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New York Wine 101 A Long History Of Winemaking

Tue, 12/17/2013

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The New York metropolitan area is one of the most sophisticated wine consumer cultures in the world, but many residents are unaware that New York State itself has a long history in grape growing and winemaking. In recent years some New York wines have gained wider critical attention, and wine lovers are beginning to rediscover New York’s wine regions to taste for themselves what all the fuss is about.

Back in the early 19th-Century, as settlers moved west from New England through the vast unsettled lands of Upstate New York, they discovered that native grape vines grew in abundance. Over time, grape growing became a mainstay along Lake Erie and in the Finger Lakes region, a large area featuring 11 long, narrow, deep lakes surrounded by steep hillsides. In the Finger Lakes, grape farming soon led to winemaking, and by the early 20th-Century wine from the Finger Lakes had become well-known throughout the country.

Prohibition destroyed the original Finger Lakes wine industry, which was brought back to life in the 1950’s and 60’s by the efforts of some pioneers of vinifera (European grape varieties), the best known of which is Dr. Konstantin Frank, who founded a winery that is still in business today. Although vinifera showed a lot of promise, the 1970’s and 1980’s in the Finger Lakes were dominated by the production of sweet native wines and slightly drier wines made from hybrid grapes.

It was during the 1970’s that a few vinifera vineyards were planted in far eastern Long Island in the sandy soils once dominated by potato fields. Without the same sweet winemaking tradition like the Finger Lakes, the early wines from Long Island were almost all of the vinifera varieties, although it took quite some time for production to reach major levels.

By the 1990’s, more and more producers cropped up in New York’s two major wine regions, and the emphasis began to move toward vinifera. By the early 2000’s the number of high quality boutique wineries exploded in the Finger Lakes, and many of the Long Island wineries began to raise production levels in earnest. Wineries in some of the secondary regions, including the Hudson Valley, Niagara Escarpment (near Buffalo) and along Lake Erie, also began to raise their levels of quality

Despite growing critical recognition, it’s not always easy to find New York State wines in New York City shops and restaurants, although availability has been increasing in the last few years. Consumers unfamiliar with New York wines should keep an open mind, but generally speaking the Finger Lakes is best known for its crisp and mineral-laden Riesling and various other aromatic whites, as well as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, both made in a cool-climate style more similar to France than California. Long Island excels at Merlot and various other reds, but Chardonnay and a few other whites also fare quite well.

Overall, New York State makes some great wines. There is still a lot of mediocre wine to be sure, but these throwaways no longer dominate the region’s identity. What is most exciting about wine in New York is that the two major regions are only a short car trip away: Long Island wineries are very accessible from the city when traffic can be avoided, and the Finger Lakes region is only a four-to-five hour drive through beautiful countryside. Wine enthusiasts can easily make a short vacation out of visiting tasting rooms, all the while enjoying local eateries and attractions.