If you haven’t tasted what the east coast has to offer as far as world-class wine, it’s time to make a trip to The Finger Lakes! You could also choose to seek out one of the many game-changing red, white, or sparkling bottles hitting the market.
The Finger Lakes caught my attention when a bottle of Ravines Cabernet Franc was added to the wine list of a restaurant where I was working at the time. It was unlike any other Cabernet Franc I had tasted before; a punch of dark berry and herbacousness with fresh minerality shining through. This specific wine catapulted me into learning more about this cool climate east coast wine region and the renaissance it’s having with wine!
Located in the heart of New York, stretching between Rochester and Syracuse, there are 11 lakes that look very much like fingerprint impressions. The lakes were carved out by melting glaciers a couple million years ago. The Iroquois tribes believed the lakes were formed by the Great Spirit, reaching down to bless the land and leaving ‘fingerprints’ that were filled with fresh water.
The lakes themselves are unique and beautiful, but they are also necessary for optimal winegrowing, as they help moderate temperature and provide drainage from the hillsides.
The biggest wine-growing areas are centered around three of the 11 lakes. These are (from E-W):
- Keuka – The only lake shaped like a Y and the most hilly and scenic
- Seneca – “The anchor of the region” and the most popular (half of the region’s wineries are here)
- Cayuga- The largest lake, once known for commercial transportation. (The city of Ithaca and Cornell University are located directly south of this one.)
Wines from this region have been produced from many varieties since the 1860s.
A lot of history surrounds the sweet and concentrated styles of wine made from native and French-hybrid grapes like Concord and Niagara. Eventually, heads started turning to the fresh, dry styles of Riesling, from producers like Hermann J. Wiemer and Dr. Konstantin Franc. Now the region is realizing its potential to create delicious expressions from more obscure grapes like Rkatsiteli (an aromatic white grape) and Saperavi (a full-bodied red grape), both originating from Georgia. As well as light, spicy, and fresh reds like Blaufränkish (also known as Lemberger) and Zweigelt originating from Austria.
The wines overall are best known for their elegance and charm. Refined and bright in style. Many will tell you they are similar to what you would find in cool climate regions of France (such as Alsace and Burgundy).
The producers here are plenty! Some are able to widely distribute their bottles, but there are also many without tasting rooms and limited distribution.
So what should you seek out?
Here are a few solid producers, with good distribution, that you’ll most likely be able to find some bottles either near you or online!
Recommendations are from my own tastes, as well as a few from the experiences of Adrian Prieto (Finger Lakes wine writer and wine consultant) and Dave DeGolyer (Communications Manager at Explore Steuben).
1. Dr Konstantin Frank
One of the pioneers of the region, Konstantin was a Ukrainian immigrant who moved to the area in 1952. He saw the potential to make great European-style wines (despite quite a bit of resistance). The winery grows around 15 varieties, but more than half is Riesling. The winery also makes some of the best sparkling wine, which they started producing in the 1980’s.
2. Hermann J Weimer
Known for all types of Riesling (and some of the best). They also do a variety of well-known dry white and red varieties. Hermann Wiemer also has a dedicated nursery and grafts vines for many producers across the country. For Wiemer, the “house style” has a little more ripeness and even the dry Riesling is rarely below 6 grams RS.
I’ve already spoken of their Cabernet Franc, but they produce varieties across the board, and Riesling is their most well-known! In contrast to Wiemer, the Riesling is always and only very dry. They do not make any Riesling in sweet styles (or even off dry). If you’re looking for the classic FLX ‘old school’ dry Riesling, Ravines is the benchmark.
4. Heart and Hands Wine Company
For many years, they only produced Pinot Noir and Riesling, sourcing from various vineyards, with a very small farm for estate Pinot Noir. They have now planted more and have access to estate fruit. The whites are great, but they shine with Pinot Noir consistently, which has been their focus since their start. Their estate and winery are in the middle of nowhere and sit directly on dolomitic limestone, which is exactly why they chose to buy the land and plant Pinot Noir.
5. Weis Vineyards
“When you combine charm, accessibility, hard work, talent, a passion for following the family legacy, and exceptional wines, you have Weis!” Born in Mosel, Germany, winemaker Hans Peter Weis pursues his passion of crafting traditional German-style wines for all to enjoy. From Riesling to Pinot Noir, the winery has a lot to offer. Only a few months after they released their first vintage (May 2017) Peter was establishing the winery as one of the best around winning awards all over the US.
6. Domaine LeSeurre
Neighbors with Weis and also friends. These winemakers, from France, offer a different perspective on dry wines. Their techniques are different from others (they rely on their tastebuds more than technology to determine when the grapes and the wines are ready) and, as a result, their wines are different from most other regional wineries. They are bright and refined, terroir-driven, food-friendly, and top-notch.
There are also many small production bottles and wineries here.
I stopped in to Point of the Bluff Vineyards on my visit. Newer to the wine scene there and making some exceptional bottles of Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Rose. Not only was the wine good, the hospitality was fantastic and the winery is doing some fun and outside of the box endeavors. They jumped into the canned wine scene and added a farmers market and concert venue as well.
Like this one, a lot of wineries will have plenty of unique bottles for sale and to try, but only a handful will be in distribution. A huge reason to come visit and explore what the region has to offer!
A visit to The Finger Lakes will give you a taste of some of the magic happening on the east coast right now. The farms are frequent and the views are magnificent, with waterfalls, gorges, and rolling hills that run down to meet the shoreline of 11 glacial lakes where some quality world-class wines are showcasing their charm. The wine scene is growing and winemakers are doing great things with benchmark varieties but also more obscure and interesting grapes! From sweet to bone dry there are styles for everyone here!
Kendeigh Worden is a Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, and WSET student. Largely, a dedicated wine lover, enamored with the beverage, the people involved, and all of the nerdy details! Despite having a Master's in Education, she was swept away from teaching to pursue wine after working a summer job in fine dining. She's been in the food and beverage industry for over ten years and is an avid supporter of sharing the journey of constantly learning. After COVID and the arrival of her third baby, she moved from restaurants to doing private events, tastings, and consults both online and in person. She also shares educational resources and study materials on her website thegrapegrind.com. When she doesn't have her nose in a wine book or wine glass, you’ll find her with her biggest love(s) of all, her three children.