Most wine regions evolve around a specific grape or blend of grapes that best grow in that particular region, and best translate the unique flavor of the land itself. Sometimes, this can take centuries to zone in on. As they say, practice makes perfect.
For example, in certain regions of Europe, over many centuries, they have discovered that the local climate can bring the best or the worst out of any particular grape. After lots of experimentation, the region of Chianti, Italy, chose the red Sangiovese to be their hero. In Burgundy, France, the white grape reigns supreme in Chardonnay, while the red Pinot Noir is the only grape that perfectly showcases the differences in the myriad of vineyards there. In Rioja, Spain, there is no question that the red Tempranillo grape will be their rock for centuries to come.
In the New World, California has fallen in love with Cabernet Sauvignon, and Argentina worships the mighty Malbec. Of course, Australia is king among Shiraz lovers, and southerly New Zealand has staked its claim to Sauvignon Blanc.
As I toured through the Finger Lakes last week, I realized that we are still a land of great diversity. And why not? We are a very young region in the grand scheme of things, and our history has dictated quite a smorgasbord of flavors, with many different grapes being grown and ultimately showing their best stuff.
There are actually three different species of grapes being grown here. The only ones that are indigenous are the Native American grapes, or Vitis Labrusca (no relation to Lambrusco which is an Italian wine). The Labrusca grapes have been here for quite some time. They are extremely hardy and can withstand cold winters. You may recognize some of them. For whites, you’ll find Niagara, Diamond, and Delaware. The reds include Concord and Catawba. The wines display good acidity and lots of fruity flavors that are sometimes referred to as “foxy.” Years ago, New York State was known for its Lake Niagara and Pink Catawba in good size jugs. And they are still popular to this day.
Then came the French/American Hybrids. The grape varieties were a cross between the local grapes and the distinguished European vines (which up until then were unable to grow well in Upstate New York). They were developed in France to help combat the deadly plague of phylloxera that was ravishing the vineyards of Europe. Sadly, the pest came from America. This little pest attacked the vines from the rootstock, but our domestic vines were resistant, thus the idea of crossing our hardy stock with the more fragile vinifera. It worked. And a whole new breed of vines was born. You will still find them growing superbly in the Finger Lakes. For whites, look for Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles, Cayuga White, and Traminette. The reds appear as Baco Noir, CeChaunac, Chambourcin, Chancellor, and Marechol Foch. These wines combine American hardiness with more refined French flavor. They are amazingly delicious and totally food friendly.
Finally, thanks to much effort and perseverance by a handful of wine growers, the European Vitis Vinifera wines have now taken a stronghold here in the land of the lakes. In the past fifty years, we have managed to catch up on centuries of wine savvy, and are now producing some of the world’s most elegant vinifera. They include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling for whites. And the reds are the well-known Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Lemberger (also known as Blaufrankisch).
With so many grapes to choose from, which grape is taking center stage? Well, although we have lots more time to figure it out, there is no question that Riesling is our rock star. In hot years, it is divine. In cold years, it is beautiful. This grape has taken to New York like white on rice. And we are being recognized worldwide for a style that has become distinctly Finger Lakes.
Another stand out is Dry Rosé wine, being made from a variety of red grapes and produced in a dry Provence style. Quite a change from the sweeter Pink Catawba wines. But that is the beauty of our region. There just seems to be a wine for everyone!