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Aurora to Zweigelt
Finger Lakes Varieties

by Peter May

F  inger Lakes is a rich hunting ground for enthusiasts of unusual grape varieties. I found some 47 different varieties used in wine making in the region. Finger Lakes is in New York state, about 350 miles north west of New York City and 200 miles south east of Niagara Falls.

    Wineries line the shores of the long narrow lakes that give the region its name, and I visited almost 60 wineries on three lakes, Cayuga, Keuka and Seneca between September and November 2003.

    The first visitors to America found wild grape vines growing in abundance, but wine produced from them had pronounced pungent flavours often likened to wet fur and disliked by most wine lovers. However imported European vitis vinifera vines struggled to survive in the colder northern states. One solution was to cross native and European vines to produce hybrids containing the hardiness of the natives with the flavours of the Europeans. Some 50 years ago, Dr Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Russia with a Ph.D. in viticulture and oenology started work at Cornell University’s Experimental Station in the Finger Lakes region. He was convinced vitis vinifera grapes could thrive in the region if the right root stocks were used, and in 1960 vinifera wines were being produced in the Finger Lakes. Dr Frank then opened his own winery in 1962, its name – Dr Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars - firmly stating his message.


    Many Finger Lakes wineries compare their growing conditions with northern France, and classic varieties from there are widely found – Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer for whites, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot for red. I found Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc were most successful. Riesling makes a clean dry white wine, but mostly bland without the characteristics found in wines from Alsace and Germany. Confusingly they are sometimes labelled as Riesling and Johannisberg Riesling at the same winery. Merlot frequently had an unpleasant metallic undertone, but it wasn’t clear how much was grown in the region. One winery owner told me it was too cold for Merlot, and staff in several tasting rooms admitted the grapes were grown elsewhere, notably Long Island.

    Ice wines are made by several wineries by the method of picking grapes normally and then freezing them. The resulting nectar is excellent. From the 2004 vintage they will not be able to label wines made this way as ice wine since this name will be reserved for wines made in the risky traditional manner of leaving grapes on the vine to be frozen naturally, which justifies their high prices. One Finger Lakes winery even says their ice wine is 'made in traditional German eiswein stye' even though it comes from out of a freezer. Unfortunately other misleading names are used including Burgundy, Claret, Chablis Grand Cru (!) and Champagne. What I found perplexing was the misuse of 'Meritage' - a clever name invented in the US to replace the term 'Bordeaux blend'; one winery says it makes a Meritage from Syrah, Sangiovese and other non-Bordeaux varieties.

    Sparkling wines are one of the successes of the area, with excellent methode champenoise wines being made from not only the traditional varieties but also Cayuga White. The best sparkling wine I tasted came from Attwater Estate; made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay it is exceptional.

The Wines


Cabernet Franc
Pale red colour, warm berry nose, soft and very inviting. (Rooster Hill 2002 $17)
Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark red colour, medium bodied with spices and tobacco leaves and medium aftertaste (Logan Ridge 2001 $15)
Pale yellow, rounded full bodied with tangy bite on finish. Organic, wild & cultivated yeast fermented in French oak barrels. (Silver Thread Reserve 2001 $16.50)
Sullen red/purple colour, light bright and rather thin (Billsboro Winery, 2001)
A German variety bred to get colour in cool climates, it’s grown in England where I’ve not been impressed with its flavours. This version surprised me with its intense dark red/black colour, but its sour taste didn’t please. (Fulkerson Winery 2001)
Pale yellow with a floral nose, dry with slightly oily texture, some sour spices and a long tangy finish (McGregor 2002 $20)
Golden Muscat*
Johannesburg Riesling
Pale clear colour, crisp and dry with a tang of lemon (Castel Grisch 2002 $11)
is becoming popular with winery owners who are fast planting this red Austrian variety. It makes a deep red wine with lovely soft fruity flavours, some complexity with balanced acids, lively & fresh with a lingering after taste. (Seneca Shore Mediaeval Wines ‘Kylix Cuvee’ 2002, $20) This variety is one to watch.
Bright red colour, cherry and spicy flavours, medium bodied, gentle tannins and spices. (Lamoreaux Landing 2001 $14)
Muscat Ottonel
not tasted.
Pinot Blanc
Good clean dry, not overly flavoured, but elegant fruit and good finish (Logan Ridge 2001 $12)
Pinot Grigio*
Pinot Gris
Inviting upfront crisp, some slate, medium bodied with spicy finish (Hosmer Winery 2002 $14)
Pinot Noir
Pale red, light bodied with some tannins giving body and a grippy finish (Heron Hill 2001 $13)
Pale yellow with green tints, clean dry and fresh, good body and hint of sweetness on finish (Attwater Dry Rielsling 2002 $18)
Widely planted in Russia this variety was introduced to Finger Lakes by Dr Frank where it can be found as a varietal. Paper white, nettle nose, crisp flavour, slate & nettles, good acids. Excellent (Dr Konstantin Frank Vinifera Cellars 2002 $20)
Bright red, cherry fruits well balanced (Knapp Winery)
McGregor Vineyard Winery is the only US producer of this red Russian variety; its blended with another unusual variety Sereksiya. Oz Clarke thinks the variety is a ‘superb grape …maybe a classic grape’. I’d like to have tasted this as a 100% varietal; their blend named ‘Black Russian’ was dark black/red with a soft front palate but a very tannic middle and finish. (Mc Gregor ‘Black Russian’ 2000 $32.50)
Sereksiya *
McGregor Vineyard Winery is the only US producer of this variety; its blended with the red Saperavi and also in a white blend with another unusual variety Rkatsiteli.
bright red colour, high tones and mildly metallic finish. Organic (Four Chimneys Farm Winery , 2002 $10)


