The Vinifera Revolution

The Finger Lakes’ climate and latitude are closer to Riesling’s Old World homes of Germany, Austria and Alsace than other regions in the New World are, and local Rieslings demonstrate those regional similarities year in and year out.

Those of us who live in the Finger Lakes region are well aware of its many attractions. Its natural beauty, rich history, cultural amenities, and relatively mild climate, all contribute to its charm and livability. Even the region’s location (often described as “centrally isolated”) contributes greatly. Because of the area’s largely rural nature, residents and visitors enjoy dozens of state, city, and county parks; many wildlife and hunting preserves; and the Finger Lakes Trail, which winds continuously through the region from Pennsylvania near Lake Erie to the Catskill Mountains. These areas provide ample outdoor recreational opportunities, including power boating, sailing, fishing, and swimming in the lakes – all major seasonal attractions for the region’s many tourists. Increasingly over the last 25 years, the Finger Lakes region has also become known for its world-class wines made from European grapes.

For many years, New York State wines had the well-deserved reputation of being simple, sweet wines. Red or white, bottle or jug, all tasted much alike and much too sweet. Winemakers assumed that European grapes (varieties of the species Vitis vinifera) such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Pinot Noir would not tolerate upstate New York’s cold winters, so they made the best wines they could with cold-resistant, native-American varieties (Vitis labrusca) such as Concord, Delaware, Catawba, and Niagara. Unfortunately, these grapes make poor, one-dimensional wines when compared with wines made from the European vinifera grapes. Finger Lakes winemakers had tried, but failed, to grow vinifera grapes in the region. So, using vinifera and labrusca, breeders at Cornell University and elsewhere created cold-tolerant hybrids that retain some of the characteristics of both species. Fairly quickly, grape growers replaced their native-variety vineyards with hybrid vineyards, and for many years most Finger Lakes winemakers stopped making wines from native varieties.

I have tasted some very well-made wines from these French-American hybrid grapes. In the right hands, Seyval, Cayuga, Vignoles/Ravat, Vidal, and other hybrids can make drinkable everyday table wines. When they are picked at their ripest and made into highly concentrated dessert wines they are, in my opinion, at their best. Vidal, for instance, is one of the hybrids that can produce really good Finger Lakes ice wine. Still, even in the hands of the most seasoned winemakers, I doubt any hybrid grapes can be made into table wines with the depth, variety of concentrated flavors, balance, food-pairing ability, and general appeal of wines made from European vinifera. And the explosion in the Finger Lakes of award-winning, world-class wines made from vinifera grapes tells me that winery owners, winemakers, and much of the wine-buying public agree.

Since 1976, when New York State changed the alcoholic beverage laws to permit farm wineries to sell the bulk of their wines directly to consumers, dozens of wineries have opened in the Finger Lakes region. Many of them have devoted their efforts to following the lead of the late Dr. Konstantin Frank, founder of Vinifera Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake, by making wines only from European vinifera grapes. It’s taken 25 years for the industry to develop two dozen top wineries with the right vinifera growing on the right properties, and the right winemakers with the right skills to turn out award-winning vinifera wines year after year. Vinifera grapes have not replaced hybrid grapes completely in the Finger Lakes, but the vinifera revolution is over, and we wine lovers won.

Vintage Years
I will not discuss specific vintages too often, since they may well be sold out by the time you read this. Instead, I will discuss general styles of wines from top Finger Lakes wineries, what to look for, and some ideas about what to cook and serve with each type. You’ll also find Best Case Scenarios chosen by me and other Finger Lakes wine aficionados. These are our picks for the best vinifera wines in the Finger Lakes region.

That said, 1999 and 2001 were splendid years for wine grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. The red wines of those vintages from the top producers are almost universally great, though in many cases not yet ready to drink. There was an explosion in 1999 of great cabernet franc in the Finger Lakes, most of them very good, some of them extraordinary. Lamoreaux Landing’s was dense, and lushly fruited, and Miles Wine Cellars’ extraordinary 1999 cabernet franc may be the biggest red wine I have ever tasted made from grapes grown in the Finger Lakes.

While 1999 and 2001 were the kinds of years winemakers usually just dream about, more average years can still result in some wonderful wines. A visit to even a few Finger Lakes wineries will soon reveal the extensive number of styles and varieties available to suit even the most exacting tastes.

Food Wines
Wines made from grapes grown in cooler climates, like that of the Finger Lakes, tend to have a number of appealing, food-friendly characteristics: whites are clean and crisp, with plenty of fruit flavors; reds show a variety of “red fruit” aromas and fresh berry-like flavors (often called “forward fruit”), and they commonly can retain quite a bit of citric acidity. Stronger acid structures make a wine more food-friendly. Unlike many wines from warm-climate regions such as California, local wines also tend to have few “cooked fruit,” “jammy,” and “dark fruit” characteristics that are common in wines made from riper grapes. Unlike those California wines, Finger Lakes reds often have fewer tannins as well, allowing them to pair with more kinds of foods and to be ready to drink sooner.

As a rule, my first impression when I sip Finger Lakes wine is of fresh berries in a medium-bodied wine, followed by moderate alcohol, and finished with a pleasant lemony acid balance that often persists. The best ones are able to perform that classic wine-food trick – the acids and alcohol in each sip of wine cleanse the palate, making each bite of food taste as good as the first. And when the wine is paired with the right food, a less obvious but equally valuable exchange occurs, as the food makes the wine taste better.

