Decanter spoke with four New York-based winemakers to hear what drew them – or brought them back – to the state, as well as learn more about the viticultural challenges, the innovation taking place, and most importantly, what lies ahead for wine from the Empire State.
A return to New York
Originally from Dundee, New York, winemaker Nathan Kendall worked harvests across the northern and southern hemispheres. He’d spend his summers harvesting in the Finger Lakes.
‘I realised that of all the beautiful places I’d been to, the Finger Lakes were right up there,’ he says. More importantly, as an aspiring business owner, the startup costs were significantly lower than in other regions. As of 2011, Kendall officially established Nathan K wines in his home region.
Similarly, Master Sommelier Christopher Bates grew up in upstate New York, outside the Finger Lakes region. Throughout adolescence, Bates spent ample time around Seneca and Keuka Lakes – though, like many curious teenagers, he couldn’t wait to leave.
After living in Italy and Germany, Bates ultimately returned to the US to explore the ‘largely unrealised potential’ of the Finger Lakes region. He established his company, Element Winery, in Geneva, New York, in 2009.
‘During visits [elsewhere], I kept finding myself more and more enamoured with the natural beauty of the Finger Lakes, and every time I returned, I was more amazed at how beautiful this region is’ he reveals, simultaneously describing the region’s extreme viticultural potential – particularly through the lens of climate change – as the main attraction.
Diversity: the spice of life
The attraction of New York State viticulture has touched more than just Empire State natives. Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, James Christopher Tracy moved to New York in 1992 for graduate studies. Upon exploring the vineyards of the East End of Long Island, he was immediately drawn to the idea of East Coast viticulture.
As of 2002, Tracy officially became the winemaker at South Fork-based Channing Daughters, holding the same position today. ‘Our diversity is our greatest strength,’ he says. ‘We can grow and ripen a wide array of grape varieties and make a dizzying spectrum of different styles that few regions in the world can match.’
Kendall agrees, stating that the sheer variety of the state’s viticultural scene excites him most about making wine in New York. ‘It’s kind of the Wild West here,’ he explains. ‘Between red, white and sparkling, plus vinifera, hybrid and vitis labrusca, it’s really anything goes.’
Quality is king
On Long Island, Gabriella Macari’s family planted vines on the North Fork in 1995. Born in Queens, she recalls her grandfather making wine in the family’s Corona-based apartment basement. When the desire to farm became too strong, the family ultimately moved east to purchase a former potato farm.
‘Over the years, we’ve realised that the most exciting part about making wine in New York is recognising the world-class quality,’ Macari explains, describing wines as balanced with high, fresh acid and low to moderate alcohol levels. ‘Wines across the state are complex, delicious, and incredibly ageworthy. Top whites and reds are gaining complexity over time,’ she says.
Bates agrees, revealing that vintage after vintage, he’s found himself amazed at the quality wines can achieve in the Finger Lakes. ‘We also saw the quality of our peers improving as well, and eventually, we’ve begun to see the future for the Finger Lakes wines we had long dreamed of coming to fruition,’ he recalls.
Pros over cons
Despite the state’s incredible diversity and quality, New York viticulture certainly doesn’t come without its share of hardships. Bates reveals that New York’s growing regions are not easy places to produce fruit, as climate conditions in the Finger Lakes can be extreme.
Rain throughout the year can also lead to unwanted disease pressure, delayed ripening and more. Tracy cites the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes as problems specific to Long Island and the tribulations that come with excess humidity. Macari echoes this, stating that the potential for heavy rains in September/October while the fruit is still hanging could be detrimental to overall quality.
Yet for all that, the pros far outweigh the cons. Bates reveals that ideal summer temperatures are often conducive to providing optimal conditions for ripening. At the same time, Macari notes Long Island’s surrounding bodies of water as positive forces for moderating temperature.
Beyond the vineyard, Macari also describes the lack of viticultural guidelines as a plus for experimentation and adaptation. ‘We’re not restricted to planting specific grapes,’ she explains. ‘Our region is still young, and the climate keeps changing. For now, this gives us both flexibility and character.’
The integrity of fruit and land
Bates describes growing fruit in the Finger Lakes as tense – a sought-after structural quality undeniably reflected in the wines produced from these grapes. ‘In a world where wine styles are changing so quickly. Ripeness continues to be pushed to extremes – even in the most unlikely of places – the ability of the Finger Lakes to achieve phenolic ripeness without seeing extremes in structural ripeness is a rarity in the wine world these days,’ he states.
With regards to wines from Long Island, Tracy agrees. ‘The quality, reflection of place, diversity and value inherent in the wines. The overall aliveness and deliciousness of our wines.’
Kendall cites moderate alcohol levels and bright acidity year in and year out as reliable backbones to quality in the region’s wines. Bates also states that the Finger Lakes have plenty of water, meaning that the farmers are not stressing a globally limited water supply.
As to why consumers should pay attention to New York wines, Macari feels the state’s innovation is its greatest asset. ‘The innovation coming out of New York is something to get excited about,’ she says. ‘Hybrids are growing, pét-nats are flying off the shelf, we’ve got textured skin-fermented whites, nuanced dry Rieslings, balanced Chardonnays and ageworthy red blends.’
Bates echoes this sentiment. ‘There are very few wines in the world left that taste like this,’ he says, describing it as ‘nearly impossible’ to find wines that can achieve such phenolic ripeness at 12% ABV. ‘Furthermore, the lightness and delicacy that can be achieved here are largely unparalleled,’ he explains.
The question remains – what’s next for such a flourishing viticultural area? Kendall describes a growing openness to producing wines from non-vinifera varieties and a push to farm sustainably. On a personal level, he’ll be trying to move more into traditional method sparkling wines, as he’s seeing greater consistency year in and year out.
Macari also foresees a statewide focus on viticulture and protecting the environment. For Macari Vineyards specifically, the team has recently opened Meadowlark North Fork, a new space in Cutchogue focused on small-production wines. ‘There are exciting new releases – a carbonic Pinot Noir, skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, small production Malbec – that are available at this new location that give a glimpse of what’s on the horizon for us,’ she reveals.
Tracy predicts greater awareness, appreciation and consumption of wines from New York State across the board. For Bates, the response is multifaceted. He first believes that state investment in wind machines, pest control and other high-cost items to ensure that the state can regularly produce consistent, high-quality wines, is critical.
About viticulture, Bates believes diversity will continue to be pioneered. ‘We need to embrace and dig into the diversity of microclimates our regions contain,’ he says. He cites that while Riesling and Cabernet Franc are currently the Finger Lakes’ signature varieties, they are not limitations to what lies ahead. ‘We have many microclimates that can either increase or decrease [viticultural] challenges. Which create opportunities for spectacular sparkling wine production, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah and so on, in addition to our current areas of speciality,’ he explains. ‘And, we must embrace viticulture for quality. The future of [New York State] is not in making wines – it will be in farming wine.’