New York is a major wine producer and, although its wines are hard to find outside the state, that is about to change as America’s east coast has the confidence to take on the world, says Peter F May.
This week I am in New York state visiting wineries in the Finger Lakes region. Unless you live in the state or have visited the region you are unlikely to have come across their wines. Regretfully even restaurants in the state rarely feature local wines on lists and exports outside the state are few. However New York is preparing to enter the worlds markets. The New York Wine & Grape Foundation has exhibited at international wine shows, including the major trade London International Wine Fair the past few years. And now they are hosting a visit by a group of international wine journalists, including myself.
New York state takes, very roughly, a long triangular shape spreading eastwards inland, with New York City at the bottom right corner from which there is the spur of Long Island jutting into the sea. There are five officially recognised wine regions in the state: Finger Lakes, Lake Erie, Niagara Escarpment, Hudson River and Long Island.
Finger Lakes produces 85% of New York’s wines and is located in the west of the state, on a line northwest from NYC to Niagara Falls, and has the cities of Rochester and Syracuse at its northerly corners. The region takes its names from a series of narrow deep long lakes lying north-south like the fingers of a hand on the map. The lakes create microclimates and vineyards cling to their shorelines.
I will be learning a lot more about wines of the region during my trip but I do know that two famous people have shaped them. Walter Taylor campaigned against the then widespread practise of importing California juices and bottling them as New York wine and he pushed for 100% locally grown grapes from native and hybrid varieties. When his family winery was taken over he set up a new winery on Keuka Lake called Bully Hill because he was not allowed to use his name on his wine. Labels using his paintings are famous, especially Love My Goat with the slogan ‘They have got my name and heritage but they can’t get my goat’ .
While Taylor’s Bully Hill continues to champion local varieties, Dr Konstantin Frank came to the area convinced that it would be possible to grow international vinifera grape varieties. The region had been declared to be too cold for them to survive but his success with Riesling and the eastern European Rkatsitelli (pronounced ‘are-kat-see-telly’)varieties initiated the widespread planting of vinifera. He named the winery he founded in 1962, near Bully Hill on the banks of Lake Keuka, Dr Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars - firmly stating his message.
With its mix of vinifera, native and hybrid grape varieties all growing in a smallish region, over 100 wineries, world class Riesling, ice wines and distinctive local varieties, Finger Lakes is an exciting place for any wine lover to visit and I am thrilled to be here.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.