As a native New Yorker and a wine drinker you’d think I’d be more familiar with the Finger Lakes. To the contrary – they always seemed a world away to me. Besides, as someone who primarily drinks reds the idea of an area that is white-focused didn’t seem appealing for the longest time.
That said, summer in Virginia is hot! Lately I’ve found my palate is slowly transitioning from being red all the time to a seasonal drinker. Plus, a trip to the Finger Lakes afforded me the opportunity to do some parental bonding (OK – dad’s a beer drinker but mom is all about wine). So with the bare amount of planning, off to the Finger Lakes we went.
The Finger Lakes seem a surprising choice for a wine growing region; the old conventional wisdom was the weather was too cold for most vinifera. But in the late 1950s a guy named Konstantin Frank proved the critics wrong. Not only did he introduce cold-hardy vinifera, he realized the Finger Lakes act as a temperature sponge for the worst of upstate New York’s weather. With that discovery, the this area became one of the America’s top wine regions.
Riesling is king of the Finger Lakes, although other German or Austrian varietals like Grüner Veltliner, Lemberger (aka Blaufränkisch) and especially Gewürztraminer are also common. This shouldn’t be a surprise; the terroir in the Finger Lakes closely mirrors that of the Mosel. Terroir isn’t the area’s only connection; I found several German winemakers in some of the higher-end places. I can only assume they were recruited specifically because of their skill with these particular grapes.
Not as prevalent but still easy to find were Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which seemed to do well-enough to justify the effort. Cabernet Franc also seemed to endure New York’s cold weather in decent shape. On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are tough to grow, and usually found at the bigger wineries that were willing to accept significant crop losses in bad years. Honorable mentions go to a number of hybrids, including Marechal Fosh, Seval Blanc and Vignoles.
As for the wines, my parents & I managed to visit 17 wineries (plus a cidery/meadery) in 3 days. Some places we specifically picked in advance, others were visited because they happened to be convenient. Some I won’t bother writing about (including one that advertised itself as a ‘redneck winery’) but there were many good and a few great locations that were well worth the visit.
The top 5 are in rough order, although really #3-5 are tied, #6-8 were tied and #9-11 were tied.
1) Weis: Brand new winery, probably my favorite of the trip – although I may be biased since I got to chat up the German owner/wine maker so the experience was as good as the wines on their own. Excellent Riesling and very good Gewürztraminer. The 2016 Barrel Aged Winzer Select was a contender for best of the trip. The Cab Franc was made in steel and came out very fruity. I left with a sparkling.
2) Wagner: A close contender for favorite visit of the trip, which was oddly surprising since they initially came off as very ‘commercial’ which I view as a negative. But my server was an older gentleman named John who was ON POINT with his descriptions and was an overall fantastic salesman. 60,000 cases/year and 225 acres of vines, making them the largest farm winery in the region. They even had a brewery, which I wanted to try but didn’t have a chance to. And if this isn’t enough, it has a great view.
For the wines: I bought two bottles, which should tell you something. The Fathom 107 was a fascinating blend of Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and the Eastside Riesling was excellent and nice had body. The 2017 unoaked Chard was good; just a tad bit of fruit but didn’t overdo it. 2017 Rose was mostly clean but some strawberry notes. The 2016 Merlot was good and had a nice finish. The 2012 Meritage was also good (and from a good vintage).
3) Keuka Lake: 3rd of my top 5 visits, including possibly the two best Rieslings I had the entire trip. Oddly enough I’d never, ever heard of this place despite asking for multiple recommendations – I just randomly showed up to try their samples. 43 acres vines/3,000 case a year. Had they been cheaper this would have been my favorite winery in the Finger Lakes.
I LOVED the 2017 “Upper Eastside” and the 2017 “Evergreen” Rieslings (both $30). The 2017 “Falling Man” Riesling was fruit forward and really good (but $40?). Even their 2017 Leon Millot was good (if a bit vegetal, but that isn’t a negative descriptor in this case). Heck, I also liked the Cab Franc, which (oddly enough) had green apple notes.
4) Hermann J. Wiemer: World-famous winery and one of the overall best selections of the trip. No hybrids – nothing but vinifera here. I really enjoyed their Rieslings, even the semi-sweet version which I never thought I’d appreciate. The 100% Grüner was also good. I ended up leaving with 3 bottles for myself and other friends.
5) Dr. Konstantin Frank: Another top 5 visits of the trip, and certainly the most famous in the area. I love the backstory though – the namesake was a Ukrainian immigrant who eventually found his way to Cornell University. With a PdD in viticulture and lots of experience growing rapes in very cold environments, he pioneered winemaking in the Finger Lakes and eventually founded his own winery. 150 acres of vines, with vineyards on several of the Finger Lakes.
There wasn’t a single ‘meh’ wine here. Several high-end Rieslings were very good although I think my favorite was the well balanced ‘traditional’ dry Riesling, with the Margrit dry Riesling with nice bite & minerality coming second . Also very notable were the “Old Vine” Pinot Noir with cherry notes, a Pinot-heavy red blend, a Gewürztraminer with lots of character, and a Sauv Blanc with big mouthfeel that mom especially liked. I also liked the Grüner, Pinot Blanc and sweet or semi-sweet Rieslings, despite not being a sweet wine drinker. Excellent view and overall presentation as well.
6) Domaine LeSurre: Owned by a couple from France, no vineyard but locally sourced fruit. Excelled in Chardonnay and reds. I especially liked oaked Chard but unoaked was good too. Had a nice Pinot with cherry notes. Also enjoyed their other reds, including an excellent 2014 Cab Franc, Lemberger, and “Reserve” red.
7) Standing Stone Vineyard: Now owned by Hermann Wiemer; 46 acres of vines. One of the oldest wineries in the area. Good Riesling and Gewürztraminer, although the surprise was their Saperavi which had a dark color and rubarb-ish notes. The Cabernet Sauvignon was good too.
8) Barnstormer Winery: Cute tasting room. Nice Sangiovese Rose; I think this was the only time I saw this varietal. Good dry Riesling with grassy notes.
9) Damiani: Rare red-focused winery. 40 acres of vines, 80% estate (the rest local). Located on one of the warmer areas of the region. Very good 2017 Cabernet Franc, not overly peppery. Interesting Marchael Fosh, with a long finish. Good 2017 Lemberger with a white pepper finish and good tannin. Pinot and semi-dry wines were OK.
10) Lakewood Vineyards: My very first Finger Lakes winery ever! Nice, light bodied Cabernet Franc, although their Riesling was my favorite of the bunch. They did a good job with their Concord and Niagara grapes, although those aren’t my favorite varietals.
11) Heron Hill: This was the last winery of day #1 so while I *think* the wines were good my taste buds were most definitely shot at this point. Their main winery at the bottom of Keuka was beautiful, but I actually did my tasting at their smaller tasting room on Seneca. But the Seneca location had beer, which made dad very happy. He deserved it after having to drive mom & I around all day.
We also visited Shaw, Bully Hill, Ravines, Miles, McGregor, and Earle Estate Meadery/Torry Ridge Winery.
Not tried: Kemmenter or Forge Cellars, which are appointment-only locations that are definitely on my list for next time. I also need to visit Shalestone and Ryan Williams.