In the Finger Lakes, Wineries — and a region-specific grape better known for its German roots — mean big tourism dollars.
When wine folk talk about "terroir," that elusive term coined by the French to express soil, climate and the sense of place associated with a wine, much of what they're talking about is geological history. In the Finger Lakes (212 miles from New York), two million years ago, glacial floes drifted south from the Hudson Bay gouging deep trenches into the land before melting, thus forming the lakes. Early inhabitants, the Iroquois, named the region for the 11 parallel bodies of water, which looked to them like they'd been clawed into the earth by the Great Spirit's hand. The depth of the lakes keeps their temperature stable, allowing vineyards planted on their banks to stay cool in the summertime and warm in the winter.
"It used to be that the lakes were the number-one attraction bringing tourists from around the world to the region," says James Trezise, president of the NY Wine and Grape Foundation. "Now, it's the wineries."
New York is the third largest wine-producing state in the country, and the Finger Lakes, with 118 wineries (compared to 69 in 2002) is its most prolific region, representing up to 85 percent of the state's overall production. As the wine industry here has evolved, tourism has become an integral part of it. More than four million people visit Finger Lakes wineries each year and the direct sale of wine to visitors accounts for the bulk of revenues. Most wineries in the region are small, producing less than 5,000 cases of wine annually. Only the bigger players distribute their wines beyond the region.
"Tourism is key to our industry," says Trezise. "But our industry has been key to tourism."
As an ambassador not only of New York wines, but its wine-producing regions as travel destinations, Trezise is quick to point out that visitors to wine country end up spending their tourist dollars on everything from gas to hotels, inextricably tying the wine industry to tourism. Quaint, little inns offer bike tours along the wine trails; and hot-air balloon companies take tourists soaring above the vineyards.
Oenotourists, must also eat — and in the Finger Lakes, they eat well. The foodie scene has evolved right alongside wine production. Winemaker Dave Whiting started Red Newt, a winery and restaurant, with his late wife, Debra, who paired her cooking with his wines. He says that better gastronomy in the region is a direct result of improved agricultural resources.
"The locavore movement is really strong here. It wasn't always that way," explains Whiting. "When we started the restaurant, it was a struggle to find local ingredients. Now, we source everything — greens, cheese, pork, beef — all from farmers just a few miles away. And it's all really good. This practice of buying from local farmers is changing the whole landscape of what we're doing."
Of course, the star of the show in the Finger Lakes is what's in the glass. Critical acclaim of Finger Lakes wines in recent years in the form of awards and glowing reviews in respected wine publications has been instrumental to the region's growth. And the wine on everyone's lips is Riesling. Long considered a niche wine, beloved by oenophiles yet largely misunderstood by mainstream consumers, Riesling, with its razor-sharp acidity and nose-tickling aromatics, is finally coming into its own.
The grape's biggest problem was an identity crisis: Riesling can be sweet or dry. When faced with a bottle you've never opened, it's difficult to anticipate what's inside. An international group of winemakers, tasters and experts — including several from the Finger Lakes — got together a few years ago to create a solution. The Riesling Taste Profile is a scientifically devised system that takes the sweetness, acidity and pH of a wine and classifies it as "sweet" to "dry" on an easy-to-read scale.
While Riesling is sure to remain the signature grape, a number of cool-climate varieties thrive in the Finger Lakes, including several reds, like Pinot Noir and a German grape called Lemberger, a.k.a Blaufränkisch. Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, one of the most acclaimed wineries in the region has had its wines served at the White House and it boasts some of the country's oldest Pinot Noir vines. Old vines, as any oenophile will tell you, can yield richer, more complex wines than younger vines, which are more common in New World wine regions, like the Finger Lakes. Dr. Frank is also known for its Rkatsiteli, an ancient variety that hails from the Caucasus part of Central Asia, said to be the oldest wine grape on earth.
"It's somewhat of a cult classic," says Fred Frank, who is the grandson of the winery's namesake and founder and now runs the business. "There's a real trend in the US where consumers want to try different wines they've never heard of. You know, the classic 'ABC,' Anything But Chardonnay."
