There is nothing better to take the chill out of a winter day than a taste of wine next to a warm hearth overlooking the placid landscape along the shores of the Finger Lakes. The wineries along the Keuka Lake wine trail offer robust as well as delicate wines to suit the palates of wintertime entertaining.
Visitors to Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport will feel as if they have arrived through the proverbial woods to Grandmother’s house, as the refurbished barn and surrounding fields have been in the Hunt family since 1820. One can enjoy a walk or a hay wagon tour through the vineyards or appreciate the quiet solitude and amazing views from high above Keuka Lake. Since the first vineyards were planted in 1904, the site has expanded to a 4000-square-foot facility, capable of accommodating browsers, travelers and wine enthusiasts under one roof.
Hunt Country produces wines that are well-suited for crisp afternoons, specializing in full-bodied, oak barrel-aged wines that can stand alongside a hearty meal. Especially tempting are the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, with hints of fruit accompanying a mellow finish. Hunt Country’s dessert wines are a complex and tasteful finale to a flavorful meal. The native grape flavor of the “Foxy Lady” wines are refreshing accompaniments to casual entertaining.
Proceeding north on Route 54A through the village of Penn Yan, and continuing south on Route 54 will lead a visitor to the new location of Keuka Spring Winery. Its exterior features panoramic views of Keuka Lake, while the interior is spacious and bright, yet cozy. Owners Len and Judy Wilberger succeed in providing a friendly and professional atmosphere for their customers. Says Judy, “It’s not just about the wine…it’s about how you’re treated, how the staff gives suggestions on how to serve the wine, how your questions are answered.”
Particular specialties of Keuka Spring’s collection are the dry, soft red Lemberger as well as the mellow Cabernet Franc with subtle raspberry overtones. The Celebrate is aptly named for its versatility for soothing or spicy dishes, and the Gewürztraminer is a well-crafted, dry, zesty companion to light entrees.
Just south of Keuka Spring is Rooster Hill Winery. A broad, roomy veranda invites a visitor to appreciate the picturesque view of Keuka Lake, while the tasting area with its circular oak bar offers ample space to chat with the staff or fellow visitors. The airy gift shop features farm and rooster themed gifts and accessories (naturally!). Rooster Hill focuses on quality and specialty reds, particularly their Cabernet Sauvignon for roast lamb and grilled foods. Owners Amy and David Hoffman state, “We fell in love with Keuka Lake at first sight, and we know visitors will experience the same deep sense of peace that it and the surrounding region offer anyone who visits it.”
Continuing south on Route 54 is Barrington Cellars, a small, family-owned-and-operated winery in the town of Barrington. Visitors can enjoy affordable quality Labrusca (native), French-Hybrid, and Vinifera wines made from grapes grown at Buzzard Crest Vineyards or from grapes of a few close neighbors. Aficionados of fruity wines will find favor with the Niagara, Bliss, and Isabella Ice wines.
Further along Route 54 south, a left turn onto Hyatt Hill Road followed by another left turn onto Dutch Street will bring a visitor to MacGregor Winery. Visitors are invited to linger on an enclosed tasting deck, featuring background Celtic music and a visit from Bacchus the cat. Here, visitors can enjoy the sweeping view of Keuka Lake while enjoying a wide selection of award-winning Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Vignoles, Muscat Ottonel and Cayuga from its extensive wine list. Unique to the area and grown by MacGregor and very few others in the country are hardy Russian Vinifera: Sereksia, Saperavi and Rkaziteli.
MacGregor prides itself on treating customers like family. Knowledgeable and patient commentary is provided about their wines, in addition to vertical tasting where one can sample different vintages of the same wine. Crayons and drawing paper are also provided for those with children. In addition, throughout the year, McGregor Winery celebrates the release of their new wines with creative, compatible treats so visitors can enjoy new wine and food sensations. Of course, a tartan-themed winery would not be complete without a Robbie Burns supper in late January, celebrating the birthday of the Scottish bard.
The assistant manager describes the success of MacGregor Winery as “working with the most up-to-date grape-growing and wine-making techniques to produce wines that best express the unique character and quality of our vineyards. Our wines are hand-crafted, and started on the vines. We don’t overcrop, so we make half the wine that’s twice as good.”
Keuka Overlook is just around the corner from MacGregor’s on County Road 17 (Bath Road). A visitor shouldn’t let the unassuming rustic facility influence his or her appreciation of their small but vibrant collection of wines. Owners Bob and Terri Barrett feature bold and complex wines such as their Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. These same varieties are mixed with hints of raspberry and chocolate to create their scrumptious Cabernet Franc Amarone, a meaningful dessert by itself. The Chardonnay is a unique, barrel-aged, full-bodied wine with distinct pineapple and honeysuckle aromas.
A drive along the east side of Keuka Lake, going south along 54, will bring a visitor through the quaint village of Hammondsport. Signs on the way out of the village will lead to Chateau Renaissance on Hatchery Road (County Road 88). Upon seeing the European chateau in the midst of extensive vineyards, one realizes the importance of its family tradition in the “methode d’champenoise.”
With jazz playing in the background and a diorama from the Louire valley above the tasting bar, Patrice DeMay encourages his patrons to savor unusual and impressive champagnes, varying from vintage whites to new “niche” wines made from 100-percent fruit. “Only in the U.S. do people save champagnes for special or formal occasions…in Europe champagne can go with everything.” Visitors who are hesitant to try champagne will find the “doux” line of champagnes a welcome, luscious surprise to accompany even the most familiar meals.
While exploring the west side of Keuka Lake, a visitor can follow County Road 88 to Route 54A to Heron Hill Winery. Its airy yet gracious tasting room features a breathtaking view of Keuka Lake. The background of world beat harmonies combines well with Heron’s Hill’s extensive gallery of wines. The Eclipse is a full-bodied, velvety, red wine with flavors of cherry and currant. In contrast, the Semi-dry Reisling is delicate yet complex, sweet yet crisp, with a flowery and fruity bouquet.
Winemaker Thomas Laszlo specializes in wines that the Finger Lakes are known for, such as its Reislings. “We’ve changed how we’ve marketed ourselves and operated in the past to help people feel that wine is accessible to everybody”, stated LeeAnn, a personable and professional sales representative on this writer’s visit.
With that in mind, Heron Hill has its Blue Heron Café, with the expertise of the chefs from the locally well-regarded Village Tavern in Hammondsport. Its elegant facility is also available for private or formal events and gatherings. “Wine should be fun but educational,” continues LeeAnn. “We want people to appreciate that wine is an experience.”
The final stop on the Keuka Lake wine trail has been instrumental for bringing the idea of a wine industry to the Finger Lakes. In 1962, Dr. Konstantin Frank designed the first Finger Lakes winery to produce truly world-class table wines. His Reisling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon and other European varieties formed the backbone of highly regarded wines and champagnes.
Visitors will feel right at home in Dr. Frank’s tasting room, reminiscent of parlor conversations on a Sunday family visit. In addition to vintage viniferas, the Cuveé Blanc is a dry, elegant, smooth accompaniment to all dishes calling for a dry white wine. The spicy Rkatsiteli evokes herbs, strawberries and fresh ground pepper, a wonderful companion to salmon or grilled tuna. For those seeking more versatility, the Salmon Run line of wines offers award-wining taste at a great value.
Despite the chill in the air and snow on the ground, winter can be a great time to travel and relax over the composition and craftsmanship of a fine wine. The Keuka Lake wine trail is welcoming and open for visitors to enjoy the fruits of the harvest in any season.
by Linda Pratt
Linda D. Pratt is a freelance writer from Rochester who enjoys any vacation as long as there is wine.