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Upstate New York wine back on the up and up

A winery along the Keuka Trail.

Finger Lakes Wine Country

"Wine, wings and water" promises the sign leading into Hammondsport, NY, a small town on Lake Keuka in the Finger Lakes region that thrives on thirsty summer tourists.

That slogan isn't likely to change the minds of the people who long-ago decided that upstate New York wine was more suitable for use as a punch line than for pairing with meals. But given that the region is now home to world-class Riesling, standout Gruner Veltliner and delicious fizz, the rest of us should re-think Finger Lakes wine. Since the region's wine production history dates back nearly 200 years, it'd be wrong to call it "emerging." Better to call it a revival, or reinvention, one that's succeeding.

In the 19th century, Finger Lakes produced award-winning sparkling wines, but they all completely disappeared by the end of Prohibition and were never truly revived. Native grapes (vitis labrusca, such as Concord, Catawba and Niagara) give off a musky or "foxy" aroma that doesn't appeal to modern tastes, but vitis vinifera, European grape varietals used to make the wines we're now used to drinking, just wouldn't take in most of the United States.

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That failure to thrive is usually attributed to the cold climate, but Fred Frank, a third-generation wine-maker at Hammondsport's Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars sees it differently. "The reason it took so long for vinifera to become established here was actually because of the phylloxera louse," he says.

"For example, Thomas Jefferson was a fan of French wines and he got cuttings from his friends in Bordeaux and planted them at his Virginia estate and, within a few years, they died. That was because he planted the vines on their own roots, which the louse nibbled on."

This is an old story, one that most people familiar with the history of wine knows well: Phylloxera is an American louse that vitis labrusca can resist but vinifera, have no defences against. When travelling naturalists unwittingly brought phylloxera to Europe, it infested and ravaged those vineyards.

The solution was to graft European vinifera vines onto phylloxera-resistant labrusca rootstalk. Post-Prohibition Americans, grappling with "foxy" grapes thought to be only good for juice, jam and jelly, seem to have forgotten about this solution, at least until Fred's grandfather, Dr. Konstantin Frank, turned up.

Frank the First migrated to the United States from Ukraine after the Second World War. Working with Cornell University's agriculture department and a former French champagne-maker, he managed to convince colleagues that if vinifera could survive the winter in Ukraine it could make it through a New York winter, too. His thesis was proven in 1962, with the bottling of the first Finger Lakes Riesling.

Dr. Frank seems to have really wanted to drive his point home, since he didn't stop with Riesling and went on to experiment with dozens of vinifera grapes, all of which were successful. You can sample that legacy at the winery, which sells an astounding range of varietals, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rkatseteli and Saperavi, to name a few wines you wouldn't expect to encounter in this region. Four generations of Franks have the drive to try new things, a project that's resulted in the cultivation of about 20 varietals.

Equally ambitious is Ravines, an award-winning winery on Seneca Lake, that, among other things, is trying to perfect organic, biodynamic dry Riesling. The results are spectacular, and Seneca Lake is one of the few New York state wines fairly regularly available in Canada (at least at the SAQ in Quebec).

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Also on Seneca is the Hermann J. Wiemer vineyard, which is working overtime to use natural pest controls in the production of fruity dry Rieslings that are the result of a slightly warmer micro-climate, owing to Seneca Lake's 600-foot depth. Locals call it the "banana belt," with more than a little tongue-in-cheek, but it does lead to a different flavour profile.

In crunchy, locavore Hector, on Seneca, you can eat at hyper-local, casual restaurants such as the Stonecat Cafe, which features lake fish and an amazing farm-fresh fried chicken, or slightly fancier Veraisons restaurant at the Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars, with its heritage Berkshire pork, Ithaca bleu cheese and Lucky Dog greens, all hailing from less than 100 miles away.

Nearby, Finger Lakes Distillery makes the most of local produce for its craft spirits, many of which are made from…well, local grapes. The rest of its portfolio, including a first-rate rye whiskey, draws on local farms for as much of their grain as possible.

Since Finger Lakes is so focused on regionality, it's perhaps not such a bad thing that it's hard to find outside of the area. Wine-makers, of course, would like to sell more to Canada, but, for now, it's a taste you pretty much have to travel to the Finger Lakes to sample. The area's rich history, earnest locavorism and lovely hill-side vistas offer attractions far more numerous than wings, water and wine. Although those things, offered in spades, are pretty good, too.

Finger Lakes Wine Country provided accomodation and an itinerary for this trip. The organization did not review or approve this article prior to publication.

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