Most people immediately think of Napa when considering U.S. wine vacations, but it’s time to look to the other coast: Finger Lakes wineries in upstate New York are crafting some of the most exciting and undiscovered wines in the country.
The area started producing wine in the 1800’s but it wasn’t until the 1950’s, when Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD in viticulture, began in-depth research into the region’s potential. His findings started a revolution in quality winemaking and along with Charles Fournier, a French Champagne maker and Hermann J Wiemer, an emigrant from Germany’s Mosel Valley, these cool-climate experts began laying the groundwork for the burgeoning FLX wine scene.
Today, winemakers are creating “interesting, cool, clean wines,” says Mollie Battenhouse, a certified Master of Wine. Riesling is the region’s calling card, with over 200 brands being produced in a range of styles. But winemakers are also playing with other varieties that thrive in the climate, such as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer, along with some delicious oddballs, like Teroldego. There’s a domino effect happening: as Riesling’s awards and accolades continuously roll in, “people keep buying more and demanding more so winemakers are starting to think about what other varieties will be strong for them,” says Battenhouse.
People are also looking north because the region is a naturally suited to create the styles of wines everyone is currently clamoring for: aromatic white and low-alcohol, high-acid reds, notes Battenhouse. Other winemakers, like famed California winemaker Paul Hobbs, are dialing into the region’s potential and starting to set up shop.
Be on the forefront of this wine scene: Here’s a road map of must-visit producers, and their standout wines, to check out during your summer weekend getaway.
Anthony Road Wine Company
This family-run winery got its start growing French-American hybrid grapes in the 1970’s and primarily selling their crop to larger wine corporations. By the 1980’s, demand dramatically decreased, but owners John and Ann Martini took it in stride; they replanted the vineyard with popular international varieties and began producing their own bottlings. Today, 2.5 acres of their 25 acre vineyard is used as a teaching vineyard for local universities, such as Cornell. Their Pinot Gris shows why this grape is a potential superstar for the region.
Riesling is the singular focus at this relatively new winery on the far northeast corner of Seneca Lake. By working with established area winemakers, and through intense concentration on the grape’s behaviors and nuances, owner Bruce Murray and his team are creating some of the most exciting Rieslings coming out of the region. The Riesling #239 is a must-taste.
Owner Scott Osborn’s love of Chardonnay brought him to the Finger Lakes, and Fox Run’s unoaked Chardonnay is nothing short of electric. Also not to be missed is the Tierce Riesling; a collaboration among Fox Run, Anthony Road Wine Company, and Red Newt Cellars, it was served at the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Luncheon (pour one out for the former POTUS).
Hermann J. Wiemer
A forefather of the FLX wine industry, this winery has remained a pillar of the region and one of the most recognized names. Fred Merwarth, Hermann’s apprentice, officially took over as head winemaker in 2007 and his innate understanding of the FLX results in consistently superior wines. Praise is heaped upon their Rieslings but to really see quality winemaking in action, try their Magdalena Vineyard Cabernet Franc, a lush and spicy version of a notoriously finicky grape.
Red Newt Cellars
Enticing scents emanate from every corner of this winery; not only is their focus on aromatic varietals, but their bistro was named one of America’s Best Winery Restaurants by Food & Wine. They’re a Riesling specialist, but the exemplary Gewürztraminer, with notes of rose, lychee, and spice, is a pepper-infused dish’s dream pairing.
Red Tail Ridge
Come for the Teroldego (a crazy-cool Italian varietal), stay for the lesson in sustainability. As the first LEED Gold-certified winery in New York, winemaker Nancy Irelan is leading eco-responsibility in the region.
Kris Matthewson’s youthful energy belies this young gun’s expertise. Drawing inspiration from German-style Riesling, while respecting Finger Lakes terroir, he produces cult-status wines with laser-like focus and precision. Particularly of note is his A&D Dry Riesling, with luscious peach, slate, and flint notes with a round, textured mouthfeel. Kris also produces excellent ciders, another specialty of the Finger Lakes.
Heart and Hands Wine Company
Husband and wife team Tom and Susan Higgins have a deft hand with Pinot Noir. Seeing similarities in their soils to those in Burgundy, they strive to produce complex yet balanced wines. Their knowledge of Finger Lakes terroir in unsurpassed; chat with Tom for five minutes and you’ll realize how interesting soil can be (seriously!). One to try is the Mo Chuisle, which roughly translates to “My Darling,” and was named to honor the relationship the winemaker has with his vineyard.
Dr. Konstantin Frank/Chateau Frank
This eponymous winery from one of the pioneers of Finger Lakes wines is a mandatory visit. Their large portfolio showcase a breadth of quality wines, including up-and-coming grapes such as Gruner Veltliner. In the 1980s, they opened Chateau Frank, a neighboring winery dedicated solely to Champagne-inspired sparkling wines. With the fourth generation taking the reigns at this venerable house, expect new and innovative experiences, such as the VIP experience “1886 Reserve Tasting Room,” which treats guests to a cellar tour and a tasting of library wines paired with creative bites.
Started by Master Sommelier Christopher Bates, Element Winery turns its attention to red wines. Of particular note is the Syrah; often thought of as a grape that thrives in warm climates, Element showcases how it’s a wine of structure and refinement in colder regions. Although they don’t have a tasting room, you can find the wines at Bates’ casual eatery The Wienery, his new upscale bistro FLX Table, as well as at various restaurants around the area.