Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Finger Lakes, NY: Lake Seneca Viticulture and Vinification

The Finger Lakes, New York State
Lake Seneca Viticulture and Vinification

A view looking south over Lake Seneca, the deepest lake in New York at 617', from Long Pier in Geneva, NY.

The Finger Lakes in NY is a cool-climate agricultural region that has historically been the home to many vitis labrusca grape varieties like Catawba and our adored Concord grape.  The first commercial winery in the Finger Lakes was established in 1863 making sacramental wines from these and other native grape varieties.

Vines wrapped around a trellis, left after winter pruning at the Boundary Breaks vineyard.

Serious wine making can be attributed to Dr. Konstantine Frank, an agriculture Ph.D. who came to the US from Europe to teach at Cornell University in 1951.  The introduction of European grape varieties, an academic approach to grape growing and the development of vine grafting have been major factors in the premium wine industry of the Finger Lakes.  Wineries like Hermann J. Wiemer are on the cutting edge of viticultural research.  One of Wiemer's vineyards is dedicated to the production of vine scions and research of more than 60 different Riesling clones from German and French vineyards.

The geography of the Finger Lakes creates many microclimates, suitable for different grapes and styles of wine.  Lake Seneca is the deepest lake in NY state.  At 617' deep, it doesn't freeze in the winter despite upstate NY having some of the most snow and coldest temperatures in the continental US.  During the growing season, this keeps the vines cool in hot days and warm during the cool nights.  The lake effect also creates strong breezes to help dry off clusters of grapes which are very prone to botrytis cinerea (aka bunch rot or grey mold).

Looking down from the east bank of Lake Seneca.

The major factors affecting terrior in the vineyards of the Finger Lakes are depth of the lake, proximity to the water, slope and aspect.  The depth of the lake determines the intensity of the lake effect.  Depending on the proximity to the water, the temperature regulation and the breeze created by the lake are realized at different levels.  Combined, the depth of the lake and proximity to the water create VERY diverse micro-climates, even in relation to a single lake.

The slope of the vineyards and their aspect can have major affects on the drainage and sun exposure for vines.  Depending on where a vine is on the lake, and what direction it is facing, different vine training systems are used to either maximize sun exposure, or shield grapes and/or to allow good air circulation.  Many vine rows are planted parallel with the lake to maximize sun exposure, in which case the plant's leaf canopy is trained over the western side of the row and is thinned from the eastern side .  This allows the morning sun to directly contact the grapes and dry off the night's dew to prevent botrytis and ripen the grapes.

Some vineyards are located along parts of the lake that allow thier vineyard managers to plant the vine rows perpendicular to the lake, so that there is greater air circulation between the vines.  This allows the grapes to dry off without sun, so they can stay on the vines for additional time.  This allows for more phenolic ripeness and possibly higher sugar levels if there isn't rain right before harvest.

Young vines being being pruned in the Scott-Henry vine trellis system.

The fruit-first mentality of many Finger Lakes winemakers benefits from a low-intervention style of wine making.  Although there are many different levels of wine quality coming from the region, the best winemakers do not practice any sort of wine "doctoring" like chaptalization (adding sugar to increase the potential alcohol) or acidification.  Some winemakers, like Hermann J Wiemer don't inoculate their wines, and allow fermentation to happen naturally from wild yeast.  Depending on the harvest date, the warmer ambient temperature for earlier harvests can help to kick start the fermentation process.  Contrarily, the cooler ambient temperature for later harvests may sometimes delay the fermentation process, sometimes leaving the juice to age and develop all winter until fermentation takes off with the arrival of warmer spring temperatures the follow year.

Hermann J. Wiemer's current release 2012 Reserve Riesling.  Many of the plots that went into this reserve wine were harvested at later dates, and didn't start fermentation until the follow spring.
Many of the premium wines coming from the Finger Lakes are dominated by Riesling, but excellent quality Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay based sparkling wines are being produced.

The tasting room at Hermann Wiemer is in the same renovated barn were they make the wines.
The calcitic soils that are a continuation of the Niagara escarpment line many of the roads as you drive around the Finger Lakes.  These cliffs are carved out in many spots creating beautiful waterfalls between vineyard sites.

1 comment:

  1. As a wine enthusiast, my travels have taken me to a wide variety of vineyards and wine areas of France and Italy, and of course to the wonderful gardens of the wineries and surrounding places. Such spectacular fountains, planters and statuary! Citrus and olive trees in beautiful planters, stone statuary in the midst of bubbling fountains, elaborate terra cotta creations…. Imagine my pleasure, then, when I walked into Authentic Provence in West Palm Beach, Florida. In a beautiful environment of running water and good smells, the owners have sourced one of the finest collections of European garden antiques that I have seen in the USA: statues, fountains, planters (note especially the classic Caisse de Versailles, and Anduze pottery), terra cotta shields, stone animals, copper pots, garden spouts, etc. They also have beautiful stone fireplaces, re-purposed tiles, and many other specialty items. They are available online at, and can arrange shipping anywhere in the US. Well worth a visit!