I am freshly returned from a five-day trek out to the Finger Lakes wine region in central New York State, so named for the 11 long, thin, appendage-like bodies of water stretching north to south between Rochester on the left and Syracuse on the right. I travelled with two importers, two retailers, three sommeliers, a restauranteur and a widely published local print journalist. We ventured up and down both shores of three different lakes, visited 13 wineries, tasted over 150 different local wines (of which I hastily scribbled written notes for about 120) and dined or drank with half a dozen different winemakers. And we all returned with newfound understanding, appreciation and excitement for a region that is set to explode into the world’s quality wine consciousness, if it hasn’t already.
I didn’t first read about the Finger Lakes until about five years ago; I don’t remember seeing a bottle of FLX wine on a Calgary wine shelf until a couple years after that, and there was certainly no such thing as Finger Lakes selection in Alberta retail until last year. Chances are that if you haven’t stumbled onto those few rare bottles in the market, the region is still largely a black box to you. So even though my head is bursting with thoughts, impressions and memories aching to be shared, stories dying to be told, I’m going to pump the brakes a bit and start from the start. Then, partly because I’m impatient and partly because it will set the stage for the more detail-oriented recaps to come, I’m going to jump ahead to the end and offer up a few conclusions about where the Finger Lakes are right now and where they might be headed.
If you’re a wine-loving Canadian you know: large bodies of water are the best friends of cool-weather grapevines. The water modulates the temperature of its surrounding area, offering cooling breezes in the heat of summer and giving off warmth in the fall and winter to increase grape hang times, extend ripening and prevent vine death by freezing. Since it takes much more energy to increase the temperature of water than air, water is constantly absorbing and storing heat when the surrounding air temperature is warmer, slowly releasing it when the seasons change and the air temperature becomes cooler. This narrows the gap between the highest and lowest annual temperatures in the microclimates immediately surrounding a body of water, allowing some areas with cooler, shorter summers to viably grow and ripen wine grapes.
The Finger Lakes are temperature modulators par excellence, in part because of their astonishing depth. The largest, deepest lake, Seneca (also uncoincidentally the wine hub of the region), is one of the deepest lakes in North America at 625 feet; it and the second deepest lake, Cayuga (435 feet) are actually below sea level at their deepest points. The result of this sheer volume of water is that these two lakes almost never freeze in the winter, which dramatically reduces the impact of the season on the shoreline vineyards. Each of Seneca and Cayuga have their own AVA (American Viticultural Area, a legally recognized and formally designated wine appellation in the US) within the larger Finger Lakes AVA. The other Finger Lake with a significant concentration of wineries is the Y-shaped Keuka Lake, which is not as deep (just shy of 200 feet) but in a slightly more southerly location.
Speaking of southerly locations, while the FLX is properly known as a cool-climate wine region, it’s probably not as far north as you think it is. As a rule of thumb, wine grapes can generally successfully ripen in two horizontal bands stretching around the globe between 30 to 50 degrees latitude North and South of the equator. The Mosel Valley in Germany and the Okanagan Valley in Canada push the envelope at 49-50 degrees North. Burgundy is at 46-47 degrees North, Bordeaux a shade further south at 44-45 degrees. The Finger Lakes are at 42-43 degrees North latitude, roughly even with Tuscany, Rioja and Bandol.
This is not to suggest that it’s warm; it’s not. It barely flirts with 25 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) in the summer and hovers around 20 C (70 F) on the shoulders. It also rains quite a bit, with close to 150 wet days and 40 inches of rain a year, making drainage a paramount concern. The sloped vineyard sites tilting down towards the lakes help, but as one viticulturist told us, additional drainage inserted at the time of initial planting to keep the vines’ feet dry can mean the difference between a ripe and an unripe crop years later.
Many top wine regions have their successes credited to a distinct soil type ideally suited to the area’s grapes, be it limestone in Burgundy, slate in the Mosel Valley or granite in Beaujolais. Anyone trying to identify and plant to a specific soil in FLX might soon be met with a schizophrenia diagnosis: there are over 30 different soil types in the vineyards, and they are often mixed together haphazardly within a single site, making the results of any soil mapping exercise (which we saw) look like a bomb went off. This is largely because the prime planting area near the big lakes used to be mostly underwater millennia ago, and water currents in lake beds are particularly adept at shifting dirt around.
