It may surprise even many New Yorkers to learn that two high-quality wine regions are within driving distance. We’ve written in the past about the wineries of Long Island, but more recently, we had the pleasure of exploring the Finger Lakes. About five hours by car from Times Square, these long and surprisingly deep bodies of water resemble a set of blue claw marks scratched into the map between Buffalo and Syracuse. It sounds like chilly territory for fine wine grapes, and indeed, the winters can be quite cold. But just as the Rhine and Danube rivers help warm the vineyards on their banks, the heat-retaining and sun-reflecting waters of the Finger Lakes create microclimates conducive to vine-growing.
Most wineries in the region tend to be small, often family-owned affairs. It’s not uncommon to meet with a winemaker or someone else involved in production, which makes winery visits more fun.
A sommelier I once chatted with compared the Finger Lakes to Germany’s Moselle Valley, but the area seemed to me more like Austria, which excels with a similar set of grape varieties. Like Austria, the Finger Lakes region is most famous for its dry Riesling, and rightly so. Other Austrian grapes, such as Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch (here called Lemberger), also thrive. And similar to many Austrian bottlings, wines in the Finger Lakes tend to have an excellent quality-to-price ratio.
I noticed that most wineries in the region tend to be small, often family-owned affairs. It’s not uncommon to meet with a winemaker or someone else involved in production, which makes winery visits more fun. Certainly, wine snobbery is nowhere in evidence here; all the people I’ve met in the industry are friendly, informal and down-to-earth.
The main problem is reducing the number of appealing wineries to a selection that can fit into one’s itinerary. These are some of my favorites around the lakes; I recommend visiting at least two, but oenophiles will doubtless wish to experience more.
Note that as of this writing, most of the wineries below require reservations for tastings.
In the late 1950s, Dr. Frank took the bold step of planting vinifera (European) vines on the southwest shore of Keuka Lake. Until then, most people thought only hardier American grapes could survive the winters. He proved the skeptics wrong, and numerous wineries have followed suit since then. Dr. Konstantin Frank still makes wines from the original Riesling and Pinot Noir vines, which are the oldest in the region (the old-vine Rieslings in particular are not to be missed). I also love Frank’s racy and dewy Grüner Veltliner, the Georgian-style amphora-aged Rkatsiteli and the ripe Cabernet Franc. This winery also makes Champagne-style sparkling wines worthy of attention. A guided tasting at Dr. Konstantin Frank is an excellent introduction to the region.
A native of the Moselle Valley founded this winery on the western shore of Seneca Lake in the late 1970s, drawn there by terroir reminiscent of Riesling vineyards back home. Hermann J. Wiemer now has three vineyard sites along the lake, and it takes pride in its pesticide- and herbicide-free viticultural practices. The single-vineyard Rieslings are superb, but the Chardonnay and Grüner Veltliner give them serious competition. I also loved the dark and sultry Cabernet Franc, an absolute steal for less than $30 a bottle. And the single-vineyard “Noble Select” Rieslings, made from grapes affected by botrytis (noble rot), are expensive but worth it.
This relatively new winery, founded in 2009, doesn’t have a tasting room or visitor facility. You can try wines from Element at F.L.X. Provisions in the town of Geneva, a venue that offers no fewer than 60 Finger Lakes bottlings from a variety of wineries to taste. But even though a winery visit is difficult to arrange, I want to highlight Element for its superlative wines made in very small quantities, often fewer than 300 cases. These wines cost more than the regional average, but the quality warrants the price, and then some. The Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are all excellent, and I won’t soon forget the 2013 Lemberger, which ranked among the finest examples of the variety that I’ve tasted.
I’m lucky enough to live near a wine shop that regularly stocks a Ravines Riesling, an elegantly taut and dry example with ample minerality. This winery has two tasting venues, a converted barn on Seneca Lake in Geneva and an enviable spot on Keuka Lake with a broad water-view patio. In normal times, Ravines organizes fun food and wine events, including light appetizer pairings as well as more-elaborate five-course meals with accompanying still and sparkling wines. Ravines, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, also makes a delicious sherry-like wine called Flor.
A short drive north of the Aurora Inn on the east shore of Cayuga Lake, Quarry Ridge is one of the region’s newest wineries. Its vineyard, planted in 2018, is still quite youthful, but the winery is already making memorable bottlings from grapes sourced from more-established vineyards nearby. I especially enjoyed the Unoaked Chardonnay and the barrel-fermented Cask Riesling, a reversal of how winemakers typically employ wood for these two grape varieties. The four wines I sampled were all quite good, and I look forward to seeing how this stylish winery will develop in the future.
For five generations, the Wagner family has grown grapes in the Finger Lakes region. Its unique octagonal winery and tasting room overlooking Seneca Lake dates from 1976, and it currently vinifies over 30 wines (the Wagner Valley Brewing Company, which produces a variety of craft beers, is also nearby). Here, I was taken with the complex and well-balanced single-vineyard Dry Riesling, the fruity and well-integrated Cabernet Franc, and the sumptuously rich and spicy Riesling Ice wine. The latter served as a reminder of the heights that dessert wines can reach.
The Fulkerson family dates its arrival in the Finger Lakes region to 1805. Its seventh generation, represented by the infectiously good-humored Steven Fulkerson, grows vineyards on the same land today. Seated tastings are relatively inexpensive, but I was impressed by many of the wines. Most surprising was the Semi-Dry Riesling. “Semi-dry” is not a word I often seek out on a label. This example, however, was beautifully balanced, with ample acidity countering the lush fruit. The standard Dry Riesling is also excellent, but don’t miss the more unusual Skin-Fermented Riesling, Albariño, Dornfelder or Lemberger. I also recommend taking advantage of one of the scenic hiking trails on the property.