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New York State's Oldest Newest Wines

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By Malcolm Jolley

"Uncork New York!" says the top half of Susan Spence's business card. Spence is the Vice president of the New York Wine & Grape foundation, located in Canandaigua, in the Finger Lakes region of the Empire State. Spence is part of a push to get people interested in wines from NY's three main regions: the Finger Lakes, Hudson River and Long Island. She was in town recently as part of a structured "trade" tasting which showcased some of the better wines.

The history of New York State wine might be divided into two distinct chapters: before and after 1976. Dutch colonists had planted vines for making wine in New Amsterdam (aka Manhattan) in the 1670's, arguably North America's first. And by the middle of the 19th Century there were commercial wineries in the Finger Lakes, making the region one of America's oldest. However, Prohibition and tight liquor laws did much to discourage planting vines, and most of what was planted was not the "vinifera", or fine wine grapes like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, but American varietals. Even today, as the name of Spence's organization attests, the bulk of New York vines grow juice and table grapes.

A new era in New York winemaking began in 1976, when the so-called "Farm Gate" laws came into effect meaning that wineries could sell directly to consumers and the results were dramatic: of 255 active wineries 235 were founded since then. The last 10 to 15 years have also seen a dramatic rise in interest in wine making in the region. And a new generation of young winemakers, some educated at Cornell in the Finger Lakes, are returning after years abroad learning the tricks (and time honoured techniques) of the trade. This combined with an ever enthusiastic domestic market, especially the hyper-competitive hospitality industry in New York City, where I recently saw at least on NY wine on every list, has meant a growing reputation for well made wines.

Just as New York wines are divided into the two main regions of the Finger Lakes and Long Island, so are two kinds of wine that seem to be increasingly identified with oenology in the state. Riesling from the Finger Lakes, where Konstatine Frank first planted it in the 1960s, and Bordeaux blends or "Meritage", as it is popularly known, from Long Island. Each seems to do well in its respective region, but there are many exceptions to this rule and a recent study showed that Chardonnay is actually the most grown varietal state-wide. Cabernet Franc, is also emerging as a New York specialty, especially from Long Island. Both main regions also boast two distinct sub-appellations: Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes, and North Fork and Hamptons on Long Island.

New York wines are classic cool climate sippers that are, generally very food friendly. Long Island, which is on the roughly same latitude as Tuscany enjoys the moderating effect of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Finger Lakes, nestled between Rochester and Syracuse, are buffered from cold northerly winds by Lake Ontario. Two very small new wine regions are just now also emerging, Lake Erie and the Niagara escarpment in Western New York, which benefit from lake-moderated micro-climates. The Riesling are characteristically zippy and tangy, and the Meritage use their grapes in a way that is in complete harmony with the great clarets of Bordeaux, but have a little more zing, somehow: it's as though they speak perfect French, but with a bit of an American accent.

Six wines that stood out at the tasting included Dr. Konstantine Frank's 2006 Riesling, Peconic Bay's 2006 Riesling, Prejean Winery's 2006 Cabernet Franc, Raphael's 2001 First Label Merlot and Millbrook's 2005 Cabernet Franc (click on each to read a full review).


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