Finger Lakes Wine
We rarely think of the East Coast when we talk of wines from the United States. Did you know that New York State has no less than nine official “viticultural areas” (VA) in five major regions, harbouring over 275 wineries? If the Finger Lakes is better known than the others for historical reasons, the most fascinating — and now emerging as a source of quality red and white wines — is the Long Island peninsula. Its North Fork VA is by far the most developed part, while the Hamptons VA, in the South Fork, hosts few but worthy producers. The more generic Long Island VA completes the picture.
The region saw a rapid expansion of its vineyard in the mid-80s when the word spread that vitis vinifera grapes could grow successfully in the area, a more profitable enterprise than the traditional activity of selling potatoes. Today, the high cost of land is an obstacle to further expansion. Most vines are planted on flat land, but “this is not a problem since the soil has excellent drainage”, explains Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars. The climate is moderated by the surrounding water bodies and provides a long growing season, 220 days on average.
Most growers I met were sensitive to the environment, and do their best to reduce the use of chemicals. Organic viticulture is a tough path to take due to the rather humid weather, making vines prone to fungi and pest problems. The most committed are possibly the folks at Macari, and it shows in their wines, especially the whites: minerally and acidic, they have a lot of character and stand out from the rest.
Since the beginning (about 35 years ago), winemakers here have been exploring their terroir, and a wide range of varieties are still being grown. Many growers agree that Merlot shows the best results, followed by Cabernet Franc, although “it is more capricious,” observes Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok. Even Pinot Noir can be found, in particular at Castello di Borghese, one of the oldest wineries in Long Island, where Marco Borghese’s wines show the most classical expression of each varietal’s character.
Riesling can be surprisingly good, as witnessed during a mini-vertical tasting at Peconic Bay (they own the oldest Riesling in the region, planted in 1979). Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are also quite popular, and the latter is sometimes barrel-fermented. The Paumanok 2009 was a fine example, not as ripe as its Californian counterparts, but with great aging potential, as demonstrated by a 1995 pulled out from their library, still vibrant with freshness.
Why is it so difficult to find their wines here in Canada, while we are so close by? The answer is twofold. Firstly, quantities of any given wine are always small and the limited amount of land available puts a cap on the total production in each year. Secondly, New York City is only a couple of hours away. The Big Apple sucks up more than half of the production, either via merchants or restaurants. Another big chunk is sold directly at the winery, thanks to the hordes of visitors coming all year round, so many that the entire area is best avoided during summer weekends. Most wineries have a large tasting room (sometimes many), and quite a few feature live music bands, theatre plays or other crowd-luring activities. A rather unique concept in which wine is only one component of the experience.
The best way to discover these wines is, therefore, to visit Long Island. Too bad the limit on the number of bottles we can (legally) bring back is so low.