Very pale yellow colour, dry sour on front palate, not much flavour but interesting tangy finish. Organic (Four Chimneys Farm Winery ‘Kingdom White’, 2002 $8.50)
Baco Noir
Rich garnet colour, warm ground black pepper nose, very soft with berry fruits and fruit acids on finish (Torrey Ridge 2001 $10)
Water white colour, scented flowery nose, inviting powerful sweet blossom nose. Refreshing level of acidity – interesting (Torrey Ridge $9)
Cayuga White
made dry it was crisp and enjoyably refreshing, reminiscent of a mild Sauvignon Blanc. Also found in semi sweet versions. This 1972 variety was bred at Cornell University Experimental Station in Geneva at the northern end of Cayuga Lake. Green tinge, refreshingly crisp dry quaffing wine (Hart Winery 2002 $13 in Holiday Inn restaurant))
beautiful dark red colours, bright red cherry flavours, lovely wine (Goose Watch 2001 $13)
invariably made sweet this red wine has a very intense rose scented jammy nose. Its pungent taste will be familiar to Americans raised on sweet breakfast jams and grape drinks made from this variety. I found it overpowering and way too sweet. Very scented nose, sweet conserve and rose petal flavours. (Pleasant Valley NV)
De Chaunac
not tasted
Sweet grapey with enough crispness to see it through. An original Finger Lakes variety, now 75 years old.
Made sweet and tasting of nothing much but with an unpleasant sour finish (Wagner 2002 $7)
Geisenheim 318-57
flowery with light spicyness and a medium long aftertaste. Organic. (Four Chimneys Farm Winery ‘Gemeinshaft’ 2002 $9)
usually made pink, named ‘Rose of Isabella’ otherwise in blends
Leon Millet*
Marechal Foch
Very dark black colour, warm black berry nose, soft home baked berry pie flavours, soft rounded and inviting (Prejean Winery 2001 $12)
is a variety developed by Cornell University. Wagner Vineyards planted their Melody vines in the 1980's so they're now mature. I tasted the wine in a crowded tasting room and it impressed enough to buy a bottle to taste properly - with dinner. I put it in the fridge 30 mins before dinner so as not to over chill. On pouring I noticed an attractive green tint to its pale yellow colour, and the taste didn't disappoint. It's a crisp dry wine, though not acid or over dry on front palate - there's 1.2% residual sugar. Soft fruit/flowery upfront flavours are backed up by tangy fruit acids reminiscent of granny smith apples and apricots, with a medium long aftertaste. This is a wine as attractive as its name. One of its parents is Pinot Blanc and I can see the resemblance, but it reminded me of the crisp dry Chenin Blancs which are my usual lunchtime drink in South Africa. (Wagner Vineyards 2001 $7)
Paper white, sweet some fizz (Glenora NV)
Ravat 51
white gold colour with an appealing nose - sweet and flowery. It has a clean crisp sweet flavour balanced with agreeable acidity. The label shows a pineapple and bunch of flowers and I can't recall a label that has so exactly indicated what a wine tastes like. Yes, it has a pineapply taste. Like pineapples, it has a good acidity. And there is a flowery perfume. It is delightful with a ripe peach and soon my glass is empty and I pour another. Synonym is Vignoles (Bully Hill)
very soft gentle red wine, with very gentle acids (Seneca Shore Mediaeval Wines ‘Red Knight’ 2002, $8)
Seyval Blanc
Dry with lemony flavours and refreshing crisp acids. (Lucas Vineyards 2001 $7)
Tasting rooms make much of Gurwurtztraminer being one of its forebears – clean crisp, pear and apple flavours, refreshing finish. (Goosewatch 2001)
Verdelet Blanc
Almost water clear, gentle soft flowery perfume belies the upfront flavours, with lemon grass fronting a zingy crispness. Its dry, but has a softness and while refreshing acidity, is not mouth puckering. Most pleasant. (Bully Hills Vineyards)
Vidal Blanc*
Vignoles is often used to make ‘ice-wine’ (wine made by artificially freezing grapes after picking), and its truly delicious. Intense rich unctuous sweetness – wow. (Wagner Vignoles ‘ice-wine’ $20 for 37.5%)
Villard Blanc
Crisp clean, not great depth of flavour but inviting fruit acids on aftertaste (Goose Watch)
Dark inky black red colour, rich full blackberry flavours, reminiscent of Baco Noir. Released in 1967 by the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario at Vineland, Canada. (Fulkerson Winery 2001 $9)
Wines marked with an asterisk (*) were found only as part of a blend


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18 November 2003