From Grapes to Wine

The tradition of winemaking in the Finger Lakes runs as deep as the lakes themselves.

You may have heard about the Pink Catawba your grandmother sipped at Thanksgiving. Perhaps your first wine was Lake Niagara. But in the last 25 years, Finger Lakes wineries have undergone a quiet revolution to become respected members of the international wine community.

Tucked among the rolling hillsides and panoramic farmland is a treasure worthy of acclaim. “The number of Finger Lakes wineries is changing every day,” says Jim Trezise, President of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. “At last count, there were 79.”

And these wineries are producing not only the old favorites. Vintners have learned how to grow French-American hybrids and European vinifera grapes commonly seen in the world-class vineyards of France and Germany. More and more, Finger Lakes wines are giving European wines a run for their money.

White or Red?
Wine gets its color from the grape skins, not from the pulp.

To pick up color, the grape juice is left to mix with the skins after crushing. For blush or rosé wines, the skins are removed early so that only a pink color is attained.  For red wines, the skins are left longer.

In fact, you can produce a white wine from a red grape as long as you remove the skins soon after crushing.

Why Grapes Grow in the Finger Lakes
“The wines are made in the vineyards,” says Ann Martini of Anthony Road Vineyards on Seneca Lake. “We can only work with what is grown.”

And although grapevines are pretty tough, they need three things to survive: minerals, good drainage, and a moderate climate. Lucky for us, the Finger Lakes provide all three.

The nuances in wine come from the mineral deposits found in the soil. When the glaciers that formed the Finger Lakes receded, they left behind salt beds, shells, and decayed organic material. As these substances broke down, they created two types of soil.

The lower-elevation lakes – Seneca and Cayuga – are surrounded by chalky, high-lime soil. Such soil is well suited for the vinifera grapes used in European winemaking. In the higher-altitude Finger Lakes – Keuka and Canandaigua – the soil is more acidic. Native American varieties – Concord, Catawba, and Niagara – prefer acid soil, which may explain why the earliest vineyards developed around the smaller lakes.

Regardless of the predominant soil type, Finger Lakes wineries are now home to all types of grapes. Nearly every winery makes wines to suit your taste, from very dry to very sweet.

In German wine country, it is said that the best vineyards overlook water. This is certainly true in the Finger Lakes. And it is the lakes themselves that provide the other two elements needed to create outstanding grapes: drainage and moderate temperatures.

Even the deeper Finger Lakes provide plenty of drainage for vines planted along the hillsides. But it is the depth of the Finger Lakes that provide the temperatures needed to grow finer grapes.

The narrowness of the Finger Lakes means that they have relatively little surface area. Combine this with depths from 200 to 600 feet, and you find that the lakes act as gigantic heaters during the winter months. Seneca Lake rarely freezes and stays 37 degrees year round at a depth of 200 feet. That heat simply radiates to the surrounding land, keeping some vineyards 10 to 15 degrees warmer than land just a few miles further away.

This heating effect also cushions the severity of spring and fall temperature fluctuations. Hot days in April and May are cooled by the water, which slows the growth of tender shoots that might be damaged by late spring frosts. In the fall, the lakes hold onto summer’s heat and extend the ripening season, sometimes into November. On all of the lakes, cold air masses tend to settle in valleys, keeping frosts from the hillsides used to grow grapes.

These three factors – the soil, the drainage, and the moderating influence of deep lakes – make the Finger Lakes a prime location for growing some of the more delicate European vinifera grapes and French-American hybrids.

A Primer of Wine Terminology

Vinifera: A grape that is native to Europe, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Riesling.

Hybrid: A grape that is typically a cross between vinifera varieties and disease-resistant American varieties. Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, Marechal Foch, and Vignoles are examples of hybrids commonly grown in the Finger Lakes.

Labrusca: A grape variety native to America, such as Concord, Catawba, and Niagara. Labrusca grapes are often an ingredient in “jug wines” and are used to make sweeter wines, ports, and sherries.

Residual sugar: The amount of sugar left in the wine after fermentation is halted. The higher the residual sugar, the sweeter the wine.

Noble rot (Botrytis): A type of mold that sometimes forms on grapes in late autumn. As the mold shrivels the grapes, it concentrates the sugar. Such grapes are used to make highly valued late harvest wines.

