New York wines are really nothing new if you take into account an oenological history dating back to the Dutch in the 17th century. But it's probably fair to say that, although its production is third in U.S. wine production behind California and Washington, many Americans have never had one drop from the Empire State.
Or, if so, maybe the wine was one of the more old-fashioned types made from native and hybrid varieties that both made New York's wine reputation in the 19th century and hampered it in the 20th.
Try a wine now from New York's Finger Lakes, one of the state's most important wine regions. You may be nicely surprised.
"We are an emerging region. Consumers think that means we're new. Not so, we're among the oldest," said Morgen McLaughlin, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, a group that makes sure wine is part of the story for the 300,000 to 500,000 people who visit this part of western New York each year.
"There's an amazing history but one we have to struggle against," she added. "It's kind of hard to break through with this new message of world-class wines at incredible value."
Riesling is generally considered to be opening the door for greater recognition and appreciation of the region's wine. McLaughlin's association is sponsoring its second annual Riesling Month in May with a schedule of special dinners and tastings around the Finger Lakes (rieslingrocks.com).
What sets Finger Lakes riesling apart from others is "vibrancy" born of a balanced acidity and pronounced minerality, said Morten Hallgren of Ravines Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, N.Y.
Riesling is the most widely grown vinifera grape in the Finger Lakes. Vinifera is the family of grape varieties from which the well-known wines of Europe have long been fashioned, grapes like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir. Vinifera vines tend to like milder climates — and most experts thought New York state was too cold.
Finger Lake winemakers once used only native grapes such as Concord or Niagara, or cold-hardy hybrids, such as Seyval blanc or Cayuga. Native grapes usually translated into "foxy" or earthy wines. The stuff also tended to be sweet.
Enter Konstantin Frank. Born in Ukraine and armed with a doctorate in viticulture, he arrived in the United States in 1951 and was soon working in the Finger Lakes. He put to use years of research in cool-climate wine grapes to prove that vinifera grapes such as riesling could not only grow in the region, but thrive. In 1962, he started his own winery and led what has become known as the vinifera revolution in New York state.
Today, the winery known as Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars still is operated by the family in Hammondsport, N.Y. With wine available in 33 states, it enjoys the broadest U.S. distribution of any Finger Lakes winery.
"(Native) varieties are still the predominant acreage in New York, but they can be planted anywhere," said Frederick Frank, the founder's grandson and winery co-owner. Frank thinks vinifera vines grow best in micro-climates like those found around the Finger Lakes. The depth of the lakes helps moderate temperatures, he said, allowing these tender varieties to grow.
And for Frank's winery, going the vinifera route has meant gold — dozens of gold medals in competitions. Still, there's what he calls the "negative" image of New York as only making Concord wines.
"I think consumers are willing to experiment with different varieties and regions," Frank said. "When they're ready, our wines are available."
Riesling is not the Finger Lakes' only wine card, Hallgren emphasized. "We have a 60-year history of growing pinot noir," he said. "What's been going on is a gradual evolution; you can find a little bit of everything here. We have the potential to be the premier cool-weather wine region in the country."
While the wineries have been selling out from their tasting rooms for 20 years, McLaughlin said there has been little incentive until recently for winemakers to look at national distribution. But now, with more interest in riesling, the wineries are moving their wines out across the country, especially into Florida and California.
"We do riesling well," McLaughlin said. "We're able to own that niche."
Top grapes of the Finger Lakes
Source: 2006 National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
By the numbers
1829: Year the Rev. William Bostwick plants first vineyard in Finger Lakes region
1982: Year the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area was established
4,000: Square miles encompassing the Finger Lakes AVA
96: Bonded wineries in the Finger Lakes AVA
2: Number of AVAs inside the Finger Lakes AVA: Cayuga Lake (1988), Seneca Lake (2003).
Source: The New York Wine & Grape Foundation