Despite representing the majority share of the third largest wine-producing state in the country, the Finger Lakes is still an emerging wine region. Its denizens benefit from working together to ensure they succeed as a group. Winemakers in the region are known to get together to taste each other's wines in no-holds-barred, brutally honest critique sessions. Several have even collaborated on a single bottling. The award-winning Tierce Dry Riesling combines the efforts of three wineries: Anthony Road Wine Company, Fox Run Vineyards and Red Newt Wine Cellars. Anthony Road's winemaker, Johannes Reinhardt, came to the Finger Lakes from his native Germany, a country well versed in Riesling. He was drawn to it by the sense of community. Hailing from a country with a centuries-long winemaking tradition, he appreciates the freedom to experiment.
"The Finger Lakes is still an underdog," says Rein-hardt, in his persisting lilt. "I personally hope for all of us that we can leave a lasting fingerprint on the world wine map."
NEW YORK WINE BY THE NUMBERS:
3rd largest American grape and wine producer
1,438 family-owned vineyards covering
316 wineries, and the number is constantly changing
5 federally recognized wine regions: Long Island, Hudson River, Lake Erie, Niagara Escarpment and Finger Lakes (which represents 85% of all wine production and wine tourism)
17,000 jobs in the wine industry
5 million visitors to wine country annually
180 million bottles of wine produced annually
WINERIES TO WATCH AND VISIT IN THE FINGER LAKES
ANTHONY ROAD WINE CO.
With winemaker Johannes Reinhardt, hailing from Germany, the Seneca Lake winery has experimented with more old-fashioned, organic techniques, including natural fermentation. Its "SP" dry Riesling is one of the only natural wines released in the Finger Lakes — the "SP" indicates spontaneous fermentation. The outspoken Rein-hardt says that eschewing synthetics, which are commonplace in modern winemaking, can offer a truer expression of the fruit and terroir.
FOX RUN VINEYARDS
Located at the deep end of Seneca Lake, this 55-acre estate is backed by a superstar winemaking team — head winemaker Peter Bell, assisted by Tricia Renshaw, who is known for having one of the best palates in the region. Also inspired by the Old World to buck the trend of high-alcohol wines popular in the New World, it has experimented with lighter white wines, ideal for summer sipping.
DR. KONSTANTIN FRANK
One of the pioneers of the region, this Keuka Lake winery is about to enter its fourth generation in operation. Fred Frank, the founder's grandson, has a daughter currently studying winery management in preparation for taking on the family trade. Dr. Frank continues to innovate, acquiring more land and planting new varieties. Most recently, it planted the trendy Grüner Veltliner grape.
RAVINES WINE CELLARS
The Finger Lakes is best known for its aromatic whites, especially Riesling. The wildly popular Ravines is proof positive that the region can do red wine well, too. Owner and winemaker Morten Hallgren, a Dane who relocated to Provence in the South of France to work his father's vineyard before settling down on Keuka Lake, produces an acclaimed Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, as well as a Méritage, which is a Bordeaux-style red blend.
HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARD
Founded by a German whose family had been making wine in the Mosel Valley for 300 years. It's earned a cult following for world-class wines made with the utmost respect for the vineyards from whence they came. Terroir is so important to this Seneca Lake estate that it bottles several vineyard-specific wines, each expressing the exact characteristics of a particular plot of land. Wine geeks and critics alike are known to rave.
RED NEWT CELLARS
This winery and restaurant has a particular business model because it has no vineyards of its own. It buys grapes from neighboring growers with whom long-term relationships have been formed and processes the fruit at its facility. Think of it as an urban winery in the stunning countryside of the Finger Lakes.
DECODING THE Riesling TASTING PROFILE
Riesling, the signature grape of the Finger Lakes, suffers from a personality disorder. Sometimes it's sweet; sometimes it's dry. But if you've never opened a particular bottle, how are you supposed to guess what's inside? The International Riesling Foundation, a group of winemakers, tasters and experts from Riesling-producing regions around the world, has come up with a solution. The Riesling Taste Profile is a scientifically devised system for measuring the sweetness, acidity, and pH of a wine. The results are expressed as an easy-to-read scale on the back label of the bottle. Some 30 million bottles of Riesling worldwide now feature it.
Here's a primer on how it works: a dry Riesling has a sugar-to-acid ratio of up to 1.0, while a sweet one's sugar-to-acid ratio is at least 4.1. But pH is also a factor, so a wine with a high sugar-to-acid ratio and lower pH may be classified as drier than if you just looked at the sweetness. Confused yet? Well, now you can appreciate the Riesling Taste Profile's genius. It condenses all this information into a user-friendly graphic. See where your wine falls on the scale and sip with savvy — next time you're traveling in the Finger Lakes pick up a range.