Microclimate: The climate of the grapevine itself. The moderating influence of the Finger Lakes can cause significant differences in microclimate, depending upon where the grapes are located in relation to the lakes.

The Pioneers of Winemaking
When it comes to Finger Lakes winemaking, two names stand above the rest: Charles Fournier and Dr. Konstantin Frank. As luck would have it, these men collaborated to prove that vinifera grapes could be grown in the colder climate of the Finger Lakes.

Charles Fournier spent his early years in France’s Champagne district. When he became Gold Seal’s winemaker on Keuka Lake in 1934, the Finger Lakes produced mainly native American grapes such as Catawba and Concord.

Noticing the similarities between the white, lime-ridden soils of Champagne and those of Seneca Lake, Fournier introduced French-American hybrids to the region in 1936, with much success. In 1953, Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant, was hired at Gold Seal to head up research. Frank had vast experience growing European grapes in the unforgiving cold of the Soviet Union.

By 1962, Dr. Frank established his own winery and continued producing excellent wines, including unusual Russian varieties such as Rkatsiteli (which you can still taste today). In the early 1970’s Fournier planted the region’s largest vinifera vineyard on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. To this day, these vineyards still produce some of the region’s best white wines.

In 1976, The Farm Winery Act made it economically feasible to operate small wineries in the Finger Lakes. Since that time, scores of wineries have sprung up around the Finger Lakes, each of which owes a debt to the early efforts of these two men. Without them, the Finger Lakes may not have reached the potential we see today – and will no doubt see in the future.

Types of Wines
Varietal wine: A wine that contains at least 75% of the grape listed on the label. Varietals can be made from any type of grapes: vinifera, hybrid, or labrusca.

Blend: A wine made from two or more grape varieties.

Sparkling wine: A wine made in the Champagne style of France. Since true Champagnes can only be made in the Champagne region, most bubbly wines of the Finger Lakes are labeled “sparkling.”

Blush or rosé wine: A wine made by blending red and white wines or by picking up a light color from crushed red grapes. Such wines are pink in color.

Late harvest wine: A dessert wine, often sold in half-bottles, and produced from sweeter grapes such as Vignoles. 

Ice wine: A wine made from grapes that are harvested after the first hard frost. The frozen grapes are pressed to make dessert wines. With any luck, the grapes used to make ice wines have been touched by noble rot, which will further enhance their flavor.

Grafting of Grapevines

Grapevines are grafted to make them more hardy and disease-resistant. Without grafting, grapevines worldwide would be threatened by a formidable enemy: the root-eating aphid known as phylloxera.

Since phylloxera is an American insect, native grapevines developed a resistance to it. But European grapevines proved extremely vulnerable. In the mid-1800’s phylloxera devastated nearly every European vineyard.

To combat this pest, American rootstocks were grafted onto European vines. The result – fine wines produced from strong vines – is the norm today. Look in the vineyards of France and the Finger Lakes and you’ll see grafted grapevines that resist disease.

Wine Naming Conventions
In the United States, wines are most often named after the grape used to make them.

A varietal wine contains at least 75% of the grape listed on the label. Varietals can be made from any type of grapes: vinifera, hybrid, or labrusca (see A Primer of Wine Terminology). Typical varietal wines would be Vignoles, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.

A blend is a wine that is made from two or more grape varieties. Blends typically have names that describe the character of the wine, such as “Red Legend” or “Vintner’s White.” Rosés and blush wines can also be blends, although they’re often created by simply picking up a bit of color from red grape skins.

New York state wine labels also indicate the region where the grapes were grown. For a wine to be a “Finger Lakes” wine, at least 85% of the wine must be made from grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. If a wine is labeled “New York State,” it means that the wine was produced from New York State grapes, but not necessarily those grown in the Finger Lakes.

Now for the confusing part. French wines are named not for the grape they contain, but for the region in which they were produced. Practically all French wines are a blend of several grape varieties. A Champagne originates from the Champagne region, but it could easily contain three or four grape varieties. In France, it is the region itself – Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chablis – that defines the character of the wine.

And just to add to the complexity, every country has its own wine labeling standards!

