Empire State of Wine: 10 Great Bottles from the Finger Lakes and Niagara Escarpment


As spring continued dragging her feet last week, New Yorkers traipsed through snow flurries to drink wine. Nothing new there, except that the second annual NY Drinks NY was in town, offering imbibers a taste of local wines. I focused my efforts on the Finger Lakes and Niagara Escarpment, two regions I hadn’t visited and don’t regularly have a chance to taste.

Aside from the joy of discovering more great New York wine to drink, I am happy to report that bottle prices are remarkably affordable. Land in the Finger Lakes costs significantly less than in the North Fork, so vintners can sell wines at prices equivalent to the spare change in your pocket (plus a few singles). The majority of bottles were priced in the low $20s, while many hovered between $12-$16. So if you like to drink good wine at low prices, look for your New York neighbors on the shelves.

If you’re a data lover, here are some regional statistics: New York is third in nationwide wine production, with 316 wineries and nine American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). There are 115 juice producers in the Finger Lakes and 17 in the Niagara Escarpment. Annually, 180,000 million bottles are produced, though can any of us really envision what that looks like? Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Fla., claims to have the largest restaurant collection in the world at 600,000 bottles. (Yes, Tampa, home of Magic Mike, has the largest wine collection, and I hear it is a damn fine one.)

The Finger Lakes are reputedly beautiful. The region lies about five hours northwest of the city and is focused around four main lakes–Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga. It is New York’s largest wine-producing region, bigger than Long Island. Viewed from above, one might imagine that the lakes were formed by a celestial swipe of Ursa Major’s paw, each astral nail gouging out a bed. The deep lakes store heat from summer months to warm the lakefront vineyards in the winter, providing a frost-free climate for grape-growing. As spring arrives, the region’s vines awaken from their safe, warm slumber, rested and refreshed like thousands of little Snow Whites kissed by the sunshine. Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir are planted, but the region receives the most acclaim for its Riesling, and more recently, Gewürztraminer.

Two hours farther northwest of the Finger Lakes lies the Niagara Escarpment, so close to the famous falls the spray could stand in for rain. Created in 2005, this AVA only has 17 wineries; not exactly prolific, but growing. The climate in the Niagara Escarpment is one of the warmest in the state (second after the North Fork) due to the proximity of Lake Ontario. It’s hard to believe good wine can be made that far north, but the limestone and gravel silt soils, along with a moderate climate, make quality grape-growing possible. Another surprise–the primary varieties grown are reds! Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Syrah are favorites, while Chardonnay stands in for the token white.

At NY Drinks NY, I tasted the offerings of nearly 20 wineries spanning both regions. Many of the finest Finger Lakes bottlings, also receiving the most attention from critics and winemakers, were the Rieslings and ice wines. But I found the Gewürztraminers extremely alluring and attractively priced. From Niagara, Cabernet Franc and Meritage blends along with a Syrah showed the most promise among reds of the AVA. The wines had a surprising sturdiness and weight, no doubt from the warmth of the micro-climate.

Here are 10 bottles to try (including one cider!):

  1. Red Newt Cellars, Gewürztraminer 2011, Finger Lakes, $15
  2. Sheldrake Point, Gewürztraminer 2011, Finger Lakes, $18
  3. Lamoreaux Landing, Dry Riesling 2011, Finger Lakes, $14
  4. Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, Syrah 2010, Niagara Escarpment, $35
  5. Freedom Run Winery, Cabernet Franc 2011, Niagara Escarpment, $22
  6. Standing Stone Vineyards, Gewürztraminer 2010, Finger Lakes, $14
  7. Anthony Road, Riesling “Art Series” 2010, Finger Lakes, $28
  8. Sheldrake Point, Riesling Ice Wine, Finger Lakes, $65
  9. Leonard Oakes Estate, SteamPunk Cider, Niagara, $11
  10. Hudson-Chatham Winery, Empire Reserve 2007, Hudson River Region, $22 (A blend of Finger Lakes, Long Island and Hudson Valley wines)