Friday, July 03, 2009

Finger Lake'n Good™ -- Part I

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I finally got to the end of our school year. We decided, in conjunction with the SPinC's birthday, to unplug; do some hiking, snag some good grub; and maybe work a little wine in. Neither of us had been to the Finger Lakes and, after finding some inexpensive flights into Ithaca, set ourselves up for a long weekend jaunt.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Finger Lakes region, it's in west-central New York State. The lakes are long and narrow and look get the idea. These lakes, and the beautiful attendant waterfalls and gorgeous gorges in the surrounding area, were formed by the receding sea at the foot of what is now the Appalachian Mountains, a few hundred million years of erosion and weather, and one really big ice age. The result is an absolutely beautiful natural landscape, full of fantastic hikes, photo ops, and the chance to simply sit and listen to the water rush by for hours.

We set our home base in Trumansburg, about 10 miles from Ithaca at the absolutely wonderful Halsey House bed & breakfast. Mitch, the owner -- alongside Tess the sweet dog and his impressive aviary full of parrots -- treated us royally. Breakfasts were excellent and filling, and the accommodations were first-rate. As Mitch put it after we told him about the kinds of vacations we usually lean towards: "You're in the right place. All we do around here is eat and drink. Or, more accurately, drink and eat and drink."

We sandwiched some winery visits around the time we spent exploring the gorges and state parks of the area. (Treman State Park and Watkins Glen had the best trails. Taughannock Falls was the single most impressive sight, in my humble opinion.) When we started sampling, I half-expected to simply OD on sweeter white wines. I did have an inkling about the wines from there. I knew New York wineries cranked out a fair amount of Riesling (Dr. Konstantin Frank and Heron Hill being the largest producers) and I guessed they'd probably grow a few other white varietals. I also knew that we'd run into a lot of cheap, sweet fruit wines. The rest was open for discovery.

What did we find? Riesling was certainly the star of the show. There were scads of them. Most wineries that made Riesling had at least three varieties. You could almost always count on a dry, semi-dry, and sweet versions -- and various "reserves." There was, of course, the ubiquitous chardonnay and some other cool-climate grapes like Gewurztraminer.

There were also some hybrid varietals I'd seen -- grapes like Seyval, Traminette, and Corot Noir. These grape varietals are bred to be winter hearty, so you'll see them in a lot of "nontraditional" wine growing areas like Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, for instance. What I didn't know was that these hybrids were developed at nearby Cornell University (where my maternal grandfather, Walter, proudly earned his engineering degree). In many wineries around the country, these wines end up being full of residual sugar to mask flaws in the winemaking. I was interested to learn how these grapes were supposed to taste when grown in soil they were bred into.

There were also some cool-weather reds bring produced. We were told to expect the Finger Lakes reds to be "bug juice," but that wasn't our typical experience. Cabernet franc and pinot noir were fairly common and grew reasonably well. There was some cabernet sauvignon, and a few scattered Rhone varietals.

Across the board, the Finger Lakes wines were also universally affordable. Almost every winery produced very solid wines in the $10-20 price range.

There are three "major" lakes -- Keuka (pronounced Q-kuh), Seneca, and Cayuga. To get an idea of the geography (almost to scale, no less), hold out your left hand, palm away from you, and bend your ring finger at the knuckle. Your index finger is Cayuga Lake, your middle finger is Seneca, and your ring finger is about the area of the bifurcations of Keuka Lake.

The wineries tend to be right on the lakefront, so we had some wonderful views from their tasting rooms. We weren't able to get all the way over to Keuka Lake in the time we had, so we weren't able to get to Dr. Frank's and Heron Hill, but I felt like we got a pretty good sense of the area and the wine production. Many of these wineries are starting to be available more broadly, as well -- so certainly check some of them out.

Here are a couple of our favorites from Seneca Lake:

Glenora Wine Cellars -- Our first stop on the west shore of Seneca was a good one. We were given the dollar tour of Glenora by Bridget, the winery manager, who was understandably proud of the esprit de corps of her tasting room staff. Had a nice chat with the winemaker, Steve DiFranscesco, as well. Definitely a fun experience. Both their 2007 Riesling and Dry Riesling were very solid. I found their 2007 Seyval Blanc to be especially light, pleasant, and refreshing. They also made a wonderful 2002 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Brut sparkling wine done methode champenoise which was an impeccably delicate creation.

Fox Run Winery -- At the very top of the west shore of Seneca, near the town of Geneva, is a very cool winery with a fun vibe and some excellent wines. They made an excellent Gewurztraminer (2007) full of floral notes and spice and a 2008 Dry Riesling which will be absolutely wonderful when the acidity calms down a little -- probably after about six months in bottle allowing the citrus flavors to emerge some more. At that point, it will be stellar. While almost of the wineries did dessert wines, Fox Run was one of the few that made actual port. Their ruby port stacks up nicely about just about anyone else's at that price point (around $20).

So to avoid overwhelming you (and to give myself a ready-made tease for the next installment), I'll start you off with these two. I'll send along the rest -- and our pictures -- next time!


Anonymous said...

My husband and I have planned on taking a trip out to the fingerlakes area for awhile now to see the wineries (and a few relatives who have a cottage on Cayuga lake). Can I ask you how you decided on which wineries to visit? Was it planned, or just driving around? Did you have some sort of guidance? I guess I could just use your list as a guide as well!

The Naked Vine said...

I got a few from an old article about the Finger Lakes in Wine Spectator. (Many of the wineries listed there were on Keuka Lake, which we didn't get to.)

We discovered some of the by talking to people there (Mitch at the Halsey House told us about Shalestone, for instance), by seeing the ones offered on wine lists in local restaurants (Hosmer was everywhere), and a couple simply by chance.

We did hit a few others that weren't on the list -- but I don't really want to slag anyone in this space...

Ryan Thompson said...

Here's an article that was published today giving some insight into the finger lakes wine region, as well as some tips on top producers and places to check out:

The Naked Vine said...

Thanks for the link. Really great writeup there. I do think that there are some unappreciated reds in that area, but the Rieslings were all pretty fantastic. Ran into a couple of good chardonnays when they remembered not to oak the hell out of them...

Nice site, too...