If New York State’s so-called vinifera revolution had its main instigator in German-born Dr. Konstantin Frank, it could be said that another revolution, happening now, is also a product of equally passionate migrants. Winemakers both from other American regions and far-flung countries are still drawn to the Empire state, as a place where challenges and opportunities provide an ideal context to develop their skills and craft. It’s against this backdrop of collaboration and possibility that a vibrant community of growers and winemakers have turned New York wine from local passion to international phenomenon.
Experience, knowledge, fresh blood
The enduring pull of New York’s many wine regions owes much to the outstanding community of stakeholders, and the many highly regarded projects providing aspirational benchmarks and learning opportunities. Peter Weis, born and educated in Germany like Dr. Frank, was visiting a friend working at the winery when he was hired on the spot. The serendipitous opportunity became a 12-year period of commitment and learning, which ultimately led him to set up his own project, Weis Vineyards.
Weis acknowledges that he went through a period of adjustment to fully understand how to work within a viticultural ecosystem dramatically different from that of Mosel, his home region. However, if the viticultural challenges and the inconsistent practices of some growers were initial forces of resistance, Weis says that the possibilities for experimentation and the willingness to improve far surpassed any negative friction. ‘Standards and quality have increased tremendously. There’s more knowledge, better equipment and outstanding new talent, much of which is a product of the school in Geneva [see below].’
Indeed, the region’s renowned educational institutions have played a fundamental role in New York’s ascension to the international wine stage. Cornell University, with its leading viticulture department, and the Finger Lakes Community College Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva, attract undergraduates from all over the country (and beyond) nurturing a unique pot-pourri of knowledge and energy.
Julia Hoyle, Philadelphia-born and raised and now winemaker at Hosmer Winery, was herself attracted to the Finger Lakes as an undergraduate. What started as a casual job at the tasting room at Fox Run Vineyards ultimately led her to find her true calling and become a winemaker. Hoyle highlights the importance of these early experiences not merely as an inspiration and learning tool, but as the first threads linking her to a support network that is still fundamental to her work and development.
A big part of the energy and drive of New York’s community is the thriving community itself, which – bringing winemakers, growers, researchers and hospitality together – has collectively contributed to a fast and robust evolution.
With and against the elements
Winemakers in New York work both with and against the challenges of a harsh viticultural landscape where skill, creativity and technical expertise have been complementary tools over decades of evolution. The resilience of the state’s wine industry has progressed through valuable, empirical local experience, specialised expertise from the world’s oldest wine regions, and leading research. In a constant battle and dance with the elements, winemakers develop an acute lucidity and adaptiveness, which is proving essential (and a competitive advantage) against the threats of climate change.
If other wine regions are now toying with the idea of introducing hybrid varieties, New York state has a long experience with growing and vinifying native and hybrid grapes (many of which developed at Cornell). ‘The real challenge for us [in the future] is Mother Nature. Then again, we have always had to learn how to make sure the wine survives. And here we have an insurance given by Mother Nature herself: native and hybrid varieties. This is why – and also to respond to demand from local customers – we keep producing non-vinifera wines,’ explains Weis. ‘Sometimes we need to be away from home to learn about home. And to realise that things are actually not that hard here.’
On the other hand, accumulated experience working with vitis vinifera now allows New York to produce world-leading Rieslings, Cabernet Francs and Lembergers (Blaufränkisch), perhaps with a better outlook than other wine regions. ‘Interestingly, the climate here now is quite similar to how it was in the Mosel when I left. So if you ask me about disease pressure or challenges to ripening, I would say that the Mosel was no different,’ says Weis.
‘This is an exciting place to work. There is space and freedom to experiment and expand. There’s a sense we can “do things”,’ sums up Weis.
Six wines to discover New York’s diverse winemaking community:
Tasted and scored by the Decanter team
Red Newt Cellars, Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes 2018
An alluring oily nose, with beeswax richness underpinned by fresh almonds and ripe orchard fruits. Great drive on the palate with firm acidity allowing the richness of red apple, ripe pear and glazed lemon rind to open without becoming heavy. Drink beautifully but showing promise of a moreish and complex development. A great showcase of the evolution of the Red Newt project, with the quality of expressiveness of the wines consistently improving year on year. A classic in the making.
Osmote, Cabernet Franc, Seneca Lake, Finger Lakes 2020
A juicy and delicious Cabernet Franc that fills the mouth with blood orange, pomegranate and pink grapefruit flavours, followed by crunchy cranberry and kirsch. Textural and fresh, with a savoury touch that adds intrigue and length. The finish has a lifted, balsamic twist. The honesty and skill of winemaker Ben Riccardi is fully translated into this wine, that has varietal typicity, classicism and playfulness in equal measures.
Forge Cellars, Dry Riesling Classique, Seneca Lake, Finger Lakes 2020
An expressive and transparent Riesling, with bright aromas of lemon and yellow apples. The acid is searing yet so elegant, driving the citrus, crunchy apple and pear flavours with lightness and vibrancy. A hint of petrol adds a complex, seductive nuance and hints at the great evolution this wine will have in bottle. Lovely angular and sinewy on the mid palate. The finish is soft, with lingering white flowers and lemon blossom.
Hosmer, Riesling Ice Wine, Finger Lakes 2019
Ethereal and crystalline this wine carries its sugar with lightness. There’s vertical precision and a linear acidity, finely weaved with the lemon rind, apricot, glazed pineapple and jasmine aromas. The – very classy – oily richness adds poise and savoury appeal.
Weis Vineyards, Semi-Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes 2021
There’s something very Spätlese-like in this semi-dry Riesling produced by Mosel-born Peter Weis, with is fleshy minerality and nuanced flavours of white flowers, ripe pear and preserved lemon. The sweetness is in perfect balance with the firm acidity, which gives a strong structural core to the palate throughout.
Living Roots, Cabernet Franc, Finger Lakes 2020
Such an elegant nose, with filigreed red fruit, herbs and spices. The palate follows with the depth of ripe cherries, cassis, preserved plums and dried mulberries topped by white pepper and a dust of salty liquorice. Well-honed tannins with a subtle refreshing grip. Medium length with a delicious spicy lining.