The region is far north for successful wine grape growing, but the deep water of the lakes ameliorates extreme weather conditions and vineyards are lined along their sloping banks.
I counted forty-five different varieties being grown for wine in my visits there. This is a lot, especially when you consider that one of the world’s largest wine regions, Bordeaux in France, makes all its wines from mostly seven varieties with another four minor varieties grown there.
So why so many in Finger Lakes? It’s because it’s a fairly new wine region with lots of experimentation to find what varieties work best. Until recently it was thought to be too cold to grow the Vinifera species that produce the world’s fine wines. Traditional varieties were native American and hybrids – varieties produced by crossing American with Vinifera.
It was Dr Konstantin Frank who demonstrated that Vinifera could succeed in Finger Lakes. It was just 50 years ago, in 1962, that Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellar was founded high above Keuka Lake. Dr Frank proved that the correct choice of cold hardy rootstock made the growing of fine wine varieties possible. Now Finger Lake’s Riesling is recognised as world class.
But a just short way along the lake is Bully Hill winery which specialises in wines made from American and hybrid varieties where you can enjoy wines made from Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Niagara. Just two wineries and you can taste more than twenty varieties. That’s why I find the Finger Lakes such an exciting destination.
At the northern tip of neighbouring Seneca Lake is the Cornell University agriculture research facility which has long been breeding grape vines specifically for local conditions. You’ll find their successes such as the floral Melody and the crisp Cayuga White.
But I think the future for Finger Lakes is in fine vinifera wines and that in the future there will be a consensus on what the most successful varieties are. On that list will be Riesling, method champenois sparkling wines and, I like to hope, a variety with a tongue-twisting name introduced by Dr Frank himself, Rkatsitelli*.
*(Actually it's simple if you just say - are-kat-see-telly)
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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, also available for the Kindle.