The Finger Lakes in New York is a sight to see. With sloping hills of limestone and picturesque lakeside views, it’s no surprise it’s a tourist destination, with more than 20 million visitors flocking to the area annually and spending approximately $2.9 billion during their stay.
The wine industry is a big draw, with more than 9,393 acres of vineyards planted in the microclimates of the 11 finger-shaped lakes. These vineyards produce more than 54,600 tons of grapes a year for the 119 bonded wineries in the Finger Lakes.
Vitis vinifera varieties have a storied past with the region which was once predominantly planted with ‘Concord’ grapes, thanks to Dr. Konstantin Frank. Frank introduced vinifera to the region in the 1960s, showing the varieties could grow in a cool, wet climate. Frank’s forward-thinking attitude toward planting was continued with Hermann Wiemer, who established early plantings of ‘Riesling,’ further moving the Finger Lakes wine industry forward in the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact, the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the largest wine-growing region in New York, established in 1982. The AVA includes Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka, and Seneca lakes. Cayuga and Seneca lakes are officially recognized as their own distinct AVAs.
‘Riesling,’ ‘Pinot Noir,’ ‘Chardonnay,’ and ‘Cabernet Franc,’ are among some of the favored plantings in the area. The Finger Lakes AVA boasts more than 850 acres of ‘Riesling’ which produces more than 220,000 cases of wine each year. This area is also home to 220 different ‘Riesling’ brands. Although ‘Riesling’ may take the cake, varieties such as ‘Gewürztraminer,’ ‘Pinot Gris,’ and ‘Lemberger’ are also popular.
The Variety Specialist
Sawmill Creek Vineyards in Hector, NY, overlooks Seneca Lake. This vineyard is known for varieties not typically planted in the region, after fifth-generation grower Jim Hazlitt began converting his vineyard from ‘Concord’ to varieties never planted before in the Finger Lakes, thanks to world travel.
“He’d try wines and come back and plant one or two rows to see if it would grow here,” says Jim’s son, Eric Hazlitt.
“It was out of survival,” Jim Hazlitt says, noting the change in the ‘Concord’ prices prompted him to explore other varieties.
Sawmill Creek currently has about 80% of its 85-acre vineyard planted with vinifera varieties, and about 20% with French-American hybrids.
“The biggest challenge with a new variety is not knowing if it will handle the temperatures,” Eric Hazlitt says.
Although Seneca Lake, the deepest of the 11, can provide insulation to the harsh winters, Hazlitt says temperatures can dip down to 0°F or even as low as -9°F, and that can challenge some of the vinifera varieties.
Temperatures in Hector have been too cold to successfully grow ‘Sangiovese,’ which most people know as ‘Chianti,’ Tina Hazlitt, Eric’s wife, says. The trouble, she says, is wineries still want the difficult varieties, telling them “don’t rip it out.”
‘Pinot Noir’ is one Tina Hazlitt calls a ‘heartbreak grape.’
“It takes a lot of work — $5,000 per acre — for management. We don’t get paid enough per ton and it’s hard to get high tons per acre,” she says.
The Hazlitts have also been challenged by ‘Vignoles,’ which is prone to noble rot.
“They look beautiful one day, and the next they don’t,” says Eric Hazlitt.