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In the Finger Lakes region alone, there are over 100 wineries. And we're in that transition phase where awareness is starting to build and grow. There's actually a regional branding initiative that has been developed by the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association. Just now in the last few years, [the producers] have come together and try to promote the industry as a whole, and — from everything I've seen, from everyone I've spoken to — they really seem to like to collaborate with each other. Of course, there's a sense of competition, but they [still] like to share resources and help each other out. I think it's a really great collective effort and I've been impressed with that.
[The focus of the conversation soon turned to the nature of the region itself, beginning with the climate. Having researched more on the region, I found that the key to its climate lies in the narrow, deep lakes so named because they look like the fingers of a hand. Another important feature of the region is the collection of sloping shale beds above the lakes, originally deposited by the movement of Ice Age glaciers. The combination of deep lakes and steep slopes provides for optimal drainage of air and water, resulting in fewer extremes of temperature in either winter or summer. Since the lakes retain their summer warmth in winter, any cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and then rises, allowing more cold air to drain from the hillside. Conversely, in the spring, the cold water of the lakes delays budding until the danger of frost has passed. These dynamics make the region much more temperate than the surrounding area, and therefore suitable for the growing of wine grapes.]
NM: What are some broad strokes in the overall picture of the Finger Lakes as a wine region? Tell me about the climate, the wine styles, and the varietals. And what do you see still in development now that will really come about in the future of the region?
MD: It's definitely a cold climate. And the winemakers are looking to use that cold climate to their benefit. Originally, they were planting native American grapes — Concord, Catawba, Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir — but now there are more plantings of European (vinifera) grapes, in particular white grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay, and even Gewurtztraminer. Riesling is the one grape that is equated with the Finger Lakes region the most, because it does do very well here.
[It bears mention that a Finger Lakes regional wine — Fox Run Vineyards 2007 Gewurtztraminer — was among the Wine & Spirits Magazine's Top 100, and was featured at the eponymous tasting event that I recently attended and reviewed. This was significant if only because the wine was poured alongside a number of pre-eminent producers of wines in the same style hailing from Germany and Alsace. The same magazine scored in the 90s a number of 2007 vintage Rieslings from other producers in the region, including Dr. Konstatin Frank, Hermann J. Wierner, Sheldrake Point, Rooster Hill, and Hosmer. Recently, Wine Spectator rated over 40 Finger Lakes Rieslings from the 2006 vintage with the top scores ranging from 89 - 85. Wine Enthusiast gave similar recognition to Finger Lakes Chardonnays from the 2005 and 2006 vintages in the April 2008 issue.]
NM: Riesling, I understand, is becoming the region's claim to fame. The regional terroir is, in many ways, perfect for that grape. But what about red varietals?
MD: There are some nice examples of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, but there's been a bit more of a struggle for the [varietal] reds to gain attention, and it seems that the white wines are being better received overall than the reds. And it's not that they're not quality-driven, but rather that the American palate tends to prefer a different style of red wine [than that which is produced in the Finger Lakes].
NM: That definitely makes sense, given that the American palate — if we could generalize for a moment — tends to prefer red wines made in a very fruit-forward style that requires a high level of ripening. In a cooler climate, the grapes struggle to ripen and ultimately don't get to the levels we see in west coastal regions. I'm guessing that Finger Lakes red wines are made in a leaner style typical of cooler regions of the Old World (like with Cabernet Franc in the Loire or Pinot Noir in parts of Germany), which tends not to appeal to many American wine drinkers. On the other hand, I get a strong sense that the Finger Lakes region's proximity to east coast urban centers (like Boston and New York) is to its advantage, because wine drinkers in those particular markets do tend to have a bit more of a European palate than those on the west coast. I think its safe to say, for example, that New Yorkers are drinking wines much more so from Europe than California, and are therefore more accustomed to the restrained style of some Old World regions. I'm thinking that would benefit the sales of Finger Lakes wines because the large urban markets closest to it already embrace a wine style that isn't aggressively fruit-driven, as we see with a great deal of California wines.