Now for the stuff you need to be there to see. The Finger Lakes AVA is a community-based wine region in the best sense of the word. There is an omnipresent sense of camaraderie and in-it-together-ness that binds the wineries together and sees them root for and support each other, making any success of the region a communal one. For example, one of the more established FLX wineries hosts palate-calibration and works-in-progress tastings where winemakers and assistant winemakers get together behind closed doors on a regular basis and taste either global benchmark examples of varietals of interest (there was a German Riesling tasting held around the time of our visit) or samples of each winery’s own upcoming product line, with unfiltered feedback geared towards each neighbour’s improvement. We had an FLX emissary on our tour bus, the incomparable Dan Mitchell, Sales Manager of Fox Run Vineyards, who spent more time filling us in and getting us excited about other Finger Lakes wineries than his own. Fox Run’s winemaker, Peter Bell, is effectively the dean of the area’s cellar masters, having mentored a myriad of young talented winemakers who are now running the show at other FLX producers; this is a source of pride as opposed to frustration around the winery.
As an area, the Finger Lakes are rural and relaxed and unspoiled, a true throwback. There are towns with great restaurants and bars (specific shout-out to Microclimate in Geneva NY, a little wine bar featuring an owner with a tremendous palate and a locally rooted list to die for), but also 200 year-old buildings, ramshackle main streets, little century-old cemeteries seemingly everywhere you look, and numerous tiny towns with European-inspired names (other than Geneva, which has a population of 13,000 and is far from tiny, I noted Dresden, Waterloo, Naples, Bristol and Odessa). The people are unfailingly friendly, polite and welcoming — one of the wineries flew a Canadian flag for our visit. If I could use a single word to describe both the FLX and my week there, it would be “genuine”.
As far the conclusions that came with me to the airport at the end of the trip and will hopefully whet the appetite for the details that got me there, I will leave you in suspense no longer:
- This is a world-class wine region much farther along in its development than I had expected, with many thoughtful, mature, powerhouse wines already shining through. There is the spread of commercial wineries that you see on any wine trail servicing vacationers out of their tasting rooms, but also a surprisingly deep array of strong producers turning out consistent values that even the embarrassing Canadian dollar can’t undermine. Then there are a few absolutely top-end wineries whose products can stand up to anything made anywhere…and they’re selling them on-site, with very limited exceptions, for $30 US or less.
- As you might expect had you come across anything about the Finger Lakes before now, Riesling is, and should be, king here: I probably had over 50 Rieslings over my five FLX days, and what the best of these examples are doing with the grape cannot be replicated almost anywhere else on Earth. People should be universally more excited about this.
- That isn’t to say that this is a one-varietal show. The Finger Lakes seem to have emerged more quickly than their Canadian cool-climate counterparts from the obsessive desire to focus red-winemaking energies on Cabernet Sauvignon and big Bordeaux blends regardless of regional suitability. You see the odd Cab Sauv, but the clear red focal points of the region (quite properly) appear to be Cabernet Franc and Lemberger (aka Blaufrankisch, aka Kekfrankos, a spicy medium-bodied Austrian red that may have found its New World home). FLX is knocking the socks off juicy, mineral, lower-alcohol (12-13%) reds from these grapes, and there seems to be an increasing trend towards the use of neutral oak, or no oak at all, in many of the better examples of each. The bulk of the Cab Francs don’t taste green or herbaceous despite the lower alcohols (more on why later), and the Lembergers have proven to be remarkably ageworthy. These are serious, standout lighter-spectrum reds.
- We didn’t see a ton of this, but there also seems to be a significant opportunity in the Finger Lakes for traditional method Champagne-style sparkling wines that is just beginning to be tapped. We had both a 1991 and a 1998 Blanc de Blancs Methode Champenoise sparkler from Glenora Cellars at a lunch that made the hairs on my arms stand on end, among other excellent examples. There is something here.
The Finger Lakes have arrived, and a group of us from Alberta have definitely taken notice. Over the coming posts, I will try to share what has brought me back to Calgary with a sense of discovery and a constant eagerness for my next FLX bottle.