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Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of the Finger Lakes
— A Visit to Wineries along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail —
A lot can happen in five and half years. And that goes even for wine, medical an industry much of whose progress hinges on the oscillation of the seasons and whose development is slow and steady. It was the winter of 2008 when I last wrote about the Finger Lakes region, patient and my sense is that the winemaking there has definitely evolved. Much of what I’d learned about the area at the time came from my interview with New York wine publicist, find Melissa Dobson. Both exciting and enlightening, our conversation painted a picture of a region long involved in the production of wine from indigenous grapes, but which only recently has garnered attention for its work with European varieties. More relevantly, the interview planted a seed of curiosity that inspired me to take advantage of a recent trip there to visit some local wineries.
A Favorable Climate and Soil
Somewhat surprising and thanks in part to its long history in winegrowing, the Finger Lakes region is second only to California in domestic wine production. In fact, the area boasts well over 100 wineries, most of whose vineyards are located up and down the strips of land between the lakes themselves. These long, narrow, deep bodies of water (suggestive of giant fingers) and the sloping shale beds above them, were formed by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age—and are key to the region's ideal winegrowing climate. The combination of deep lakes and steep slopes allows for the optimal drainage of air, resulting in fewer extremes of temperature in winter and summer. These dynamics make the Finger Lakes more temperate than the greater surrounding area, and therefore optimal for grape growing.
Historically, the grapes used for winemaking here have been native American varieties along with some French-American hybrids. But today, there are significantly more plantings of European (vinifera) grapes. Most of these have been aromatic white varieties: Gewurtztraminer and Riesling, the variety now most often associated with Finger Lakes wine. Just as in its German homeland, Riesling grows extremely well here, often expressing nuances according to vineyard site, and has become one of the most articulated and commercially successful varieties here.
A Focus on Seneca Lake
Most of the Finger Lakes area vineyard plantings are concentrated around four of its eleven lakes, Canandaigua, Keuka, Cayuga, and Seneca. It was to the last of these where I’d concentrated my visit, along what’s known as the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. At numerous points along this route, one is met with stunning views of the placid lake juxtaposed against a dramatic backdrop of rolling vine rows. The scenery as a whole abounds with a richness, texture, and complexity rivaled only by the wines made from these vineyards.
Over all, the wines of the Seneca Lake area are sensational. And they’re very clearly a source of pride for its producers, who (as with the rest of the region as a whole) share a culture of collaboration in promoting and advancing the local wine industry. Of course, there's still a sense of competition, which is to be expected among the players of any wine region, but it’s functionally balanced with a collective willingness to share resources and knowledge. Visiting some of the wineries, I got a strong sense of community among their respective staff, owners, and winemakers, all of whom were very welcoming and excited to tell their stories. Among these, four in particular stood out.