Last week we began a series of articles exploring wines from unexpected places. Our adventure began with the seemingly unlikely destination of Uruguay, which entered the international wine market just a little more than 30 years ago. Today, we’re off to a destination with a considerably longer (but rather surprising) wine history. Entirely off the radar screen for most wine lovers, New York state produces an impressive amount of wine, ranking #3 of all US states (beat out only by California and, rather recently, Washington state). New York is also home to the oldest operating winery in North America, The Brotherhood Winery, founded in 1839 in the Hudson River Region AVA (American Viticultural Area). The Hudson River Region AVA is also home to the oldest established vineyard in North America, the Benmarl Vineyard. Even more surprising is that wine production began in the same Hudson River Valley as early as the 17th century. So why is it so surprising to so many people that New York state makes so much wine and has such a long wine history. The answer may be as simple as crop selection. . .
For much of New York’s wine history, it has been assumed that the state was simply too cold to successfully plant the European vitis vinifera grapes that are favored for quality wine production. As such, early planting in the state focused on American vitis labrusca (no relation to the Italian wine lambrusco) grapes (mostly Concord) and American hybrids such as Catawba, Delaware, and Niagara (along with a host of other lesser-known grapes), which have the benefits of being much more cold-hardy than most vinifera grapes and of being resistant to the root-louse phylloxera, which destroyed European vineyards in the mid-to-late 19th century. Unfortunately, vitis labrusca grapes tend to produce wines with flavors that are generally considered undesirable and are often described as “foxy” (and not in a “Hey, foxy lady” kind of way — more in a “tastes like animal fur” kind of way). . . These vitis labrusca and American hybrid grapes are still widely planted in New York state (with more than 80% of acreage devoted to these grapes, most of that being Concord), but are largely produced for tourist consumption. Significant improvements in quality were achieved with the planting of French hybrids, such as Seyval blanc and Vidal blanc (the latter being used largely for the production of ice-wine) in the early and middle part of the 1900s.
The real game changing moment, however, came in 1953, when Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant who spoke no English (but did speak nine other languages) and was working as a dishwasher, was hired by Gold Seal Winery winemaker (and former Veuve Clicquot winemaker) Charles Fournier to lead field experiments at the Cornell University Geneva Experiment Station in the Finger Lakes region. Having earned his Ph.D. in viticulture from the Odessa Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine, Dr. Frank knew from his own experience that vitis vinifera grapes could survive such extremely cold climates as that of the Finger Lakes. Five years after beginning his work at the Geneva Station, Dr. Frank purchased his own vineyard near Keuka Lake. Four years later, Dr. Frank released his first vintage, a trockenbeerenauslese riesling. In the following years, Dr. Frank would plant over 60 varieties of vitis vinifera grapes and, in doing so, radically change the direction of New York’s wine industry.
Continuing the momentum started by Dr. Frank’s work, New York wineries (more than 470, mostly small producers) are increasingly devoted to vitis vinifera grapes, with most new planting being of these varietals. Today, there are seven official American Viticultural Areas in New York State. Moving west to east, they are:
Lake Erie AVA — On the eastern shore of Lake Erie, the Lake Erie AVA is still planted largely to French hybrids like Seyval blanc and Vidal blanc, but, spurred by climate change, growers are increasingly planting vitis vinifera varietals.
Niagara Escarpment AVA — Niagara Escarpment AVA (located near the cliff over which Niagara Falls runs) is devoted largely to the production of ice-wine and is planted predominantly with the French hybrid grape Vidal blanc. In case you are planning a visit, Ontario’s primary wine region is just on the other side of Niagara Falls.
Finger Lakes AVA — With more than 120 wineries, the Finger Lakes AVA is the center (in every way) of New York’s wine industry (in addition to being the largest and most successful AVA in the state, the Finger Lakes region is home to Fortune 500 company Constellation Brands). The Finger Lakes (along with nearby Lake Ontario) help to mitigate the climate in the region, but it is still extremely cold. While vitis labrusca and hybrid grapes still lead in acreage, vitis vinifera grapes are clearly regarded as the future of the wine industry in this area. Cold-hardy riesling does particularly well. Other grapes for which to keep an eye open include the Bordeaux grapes cabernet Franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot; the Burgundy grapes pinot noir and chardonnay; as well as gewüztraminer, rkatsiteli (a grape native to the republic of Georgia), and the Austrian grapes blaufränkisch and grüner veltliner.
Hudson River Region AVA — The birthplace of New York’s wine industry, the Hudson River Region AVA is also experiencing a shift from hybrid grapes to vitis vinifera grapes. Chardonnay and cabernet Franc are proving to be particularly successful. Hudson River Region AVA is home to about 35 wineries.
Long Island AVA — The larger Long Island AVA is divided into two sub-regions, the North Fork of Long Island AVA and the Hamptons AVA (on the south fork of the island). Greatly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, the climate here is much more forgiving than in most of New York state. As such, the Bordeaux varietals cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, and merlot (both varietally and blended) perform very well. Chardonnay has also proved to be quite successful in the area. The Long Island AVA is home to over 40 wineries.
Thank you for joining me for this exploration of America’s own secret wine destination. To be sure, there are many more such secrets to be discovered, but New York state certainly has one of America’s oldest wine histories and most vibrant, up-and-coming wine cultures. Next week, we will venture to one of the oldest wine cultures in the world (and one that almost disappeared) as we explore Lebanon. As always, I encourage you to be adventurous in your wine choices — and remember, every bottle is a journey.