieties with each other, or with Vitis vinifera, produced much more acceptable wines than simply picking wild-grown grapes. To a classic European palate, these wines were a little unusual, but they were to all intents and purposes wine, and there was a market for them. To this day, the various iterations of hybrids, with their disease resistance and cold tolerance, remain important for New York State wine, although since the 1950s some success has been achieved with Vitis vinifera, particularly in the more privileged sites, such as near water bodies where winter lows are moderated.

Riesling, the star of the Finger Lakes

Alexandra was the first hybrid variety to be planted. This was followed by another chance hybrid, Catawba, in 1802. By the late 1850s this variety was responsible for a third of the USA’s wine. Isabella (1816), Delaware (1849) and Concord (1853) were other important hybrids. In the second half of that century, the largest wine-producing states were New York, Ohio, Missouri and New Jersey.

Niagara, a hybrid

So if the Eastern United States – and in particular the Finger Lakes – was such a big deal, what happened to change things? After the repeal of prohibition, all the states had a chance to create their own liquor laws. It turns out that California enacted very liberal and enlightened laws, and they also had a relatively trouble free climate as far as wine was concerned. And, in addition, they also had the marketing genius of the likes of Robert Mondavi who really put the state on the map. So California soared ahead, and New York State was left doing its own thing, quite content to service the local market with no ambitions to change the world.

New York State has five main wine regions. First we have the Finger Lakes and then Long Island, the two regions this series will focus on. Then there is the Hudson River Valley, which covers a large area but which has relatively few vineyards. Lake Eyrie is on the south shore of the eponymous lake, and is a large region of some 30 000 acres of vineyards. But most of these grapes are Concord, used to make grape juice, although there are 23 wineries operating in the region. Then there is the Niagara Escarpment, which is an extension of the Canadian Niagara region, although less developed. The proximity of Lake Ontario provides the climate-moderating effect here. A sixth AVA region is the Champlain Valley, bordering Vermont, but this is really tiny.

Finger Lakes

The largest wine region in New York State is the Finger Lakes, up-state not far from the Canadian border. To understand the Finger Lakes wine region, you have to understand its history. For most of its life, this wine region has been all about supplying local demand. It has a climate that is challenging for viticulture, but which, in concert with its soils, is capable of producing some really smart wines. But serious, high quality wine hasn’t typically been what the local market has wanted.

Finger Lakes from the Air

Finger Lakes is in New York State. But it’s actually quite a schlep from New York City – it’s closer to Toronto, about a six-hour drive upstate or a similarly long train ride from New York, or more conveniently, a flight from Newark into Rochester, which is how we got there.

The climate here consists of very cold winters, and relatively short summers. But once summer gets going, it can be hot and humid. And there will definitely be some growing season rainfall. The key factor here for viticulture is the presence of the lakes after which the region is named. These provide a moderating effect, stopping it getting too cold in the winter, and then cooling things down in the summer. Then, at the end of the season, they act like radiators helping the vines finish their job of ripening the grapes. The lakes are only 12 000 years old, formed when the last glaciation event. These were fjords of the Ontario lake at one time.

The key viticultural challenges are winter lows, which can kill vines, and then the disease pressure that comes from the humid summers. It was for this reason that the focus here was traditionally on hybrid grape varieties which are cold tolerant and disease resistant. The hybrids are still grown here and currently represent about 35% of the vineyard area.

Three waves of hybrids

A native vine showing the small bunches of small grapes

Hybrids are actually quite interesting, and they can be split into three waves. First, we have the original crosses and the native American varieties. These are the likes of Concord, Catawba, Delaware and Isabella, many of which were chance crossings. Then we have the 2nd generation: the French-American hybrids, produced to combat phylloxera. The roll call of these includes Rougeon, Marechal Foch and Seyval Blanc. Then we have the 3rd generation, produced in the latter part of the 20th century at Universities such as Cornell, Minnesota and Michigan: this would include Cayuga, Vinoles and Traminette. The newer crosses taste less hybridy, and yet still retain cold hardiness and disease resistance.

One important character in the history of Finger Lakes is Philip Wagner, who was a journalist with an interest in winemaking. Wagner moved to London in the 1930s for work, and there discovered reference to the French hybrids, known as hybrids producteurs directes (HPDs). On his return to the USA he found that many were already in vine collections in the USA, and so he began a nursery, and ended up championing their use in the state. These new hybrids made some very nice wines.

After prohibition, four large companies emerged who came to dominate the Finger Lakes, and the wine production of New York State.

The four pioneering companies

The first is Pleasant Valley Wine Company, founded in Hammondsport in 1860. By 1865 they were producing 20 000 bottles of ‘Champagne’, labelled as Great Western Champagne. This won a gold medal at the Vienna Exposition in 1873. In 1961 Pleasant Valley was sold to the second major company, Taylor Wine Company. This was established in 1880 when a cooper, Walter Taylor, moved to Hammondsport and then ended up making wine. Taylor was sold to Coca Cola in 1977. The third was Urbana Wine Company, which was founded in 1865 and traded as Gold Seal Vineyards. By 1870 they were making 120 000 bottles of Champagne and 50 000 bottles of still wine. Notably, Urbana hired Charles Fournier, the young cellar master of Veuve Clicquot, in 1934. Urbana was sold to Segram in 1979….

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