Five Things That Surprised Me in the Finger Lakes

It might seem like I take wine trips a lot but half the time the trips find me. Work sent me to California for a conference, my friends invited me to Tuscany, and most recently, I had a bachelorette party to attend in the Finger Lakes. What kind of wine blogger would I be if I didn't take advantage of these opportunities?

And that's how I found myself driving up I-81 from my parents' house to Ithaca on an unseasonably cold, rainy day in June. Even though the southern tier of NY looks a lot like the northern tier of PA, there's something special about crossing the NY state border. It could be the sudden increase of Ontario license plates and Tim Hortons coffee (Hi, Canada), but more likely it's knowing that you're getting closer to world-class wine.

But what you'll find in the Finger Lakes might not be exactly what you expect. Sure, there are scenic lakes. And yes of course, there's fantastic Riesling. But beyond the obvious, there are intriguing details and interesting wines that add color and dimension to this uniquely American wine region. These layers make the Finger Lakes not only a great place to visit, but a great place to make wine. Here are five factors that caught my attention.

View of Seneca Lake from Wagner Vineyards.

Five Things That Surprised Me in the Finger Lakes

1. Some parts seem like a bucolic step back in time.
Listen, I am not originally from some kind of booming metropolis. (Seriously. Google Freeland, PA.) But the minute I switched from interstate to state route, the ruralness of this region jumped out to me! Not only that, many of the buildings I passed on New York 79 looked like they were over a century old. (Disclaimer: I have no clue how old they were, but there are buildings from the 1800s across the region.)

2. There are distinct, diverse terroirs.
I imagined a bunch of lakes, a consistent landscape, and a similar climate throughout the region. Possibly a stupid assumption, but who knows, maybe you think the same! As it turns out, the region is quite large and varies dramatically. Even along a single lake, the landscape can go from relatively flat to hilly and steep within a few short miles. Likewise, the temperature and exposure change depending on which side of which lake you're on. Add soil variation to that mix and you're looking at a region with vast sites and expressions.
What are the "Dark Side" and "Banana Belt"? 
3. It's caught the attention of people from all over.
The people making wine and working in the Finger Lakes aren't just from NY, or the East Coast, or even the U.S. At Domaine LeSeurre, owners and winemakers Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre moved from their native France to the Finger Lakes after working 15 vintages around the world. They now make some of the finest wines on Keuka Lake. At Hermann J. Wiemer, Swedish agronomist and winery co-owner Oskar Bynke focuses on their business operations. He has a background in wine eduction and trade. As the Finger Lakes continue to gain attention, I think we will see more and more ambitious winemakers, experts, and innovators adding their unique perspectives.

Cabernet Franc at Domaine LeSeurre.

4. Way more than just Riesling.
I went to the Finger Lakes for All. The. Riesling. And emerged with a new appreciation of the other wines it produces. Many are under the impression that the Finger Lakes can't do red wine well, but that's just not the case. No, the region doesn't produce huge, bold reds like you'll find in Napa. But it does make bright, nuanced red wines that pair perfectly with food. And don't miss its other white varieties either! Domaine LeSeurre's Chardonnay in particular was shockingly good.

Here are some of my non-Riesling stand-outs:
Merlot from the barrel with Patches and Hector Wine Co. winemaker Alexandra Bond.

Syrah on Seneca Lake at Atwater.

5. But the Riesling is incredible—and it can age.
The range of varieties that are doing well in the Finger Lakes shows the immense potential the region has to grow and develop even further. But this is what you came for... ALL. THE. RIESLING. There's a lot of it, and it's crave-worthy when it's young, fresh, and acidic. The real gems though are the ones with a bit of age. They're so special, so complex that one made me tear up from its beauty. (Not ashamed to admit that wine makes me cry happy tears sometimes!)

Unfortunately these aren't available online, but they are worth sharing:
  • Hermann J. Wiemer 2012 Reserve Dry Riesling: Minerality, bruised apple, peach, jasmine, ginger, juicy acidity.
  • Hermann J. Wiemer 2008 Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling: Sweet, zesty, orange blossom, pineapple, multi-dimensional, bright acidity.
  • Sheldrake Point 2004 Dry Riesling: Rich, smoky, guava, lanolin, lime pith, mouthwatering acidity.
Learn more about aged Riesling from Hermann J. Wiemer.
The one that made me cry from Wiemer.

15-year-old Riesling from Sheldrake Point.

For more wineries and local tips, check out Adrian Prieto's Insider's Guide to Finger Lakes Wine.

Special thanks to Adrian (@wino_dino_) for being the best FLX guide ever! He crafted and coordinated our day at Domaine LeSeurre, Hermann J. Wiemer, Hector Wine Co., and Atwater. And shout-out to Maiah (@chasinggrapeness) for adding to our fun!