Finger Lakes, NY offers more than just Riesling

By / Wine + Drinks / November 16th, 2019 / 10
Finger Lakes NY Vineyard

Although largely unknown by the average Canadian wine drinker, the Finger Lakes wine region in Upstate New York is well respected amongst Canadian sommeliers and wine writers, particularly for its Rieslings. These wines have great acidity, minerality and floral notes, as well as notes of pure citrus and apple fruit.

The first vineyard was planted in 1829, but only in 1953 did the idea of growing quality Riesling and other vinifera grapes begin. Dr Konstantin Frank, hired as a consultant, founded Vinifera Wine Cellars in 1962, and quickly became known in American wine circles for producing excellent Riesling.

The 1980s to the ‘90s saw a big growth in wineries in the region which now includes distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). These include Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake, Finger Lakes, which also include Keuka and Canandiauga and some smaller “pinky fingers.” The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance (est. 1982) has grown from a handful of wineries to 130. 10,000 acres are under vine, one tenth of which are Riesling.

Growth in the industry has slowed down, but continues. “We plant about 50 acres per year,” says Bob Madill, Wine Industry Liaison at Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and one of the linchpins of the industry (formerly for Glenora, Sheldrake Point and Red Newt). “We are seeing more start-ups, operating without bricks-and-mortar, with around 1,000 cases.”

Not all the wine produced in the region is Riesling, although it is still the most important grape: “It’s mostly Riesling and Cabernet Franc,” confirms Madill, “plus a bit of Lemberger, Saperavi (a teinturier-type grape with red flesh, from Georgia in Europe), Gamay and even Chenin. My own estimates have been derived from the folks that Finger Lakes growers and producers employ to plant.”

And there is room to expand wine production, but it is more expensive these days. “There’s lots of land left,” Madill said. “A few hybrid vineyards need renewal and some are being switched over to vinifera. But land prices have risen quite a bit and it can cost around $15,000 to 20,000 US for an acre of existing vinifera. Some small vineyard lots in popular vacation sites such as those along Keuka have been pulled up for housing.”

Global warming is a common issue for cool climate regions like The Finger Lakes. “Climate change is clearly expressed in the form of spring frost and weather extremes,” Madill explained. “From the year that Greg Sandor and I started Sheldrake Point to 2005, I never worried about spring frost. Now we have marked weather episodes, from droughts to gully washers — short bursts of heavy rain.”

Yet, the effects of climate change have not changed Sheldrake’s wine style, whether a crisply acidic Riesling or a fresh Cabernet Franc with red fruit flavours and medium tannins.

Other Finger Lakes wine trends reflect what is going on in Canada. “Rosé has been a growing category for several years,” says Madill. “Peter Bell, the Canadian-born winemaker at Fox Run, made a rosé for me in 1997. Since, Sheldrake made one, which grew from a couple of hundred cases one year to 500 cases, to now about 2500, all of which are Cab Franc. Most rosé is Cabernet Franc, then Pinot Noir then Lemberger.”

“Around six producers make Petnat,” he adds, “Production is not ‘natural’ (whatever that means) as such, it’s more ‘non-interventionist’. Unoaked Cab Franc is growing in popularity. A more serious effort is being made for growing quality hybrids.”

If you have not yet had the pleasure of visiting the Fingers, plan a trip to the region. If you love aromatic whites with crisp acidity, fresh rosés or Cabernet Franc, and enjoy gorgeous water-views, you will love the lakes.


Craig Pinhey discovered good drink circa 1985 at Ginger’s Tavern/Granite Brewery in Halifax and has been writing about beer, wine and spirits for 25 years. A Certified Sommelier and BJCP judge, Craig lives in New Brunswick where he runs his own writing and consulting business and is the beverage columnist for Brunswick News. He is the only person to have judged all of the national wine, spirits and beer awards of Canada.

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