Take a Drive
The best way to get to know Finger Lakes wines is to visit the wineries themselves. An autumn drive through the Finger Lakes is a pleasure not to be missed. And every major lake has a wine trail that sponsors regular wine-tasting events.

Pick a day, pick a lake, and discover the delicious array of wines that awaits you.

The Grapes of the Finger Lakes

Although the Finger Lakes are home to many types of grapes, a few of the most popular varieties are featured below.

Only by trying a few different wines will you develop a taste for your favorites. And don’t let anyone tell you that you must serve white wines with chicken and fish and red wines with beef! Some of the most interesting food and wine combinations come about through experimentation.

As exotic as it sounds, try serving wine with dessert. Hearty red wines taste marvelous with rich chocolate. A sparkling or late harvest wine can bring out the best in fruit pies. For a special treat, dribble a little ice wine over slices of perfectly ripe cantaloupe.

Riesling, or Johannesburg Riesling, originates from Germany and the Alsace region of France. This crisp white wine is excellent for sipping and to enhance the flavors of fresh fruit, cheese, chicken, turkey, and fish dishes. Riesling’s floral, peachy taste can range from bone-dry to sweet.

Chardonnay is a vinifera grape grown in the Chablis, Champagne, and Burgundy regions of France. Chardonnays are often aged in oak barrels, giving them their characteristic buttery, nutty flavor. In the Finger Lakes, Chardonnays are commonly used to make sparkling wines. Chardonnays are usually less fruity than Rieslings and are a wonderful accompaniment to foods such as grilled chicken or pork, white pasta sauces, and appetizers.

Gewürztraminer, pronounced “ge-VURTS-tra-ME-ner,” is a spicy wine with a rich, golden color. It is grown in Germany but its taste is quite distinct from Rieslings and Chardonnays. Its spiciness can stand up to foods with more intense flavors. Try it with Chinese or Thai food.

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc, a vinifera grape grown in the Bordeaux region of France, is well suited to the Finger Lakes region. This red grape can be grown as consistently as Riesling in colder climates, making it an up-and-coming grape in the Finger Lakes. Cabernet Franc is full-bodied and hearty. Good food matches are red pasta sauces, red meats, lamb, and dark chocolate.

Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a red vinifera grape found in the Burgundy and Champagne regions of France. Used to create red wines, it’s a main ingredient in Champagnes. Pinot Noirs are dry wines that are light in color and aged in oak. They are best served with pasta, tomato-flavored marinades, beef, and lamb.

Cayuga is a French-American hybrid that was genetically engineered by Cornell for the Finger Lakes region. This grape thrives in colder climates and easily produces large and plentiful grapes. Cayuga is made into wine and is also used in blends. It makes a fine sipping wine and can be served with lighter faire and appetizers.

Vignoles, formerly known as Ravat 51, is a hybrid between Pinto Noir and a Seibel hybrid. This grape yields small, compact clusters and may acquire noble rot, a mold praised in producing delicious late harvest wines. This sweet wine is a perfect match for desserts and has a complex, apricot flavor.

How Grapes Become Wine
Ever wonder what happens – what really happens – to make grapes into wine? It’s a pretty simple process.

Natural sugar is found inside grapes. Yeast is found on grape skins. When you crush grapes to mix the two, the yeast begins to convert the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, a process known as fermentation. Left to its own devices, the yeast would convert all of the sugar, resulting in a wine with an alcohol volume of about 15%.

Just how much alcohol is produced – and how much residual sugar remains in the wine – depends on several factors, including when the winemaker stops the fermentation process. Dry wines contain very little, if any, residual sugar.

Once fermentation is stopped, the wine is filtered to thoroughly to remove the yeast and clarify the wine. Then it may be stored in stainless steel vats, aged in oak barrels, or bottled, depending again upon the discretion of the winemaker. White wines are typically aged less than red wines, and red wines very often spend some time in oak to pick up some of the complex flavors that emerge from the wood itself.

For more information about Finger Lakes wines and wineries, contact the New York Wine and Grape Foundation at (315) 536-7442 or visit

by Joy Underhill
Joy Underhill is a wine afficionado who makes her home in Farmington, NY.
Thank you to Jeff Morris of Glenora Farms for allowing the photographer, Roger Soule, to capture many exquisite images of grapes that are grown there.

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