Friday, September 16, 2011

About the Finger Lakes

We here at the Ancient Fire Wine Blog visited the Finger Lakes Region of New York State for the first time ever this month. We learned a few things about the region before we went and during our visit, which we believe will help others understand this unique place.

( Available from Wikimedia Commons

Geological Formations

As it is with most wine grape growing regions around the world the unique geologic history of the area left behind artifacts that contributed to what is now special about the place. The Finger Lakes region of New York State as we know it today was transformed by glaciers beginning about 2 million years ago. The glaciers changed what were a series of north flowing rivers (towards Lake Ontario) into long thin lakes. As the glaciers advanced and retreated the river valleys were widened and deepened to create the lakes we see today. After the final glacial retreat deposits of shale, siltstone, clay-rich limestone beds and glacial wash were left behind in a variety of configurations in the region. These soils and rocks created a variety of conditions affecting much in the area, including agriculture and of course grape growing. With experience it has been found that some grape varieties prefer the glacial gifts more than others.

The Microclimates

On top of what was bestowed in the soils by the glaciers, the lakes themselves provide another unique element that form a series of microclimates around the lakes. The depth of the lakes means they rarely freeze and the relative warmth of the lakes compared to the air in winter and the cooling affects in the summer help to moderate the temperature of the lakeside vineyards. There are pockets of specific climates that see unique warming, cooling, drainage and air flow throughout the region. The best vineyardists are able to recognize and exploit these situations to the benefit of the wines made from the grapes.

The overall weather in the region covers a broad range and is unpredictable. Snow and bitter temperatures in the winter share the same location with intense heat and humidity in the summer. Anytime from February to November can see a “rainy season” with the timing of the rains source of constant concern. This has proven that even the most experienced and resourceful grape growers must be their own local weatherman, constantly looking at the sky and feeling the vibe in the vineyard. This is no easy job!


While there is evidence of pre-Iroquois civilization in the region, much of what we know about the area from pre-Colonial and Colonial times comes via the Five Nations of Iroquois  (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca) from which the names of the lakes and rivers in the regions were derived.

Unfortunately the Iroquois largely sided with the British during the American Revolution which led to them being driven from their home in the Fingers Lakes region by Continental Army. After the revolution large swaths of land in the area were given to war veterans with the native Americans finding themselves isolated to reservations. The new settlers colonized the area creating many of the places and traditions we experience there today.

From there a rich history evolved with highlights such the creation of Cornell University in 1865 and the birth of the women’s suffrage movement in Seneca Falls in the early 20th century. More recently the Finger Lakes has secured a place as an outdoor recreation and vacation destination that many people enjoy.

Travel & Tourism

With rich natural beauty in the mountains, rivers and lakes the region has become a destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The growth of the winemaking industry, museums, shopping, golf and motor sports in addition to the boating, fishing and hiking popular in the area means interest in visiting draws people from all corners of the world.

With three formally organized wine trails on Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka lakes, finding the region’s wines is easy and fun. A variety of travel, tourism and wine trail organizations have extensive online information to help visitors from outside the region plan trips that include a rich mix of the activities available. You can find links in the reference section below for more information.

Wine History

And finally to the wine. For the Ancient Fire Wine Blog to take this long in a post to get to the wine is rare, but we felt it was necessary to share what we recently (and newly) learned about the region with our readers. It is a unique and beautiful place and knowing a bit about it before you delve into the wine does help you appreciate it when you do.

And we are going to make you wait even longer for reviews. In this, the last section of the post, we will get you current on the origin of the winemaking in the region and will return starting next week with reviews of where we visited and the wines we recommend people source and try.

Wine in the Finger Lakes region has its first documented history with sacramental wine in Hammondsport in the early 1800’s. Later that century two winemaking companies garnered world-wide attention for their sparkling wines. By 1900 the region had 25,000 acres under vine.

Prohibition, phylloxera and West Coast competition created problems in the 20th century and interest in wines NOT made from the locally hardy native-American grape varieties kept interest in the region’s wines very low well into the 1900’s.

What happened next is where the magical story of the modern epoch of Finger Lakes wines starts. In the early 1950’s a Ukranian immigrant named Dr. Konstantin Frank took work at the Geneva Experiment Station of Cornell University on the northwest corner of Seneca Lake. With experience growing vinifera grapes (noble and well known grape types) in harsh climates he was part of the spark that modernized the winemaking in the region. Within a decade his experience and adamant professions about growing vinifera, experiencing much ridicule of course, were proven with the launch of Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport. Dr. Frank’s wines are known worldwide and the winery is consistently held out as the source of some of the finest the Finger Lakes wine available.

Soon others came from Europe and myriad domestic locations looking to harness the unique geology and climate to make wine.  As of this writing there are over 100 wineries in the region with new operations coming online each year.

Wine is made for many reasons in the Finger Lakes, from true passion for making great wine, a commitment to local agriculture and stewardship of the land, to retirement projects and finally savvy business people using the travel and tourism industry to draw consumers. What does that mean for the quality of the wines you might find? Simply put, it’s all over the place.

The focus of the region is on aromatic whites like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, and rightfully so. These two grapes are a good fit for the soil and climate mitigating some of the uphill battle winemakers experience when trying to coax grapes into wine. And the wines are exciting to smell and taste! Our reviews of these wines will be the ones you will want to pay the closest attention to. Missing the greatest examples of these wines when in the region should be a criminal offense!

There are also bright spots for red wines, but with much less consistency than the whites. There is a vibrant conversation going on amongst the grape growers and winemakers about red wines and their place in the region, which is a very good thing. Just like what I found on my recent trip to Virginia, I didn’t find lots of distinction across the range of red wines, but do have reviews that represent some as real standouts.

There are also wines made from the native and hybrid grapes of the earlier eras, local fruits and grapes that may not be well suited for the place. Some winemakers eschew the native & hybrid grapes entirely, while others believe some plots produce good grapes and wines that are pleasant and worth the time. Use of the local fruits and “fish out of water” grapes are spiced in everywhere with similar motivations.  We tried several of all of these types of wines and I don’t disagree with their existence in theory. Our reviews will help you navigate the morass created here.

Until Next Time

Now that you know a little more about the region, are you thirsty? I know I am, and I was just there! Next week we will begin sharing our winery visits, reviews and pictures from this beautiful place that is calling to us all.





Mardi Michels said...

I can't wait to read your recommendations for this area - we're heading there in November for a long weekend and can't wait!

Jason Phelps said...

@Mardi - you will have a great time! Our trip was filled with recommendations direct from the editors of the New York Cork Report whom I am getting to know. They really do know NY wine and I hope my reviews will do justice to their efforts to steer me well.


Chris and Amy said...

Thanks for the informative and interesting post. We'd love to explore that region sometime soon.

Spice Sherpa said...

Wish I'd known you were here! I live by Lake Ontario by Rochester and we were just in Naples on Sept. 18th!!

I'm originally a California girl but this lovely part of the country has captured my heart. I enjoyed your post.