The port of entry for Jean Leon’s great adventure. Tourist destination par excellence and cradle of urban cosmopolitanism: New York gives its residents access to wines from every corner of the world, but many might not be aware that their home state is the country’s second largest wine producer, right behind the wine giant, California.
The fact that the industry itself seemed to exist outside of the wine world might be one reason. Local vitis lambrusca dominated the vineyards, very sweet varieties grown for juice and jelly production along the agricultural belt that extends southward from the shores of Lake Erie.
Now the sector is reinventing itself, a process where climate change is also a factor. It is striving for winemaking excellence by adapting European vitis vinifera.
Young new wineries (most of them barely twenty years old) are in charge of leading this revolution, and they are starting with French hybrids. Most of the wineries are located in Finger Lakes, Long Island and along the Hudson River, comprising what one might call the holy trinity of the state’s winemaking resurgence.
Long Island or the American Bordeaux
This is New York’s youngest wine region and the one generating the highest expectations. The island has 1,215 hectares under vine, planted with classic varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernets and Merlots…
The similarities to Bordeaux do not end there. Long Island shares its particular ocean influence, which tempers the climate and blurs seasonal boundaries. Like Bordeaux it also produces pleasant wines with refreshing structure. We’re eagerly awaiting the future.
The spirit of Finger Lakes
Finger Lakes is the name given to the deep glacial valleys in upstate New York, south of the small inland sea that is Lake Ontario. It is a bucolic setting amid forested hills and lakes that offers the visitor vignettes of the Victorian era, the lasting legacy of British colonial life, and a winegrowing heritage dating back to 1850.
Stretching out from the “hand” of Lake Ontario, three “fingers” are crucial to tempering the climate. The Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka lakes not only constitute three winegrowing subregions (AVAs in the US) but also three natural boundaries that mitigate the harsh winters. However, this is still an extreme climate, where temperatures often dip as low as -20ºC, which poses a serious threat to the survival of the vines.
In terms of varieties, this climatic reality translates into an overwhelming majority of American vines—hardier than their European counterparts, which are in an absolute minority here, making up a miniscule 15% of the region’s 4,000 hectares. That being said, the winemaking potential of the region can be found in this small percentage of European viniferas.
During the 1960s, a Ukrainian doctor called Konstantin Frank proved that relatively early-ripening vitis vinifera, like Riesling and Chardonnay, could adapt to the harsh conditions of Finger Lakes with the help of the right rootstock.
Riesling has cold-tolerant wood, and its protective powers allow the variety to endure the severe winters, winning out over Chardonnay, which did not yield optimal results in the region. Nowadays, the finest Rieslings of Finger Lakes offer an interesting counterpoint to the highly regarded varietals from southern Australia.
The Hudson River: in search of an identity
Few rivers have been depicted on the big screen as much as the Hudson, and Jean Leon undoubtedly stood on its shores and let his gaze and imagination soar… But beyond celluloid glamour and the glow of legend, the Hudson was the first place to see a commercial harvest in New York state. The year was 1839.
These days, vitis vinifera still struggles to fully adapt to the harsh climate conditions, tempered only by the influence of the Hudson itself.
Local vineyards are planted exclusively with French hybrids, but the insistent push of climate change combined with the work of bold, visionary winemakers promises a future devoted to viniferas like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, even Friulano.
We have to be patient. New York is on the rise, one of the fledgling “rara avis” emerging from a new climatic context that threatens to rearrange the current world map of varieties.
Always a winning destination, we are keeping an eye on New York, our minds and palates open to the quiet revolution taking place amid the lakes.