Think of wine and you picture the rolling vineyards of California’s Napa Valley or the many wine regions of France. But there’s a thriving wine region much closer to home: the Finger Lakes.
During a special tasting at Brooklyn Winery, budding sommeliers received an overview of winemaking in the upstate region, from how it barely survived the bleak years of prohibition to its current “third renaissance.”
In the last two years, over 40 new wineries have popped up in the Finger Lakes.
“New York State quality is there, we just need to educate people,” said Brooklyn Winery co-founder Brian Leventhal, whose North Brooklyn-based winery uses New York State sourced grapes for its own labels. “It’s only going to get better.”
Greg Taylor has roots in the area dating back to the 19th century, when his great, great-grandfather bought a vineyard that would someday become one of the largest in the country. Taylor’s family now owns Bully Hill Vineyards near Keuka Lake, the largest family-owned winery in the area.
“There’s a big push for these wines now,” he said. “We’re in your backyard.”
Taylor delved into the history of wine production in the Finger Lakes, starting with the region’s 19th century table grape production. When a railway line came to the vineyard-covered area, the price of table grapes dropped, and growers turned to wine grapes, which sold for much higher prices. By the 1880’s, there were 17 wineries at the base of Keuka Lake alone.
But all that wine production came to a screeching halt with the enactment of the Volstead Act, which prohibited the production, sale and transport of “intoxicating liquors.” Only four wineries survived prohibition.
Taylor’s family, owners of the Taylor Wine Company, were one of the few to make it through by getting creative with their strategy, from selling wine disguised as a juice-like beverage to striking up deals with the Catholic church.
“They saw the writing on the wall,” Taylor said.
After prohibition, only a few very large vineyards remained in the region. Much of the wine these wineries produced was made by adding water, concentrates and other filler liquids, which inevitably diminished the drink’s quality.
But that era is over, Taylor said. Now in its “third renaissance,” the region has given rise to many smaller wineries that are producing varietals for a more educated crowd, made from native grapes, such as concords, French-American hybrids, vitis vinifera grapes and many others.
“The vinifera era is just getting going,” said Blaine Mays of Heron Hill winery, adding that some areas in France have been producing the grape since the 12th century.
While vinifera grapes aren’t typically associated with colder climates like the Finger Lakes, the region does have one advantage: a microclimate that stores heat in the deepest lakes during the summer months. In fall, that heat comes off the lake, forming an extra layer of protection that results in medium-bodied, aromatic wines that stack up against some of the finest bottles out there.
But occasionally, the cold proves unmanageable. This winter has been especially brutal for the region, as some vineyards are dealing with significant damage to their vines from the unusually low temperatures.
So what makes the Finger Lakes particularly well suited for wine making? The terroir, of course.
“It has a world class terroir,” said Rhys Evans of Dr. Konstantin Frank winery on Keuka Lake. “The soil is the single most fundamental aspect that makes up the fruit profile.”
That terroir and cool climate is why sweeter wines like Riesling tend to do particularly well in the area.
All three representatives encourage New Yorkers to look to their own backyard the next time they pick up a bottle of wine. After all, Finger Lakes winemakers are constantly keeping city dwellers in mind when crafting their products.
“New York City is the epicenter of the most sought after consumers,” Evans said. “What you eat, drink, wear dictates what people make.”
List of wines sampled at Thursday’s Brooklyn Winery event, with tasting notes for each:
Stainless Steel Riesling ($20)
“Tropical fruits mix with fresh melon, peach, nectarine and hints of lemon meringue. Bone dry with mouthwater acidity and incredible length on finish.”
North Fork Blend ($26)
“Rustic and rich, this wine highlights the terroir of Long Island’s North Fork region showcasing elements of cranberry, black currant, baking spice, and tobacco.”
Bully Hill Vineyards
Grower’s Red ($8.95)
“Luscious, grapey blend of Native American grape varietals. This wine celebrates the regional grape varietals and farm families of New York State.”
Bully Hill Vineyards
“A rare French-American hybrid grape variety with delicate aromas of nectarine and citrus, a well-structured frame, finishing slightly off dry.”
Eclipse Red ($16.99)
“Medium-bodied and velvety with young tannins, this blend of Bordeaux varieties offers flavors of cherry and currant with rich smokey undertones.”
Reserve Riesling ($17.99)
“Limestone, pineapple and white peach on the nose with natural sweetness enhancing the wine’s notes of honeydew, lime and grapefruit.”
Dr. Konstantin Frank
“Lemberger is a cool climate varietal that produces a lighter style wine with forest floor notes on the nose and flavors of cranberry and ripe apple on the palate.”
Dr. Konstantin Frank
Sauvignon Blanc ($15)
“The Dr. Frank Sauvignon Blanc has a beautiful citrus nose with orange zest and grassy notes. These vines are grown on the west side of Keuka Lake.”