Way back in the 1980s I travelled to the Finger Lakes on a brief voyage of vinous exploration and fell in love with much of what I saw and tasted. I returned a few years later to research The Wines of the Americas, published in 1990, in which I wrote that “over the last 20 years, a small band of keen individualists have done their utmost to prove that New York wines can compete with the best in the US.”
Today, nearly 40 years after my first trip, the number of wineries has grown from 14 in 1976 to over 440, the range of styles has become a lot broader, and the wines have quietly grown in volume, quality and prestige.
So what makes New York wines different? First there’s the climate. The seven quite diverse regions all enjoy a cool climate that favours fresh-tasting wines. For a long time, however, winegrowers believed that the temperatures were too low, and focused on growing cold-resistant native labrusca grapes not associated with fine wine. Then in the 1930s, a nurseryman Philip Wagner began to popularise hybrids that combined the characteristics of French vinifera with the hardiness of labrusca. Pioneers such as Dr Konstantin Frank and Hermann Wiemer followed proving that, thanks to the effects of the ocean and the lakes, there are microclimates in which, given the appropriate skills, vinifera can thrive.
The Hudson Valley including the Hudson River Region AVA and the Upper Hudson AVA
The 11 long narrow lakes giving this region its name are very deep, with a history stretching back 360m years. Thanks to Dr Frank, Riesling became a star variety, but specific combinations of factors – soil, altitude, distance from a Finger Lake and from a Great Lake – are encouraging producers to grow varieties like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch and especially Cabernet Franc.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Long Island has a moderate climate that makes it perfect for vinifera. The biggest challenge for winemakers here is the price of land. Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the key varietals.
Lake Erie, Niagara and Champlain Valley
These cooler regions are all evolving too but have received less attention. Lake Erie, which separates the USA from Canada, is huge – with 7,200ha of vines, mostly planted with Concord grapes that make better juice than wine. The Niagara Escarpment, south of Lake Ontario, makes ice wine too, but also produces increasingly impressive Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. The Champlain Valley has 48ha of grapes and 21 farms focussing on hybrids.