New York (Finger Lakes)
About 300 miles northwest of New York City lies a beautiful wine region with 11 north-to-south parallel lakes sculpted by Ice Age glaciers 10,000 years ago. The Finger Lakes region’s cool climate, “lake effect” temperature moderation, glacial soils, and sloping topography combine to make it one of the world’s finest Riesling-producing areas.
While Riesling grapes are grown and wines made in other winegrowing regions of New York State, the Finger Lakes accounts for more than 90% of total production as well as an international reputation for consistently producing quality Rieslings in all styles from dry to sweet, including ice wines.
Riesling’s rise is due to a combination of fortunate geography, pioneering vision, industry cooperation, world-class research, and strong promotion.
The glacier-carved lakes provide Nature’s heating system and air conditioning throughout the year for nearby vineyards. By remaining warmer than winter’s air and cooler in the summer, the large bodies of water create a beneficial temperature moderating effect reflected by the fact that vineyards are commonly planted close to the lakes. The glacial soils provide good water drainage, and the sloping hillsides create “air drainage” so the cold air in fall and winter slides down to the lakes where it warmed and, at harvest, creates unique “lake effect” clouds exactly in the shape of the lakes below. It is fascinating to watch.
European immigrants have been largely responsible for the “Riesling Revolution” which many once thought impossible. By far the key figure was viticulturist Dr. Konstantin Frank, who proved that delicate European grape varieties like Riesling could not only survive, but thrive, in the cool Finger Lakes climate if they were planted in the right place with the right rootstock and tended properly. However, Frenchman Charles Fournier also played a vital role in giving Dr. Frank the opportunity to initially conduct his bold experiment for Gold Seal Vineyards in the 1950’s. Much later, German-born Hermann J. Wiemer created a nursery, vineyard and winery focused on Riesling which today, like Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, remains a Finger Lakes Riesling icon.
Today, in a region where “they said it couldn’t be done”, there are more than 700 acres of Riesling grapes and roughly 100 wineries which produce a total of about 100,000 cases a year.
The quality revolution in Finger Lakes Riesling derives from a combination of industry cooperation and world-class research. Finger Lake grape growers and wine makers are incredibly cooperative, eagerly sharing knowledge and experience that can help everyone make better wines—which in turn enhances the region’s reputation. One tangible example: Winemakers from three different wineries collaborate on a Riesling called Tierce, which has won top awards in many international competitions and which Riesling expert/wine writer Dan Berger wrote “may be the best dry Riesling ever made in America”.
Cornell University researchers and extension professionals have also played a key role with superb viticultural and enological studies on ways to improve the quality of Riesling wines. A study currently underway involves indentifying and explaining the different aroma and taste characteristics of Rieslings from different lakes or even vineyards.
Just as Oregon became famous for Pinot Noir and New Zealand for Sauvignon Blanc, many Finger Lakes producers believe Riesling is their ticket to international awareness and respect as a high-quality wine region. The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, along with the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, have collaborated to put a spotlight on Finger Lakes Rieslings with the media, trade, and consumers.