Winemakers in New York’s Finger Lakes Region Are Moving Beyond Riesling

The Finger Lakes in upstate New York has made its name as a great place for Riesling, but now the race is on to figure out which red wine can stand alongside it.
August 31, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Heart & Hands Winery Finger Lake Region
Heart & Hands vineyards overlooking the Cayuga Lake. Courtesy of Heart & Hands
Courtesy of Heart & Hands

Just as Napa Valley is indelibly associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, New York’s Finger Lakes are deeply connected to Riesling. Among vinifera—the species of grape that includes all the well-known, traditional winemaking varieties—Riesling leads by a country mile, so the Finger Lakes region looks like a definitive white wine area. But in fact, two of the top four vinifera varieties grown there are red. And recently more and more of these red wines are getting their time in the sun.

“There were already some around, and some were already very good, but I started to notice more after the excellent 2010 vintage,” says Paul Brady of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. “I think most winemakers would tell you what we’re experiencing right now comes from the combination of much-improved winemaking and viticultural practices post-2010.”

Master sommelier Christopher Bates began producing red wines—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, in particular—at Element Winery in the Finger Lakes almost 10 years ago. “I grew up being told that the region couldn’t make great wine,” Bates says. “That the climate wasn’t right for making serious wines.” After working vintages in Germany and Italy, he realized there was a misconception. It was long thought that the region was just too cold for the vinifera species, especially for red grapes. Bates says the growing season is warm enough; the problem is that vinifera varieties, white and red, struggle to survive the winter. “Winters are expensive,” Bates says. The vines need protection; often that means burying the roots, which is labor-intensive, or investing in wind machines that keep cold air from settling around the vines. “It also means making sure our vines are healthy going into winter, making sure we aren’t overcropping in the summer.” More crops mean more wine to sell, so opting to keep yields low costs money.

Heart & Hands Riesling Vines Finger Lakes Region
Riesling vines at Heart & Hands winery.
Courtesy of Heart & Hands

Bates is part of a new wave of winemakers with business models focused on premium wines unsupported by the cash flow of a cheaper tier of easy-drinking, often sweet wines. Tom and Susan Higgins do much the same at Heart & Hands winery, which they founded in 2006. Focusing on Pinot Noir and Riesling in their tasting room, they don’t offer any of the cheap crowd-pleasers that were the mainstay of the region’s wine tourism for years. But banks balked at supporting such a nonconventional business model for the area.

However, a new wave of wine tourism was imminent. “In the past people were coming to the area, and wine was a secondary thought. They were coming to spend time on the water and might spend a day wine tasting,” Susan Higgins says. “Now we see people coming specifically for the wine.” At its tasting room, Heart & Hands appeals to these more serious wine drinkers by offering the chance to taste and contrast Pinot Noir from specific vineyards or wines made from different clones of the variety. These more technical tastings assume a level of connoisseurship. Some newer producers skip the tasting-room model entirely, which means their wines have to compete on the shelf against wines from all over the world, without the help of a beautiful view.

Heart & Hands Susan Higgins Picking Pinot Noir grapes
Heart & Hands co-owner Susan Higgins picks Pinot Noir grapes.
Courtesy of Heart & Hands

Pinot Noir prefers cooler growing conditions, so it makes sense that producers in the Finger Lakes are exploring it. Still, there are only 179 acres planted. Higgins says it lives up to its reputation as a difficult variety, and farmers are less interested because it yields fewer grapes—an important factor if you’re being paid by the ton. But the quality and character is clear. “They don’t have the power of California Pinots, with the heftiness and alcohol,” Higgins says. “We allow Pinot to still be in a balanced state. Most of the Pinots I see are between 12.5% and 13.5% alcohol. They usually have a beautiful edge of acid, and they have this beauty and grace.”

Pinot Noir is not the most-planted red vinifera grape in the Finger Lakes. “The Pinots I’ve tasted recently have been much more impressive, but there’s been fewer of them,” says Christy Frank, owner of Copake Wine Works, a retail wine shop in the Hudson Valley. “The focus definitely seems to be more on Cabernet Franc, which from what I’ve tasted is a good thing.” Today there are 221 acres of Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes, more than any other vinifera red variety. “Cabernet Franc is the darling red grape of the whole state,” Brady says. “New York is the place to find excellent expressions of Cabernet Franc, second to none other than the Loire Valley,” where the grape originated.

Sorting grapes at Heart & Hands
Sorting grapes used in Heart & Hands’ Pinot Noir.
Courtesy of Heart & Hands

There are other contenders. “I have a store where I have the luxury of selling the quirky stuff,” says Frank. “I think they should all be making Lemberger,” a German red variety which has found a home in some Finger Lakes vineyards. Frank says the grape, also known by its Austrian name, Blaufränkisch, makes an enjoyable dry, maybe less serious, wine. “It’s got good fruit,” she says. “It’s got nice spice, and it’s got a nice little touch of earthiness. It’s just a really happy grape that people like to drink once they get it in their mouth and don’t have to worry about pronouncing it.” It also handles cold winters quite well. Elsewhere, wineries like Red Tail Ridge are making exciting wines from similarly Alpine varieties like Teroldego and Lagrein, both of which originally hail from northern Italy.

If things have changed on the ground in the Finger Lakes, U.S. wine drinkers have also changed to meet them. “Certain styles of wine that the critics were promoting back in the [1990s] and early 2000s, those are not the wines that we make,” Bates says. “High-alcohol, high-extraction wines: That is just not the Finger Lakes.”

Today, those critics are less influential, and wine drinkers are finding a renewed appreciation for more restrained styles. “A lot of wines from warmer climates just come right to you—they’re generous in sharing who they are,” says Yannick Benjamin, sommelier for the University Club in Manhattan. “For the Finger Lakes reds, you really have to put your nose in there and really search for these things. I don’t mean that in a bad way; they’re just more cerebral, with really delicate aromas, earthier components, tobacco notes, cedar. There’s a much more delicate approach to these red wines, but the complexity is no different. When they’re done correctly they really provide great pleasure.”

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