This wine-food pairing experience is quite subjective. Each person’s palate is unique – our perceptions of tastes and aromas differ, sometimes greatly. A combination that one person might find delightful, someone else might find distasteful or simply boring. Still, there are some constants in the wine-food universe, and some unique discoveries. I’ve also asked some local wine experts and local chefs to give me their favorites as well. To understand these wines’ true natures, I urge you to try them with foods.

An Everyday Beverage
Try to ignore all the “expert” advice you’ve heard over the years, such as serving white wine with fish and red wine with meat. For that matter, ignore my advice about vinifera wines. There are no right and wrong ways to enjoy wine. If you prefer with your meals sweeter wines made from hybrids and native-American grapes, by all means enjoy them. As you put together your own list of the food-and-wine combinations you enjoy, keep in mind not only each wine’s flavors and aromas, but also its body and texture. For example, Riesling, a white wine, can often display the fullness and the weightiness of some big red wines and can easily stand up to sausages and many kinds of red meat. And Pinot Noir, a red wine, often displays the lighter body of a white wine and pairs wonderfully with salmon.

Also, don’t be unduly swayed by who is making the wine at a particular winery. Owners have more impact on a winery’s wines over time than does any individual winemaker because owners tend to stay around longer and encourage their winemakers to aim for a style they wish to maintain. Winemakers, however, come and go – the person who made last year’s Governor’s Cup winner, for example, may no longer work at that winery or in the wine business. A new winemaker may or may not affect the winery’s style or quality a great deal.

Another point of interest is that not all wines sold by Finger Lakes wineries are made with grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. The acreage planted in vinifera is still small, insufficient to meet the demands of the growing number of wineries, so some wineries buy grapes from Long Island and even farther away. When you visit local wineries, ask about their fruit’s origins, especially in the wines you like. You might be surprised.

Wine and Health
Although the health benefits of wine have been much touted in the media during the last decade, the issue still remains controversial. The so-called “French Paradox,” for instance, which states that despite higher smoking rates and consumption of cheese and other supposedly unhealthy fats, the French have fewer instances of heart disease than Americans, led some researchers to examine the daily consumption of wine in France. Indeed, research at Cornell University and elsewhere has pointed to resveratrol, a compound found in red wines that has some antioxidant properties, which can prevent heart disease and cancer. Confusing the issue, however, recent research has found that moderate daily consumption of any alcoholic beverage seems to provide some of the same benefits. Other theories credit consumption of olive oil, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables ­– the “Mediterranean Diet” – for lower rates of heart disease and cancer, and for longer life spans in that region.

Whether or not there are any chemical reasons involved, moderate wine consumption with meals does lead to healthy behaviors. Sipping wine with meals makes food taste better, so we tend to eat more slowly, savor each bite, feel full sooner, and eat less overall. And sipping wine with food also makes for more relaxed and congenial meals with family and friends, reducing some of the stresses in our daily lives.
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Vinifera Viticulture
Growing grapevines is a complicated science. While viticulturists must consider a host of factors when selecting and growing vines, the finished wine they hope to produce determines the variety of grape they will grow. With vinifera vines, this selection process becomes more complicated as the viticulturist must then choose among the best clones of a particular variety.

Clones are genetic offshoots from the original plant variety, and each variety can have many clones, each with its own taste characteristics and growing requirements. Part of the secret of producing top-notch wine rests with choosing the optimum clone for the particular growing environment. Chardonnay, for instance, has close to a dozen clones from which to choose.

The clone types selected are clipped from mature grapevines and grafted onto hardy rootstock. In the Finger Lakes area this means hybrid rootstock bred specifically for its cold tolerance and resistance to disease. These young vines are then transplanted to the vineyard. In a colder climate like upstate New York, vines are planted north to south about eight to 10 feet apart, so that plants are exposed to as much sun as possible. To further increase the grapes’ sun exposure, trellises are used that pull the leaves away from the grape clusters. Each plant will have at least two vines – and sometimes as many as four – growing out of the bulbous mass of its root stock. All the new growth and the grapes themselves come off these main vines. After harvest, before the winter sets in, vineyard workers prune the plants back to the original two vines for the next growing season.

Great wine comes from mature vines. Red wine clones typically take five years before the vines bear grapes worthy to be made into wine. White wine clones mature slightly faster, bearing passable grapes by the third year. Nevertheless, most vintners won’t use all of a vine’s grapes until it is about seven years old. The grapes typically become better until a mature vine consistently produces high-quality grapes. Wineries may emphasize the age of their vines. In the Finger Lakes, the oldest plants will be 25 to 30 years old, while in an established European vineyard they may be 100 to 200 years old.

Viticulturists ensure that vines continue to produce for decades or centuries by carefully managing the balance of new growth to old. An aging vine eventually cracks and begins to die. One of its young shoots then will be allowed to establish itself. When it matures, the grower cuts down the old, dying vine, thus ensuring a continuation of the quality and type of grapes produced.
— J.W.S.


by Grady Wells, photographs by Kristian S. Reynolds