Are You a Finger Lakes Wine Snob?

Photo by Robyn Wishna.

Are You a Finger Lakes Wine Snob?

Some longtime Ithacans still think Finger Lakes Wines are overpriced or overrated. That’s so ten years ago.

Photo by Robyn Wishna.

A decade or so ago, you might have heard grumblings about Finger Lakes wines not being all they were cracked up to be. Maybe you’d even done some grumbling yourself—and you might have had good reason. “The Finger Lakes have put out a whole lot of sweet schlock over the years,” says Dave Breeden, the winemaker at Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid. “But the quality of our wines has risen remarkably in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Now, with the Finger Lakes producing award-winning Rieslings and garnering 90+ ratings, it might be time to take another sip. Here are five things that have changed over the past decade.

1. Getting to know the land.

No one believed Dr. Konstantin Frank could make old-world European vinifera vines thrive in the much colder climate of upstate New York. Even after he succeeded in the ’60s, grafting varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer onto Canadian root stock, it took a while for others in the region to switch from the sweeter native grapes and French-American hybrids to vinifera, which produces more complex, longer-lived wines.

But even within the Finger Lakes, there are lots of microclimates that affect how grapes grow. And though there’s been lots of experimentation over the last half century, says Breeden, “we are just beginning to fully understand not only what grapes to grow and how to grow them, but on what sites they should grow.”

2. Perfecting the art of winemaking.

Breeden also credits Thomas Henick-Kling, a Cornell professor who led enological research with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension until 2007: “He took the outreach part of his job description very seriously,” says Breeden. “He’d go to wineries and say, ‘This is not good. Here’s how to make it good.’ He’d look at what was happening in a vintage and send e-mails addressing the challenges people might face. He really helped us come a long way.”

3. The payoff: awards on the international scene.

“Right now, we have been getting kudos from a lot of places,” says Staci Nugent, winemaker at Keuka Lake Vineyards. Finger Lakes wines have been making a name for themselves in international blind tasting competitions, like the Riesling du Monde, Pinot Gris du Monde, and Canberra International Challenge. “People don’t realize that this could be the next Napa or Sonoma,” says Nugent.

4. More payoff: coveted 90+ ratings.

On NPR last month, you might have heard Evan Dawson, morning anchor of WHAM-TV in Rochester and the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. Nothing produced in the Finger Lakes earned 90 or higher on the wine scale until 2008, he noted. “Then, early in 2009, three more [did], and now it’s happening with regularity,” he said.

5. Look who’s joining the party.

Louis Barruol may not be a household name in Tompkins County (yet), but he is a big deal in the wine world. And what’s an even bigger deal is that Barruol, vigneron of the famous Château de Saint-Cosme winery in France’s Rhône Valley, searched the world for a spot to start a new venture and chose the Finger Lakes over Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—quite the endorsement. Look for 2011 vintages of Riesling and pinot noir from Forge Cellars, though with production at just 300 cases each, don’t expect a bargain. For good Finger Lakes value right now, see page 21.

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