A Second Look at Finger Lakes Reds

I think most people go through what I would call "wine falsehood" phases during which they make inaccurate assumptions or generalizations about a grape or region. For me, it was an "East Coast wine isn't for me" phase. Until I became seriously interested in wine, my only experiences with U.S. East Coast wines were limited to sweet and foxy homemade wines. This isn't to say that good homemade wines from North American grapes don't exist. It is to say that first impressions are not always accurate.

Then as I learned more about East Coast wines, I become enamored with Finger Lakes Riesling. My first trip to the Finger Lakes in June 2019 solidified my obsession with their high acid white wines, making them a regular on my wine rack. But there was something missing. I still felt indifferent toward the region's red wines. If you had asked me for my favorite wines from the Finger Lakes, I might have included a few reds, but mostly my answer would have been, "Riesling!!!!"

Perhaps the crisp autumn weather helped because on my second trip to the Finger Lakes I gained a new appreciation for its red wines. It feels like I've discovered this cool region in upstate New York all over again! Finger Lakes reds are some of the most expressive wines I've had recently, full of earth, spice, and of course, acidity. Depending on the grape, you'll find fruit notes like cranberry, blueberry, and blackberry. If you enjoy full-bodied, structured blends, there's a wide selection. If you lean toward light and elegant, look no further, this is the region for you. There's truly something for everyone!

In wine we often discuss "aha moments." My Finger Lakes red wine aha moment was at Hermann J. Wiemer on the west side of Seneca Lake. At HJW, we had the opportunity to compare two vintages of Pinot Noir, exactly 10 years apart: 2009 and 2019. Externally, I explained the differences to my parents, and internally, a lightbulb flickered on in my head. Had these red wines been here the whole time? As it turns out, they had.

But better late than never! Below you'll find some of my favorites, both from my trip and other recent tastings with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. Whether you want a weekday sipper or a holiday showstopper, there's a Finger Lakes red wine for you.

It's time to try FLX reds

Finger Lakes red wines to look for

Silver Thread Vineyard 2018 Blackbird, $32

Getting to Silver Thread is a little adventure down a dirt road on the east side of Seneca Lake. Once you reach the winery, you're surrounded by vines, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and red grapes for their estate-grown Blackbird blend. A combination of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, this fruity and earthy wine proves that the challenging 2018 vintage produced some good grapes, despite lower yields.

Sheldrake Point Winery 2016 Reserve Meritage, $28

Does the cooler weather have you reaching for cozy red wines? If yes, add this to your line-up. (If no, who are you?) This rich red is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc aged in old French oak barrels. The cocoa and spice notes give me Bordeaux vibes, but the acidity is distinctly Finger Lakes. I paired this with a lakeside campfire and was not disappointed!

Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars 2018 T23 Unoaked Cabernet Franc, $20

If you're on a budget and want to try just one wine on this list, make it this one. Estate bottled from the Passmore Vineyard, this is a fun and fruity Cabernet Franc that reminds me of both Chinon and Beaujolais. (Especially the 2019, which has undergone carbonic maceration.) Named after stainless steel tank #23, its cherry and cranberry notes would be delicious with all your favorite fall foods.

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard 2019 Lemberger, $29

While the debate over its name goes on, there's no question that Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) thrives in the Finger Lakes. We enjoyed this Austrian variety at a few wineries, but the most memorable examples were from Hermann J. Wiemer's Magdalena vineyard. In a side-by-side comparison of 2016 and 2019, both shared white pepper and blueberries. The 2016 also had a chocolate-covered blueberry note that I think the 2019 will show in a few years.

Billsboro Winery 2018 Liedenfrost Vineyard Pinot Noir, $28

I should say, "I don't pick favorites," but in reality, I love picking favorites. While there are some very close contenders (T23, looking at you), Billsboro's single vineyard Pinot Noir takes the prize. Despite a very challenging 2018 vintage marred by wet weather, winemaker Vinny Aliperti managed to craft a compelling Pinot Noir that leaves me wondering, "what's an ideal vintage like?!" This is both a "thinker" and a "drinker." A wine that is layered and nuanced, but disappears way too easily.

Ravines Wine Cellar 2017 Maximilien, $25

Sitting on the patio of a French farmhouse-style winery overlooking Keuka Lake, you have to wonder if it is the wine or the views. But having tasted many of Ravines wines in various settings, I can confidently say: it is both. The winery is wonderful, and the wine is even better. The Bordeaux-style Maximilien is an estate-grown blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot inspired by classic Right Bank wines. Given its structure and finesse, I think it's one of the best buys for your money in the region.

Barnstormer Winery 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, $26

Barnstormer is a new-ish winery working with seven grape growers around Seneca Lake. Their focus is on Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Blaufränkisch (Lemberger), but it was their Cabernet Sauvignon that stood out to me. It is sourced from one of the best red grape vineyards in the region, Sawmill Creek. Located on the south east end of Seneca Lake, this vineyard is also central to Hector Wine Company's production.

Hector Wine Company 2018 Merlot, $26

At Hector, there's no fining or filtering, but there's plenty of soul. In fact, "wine made with soul" is their motto and it shows across their wines, especially the reds. In addition to the flagship red blend "Essence," they make Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, and my favorite, Merlot. Sadly I didn't make it to Hector to try the new vintage in bottle, but we did try it in barrel in June 2019. (And their 2017 Merlot was one of my favorites on my 2019 trip.) 

Bloomer Creek Vineyard 2018 Vin d'été, $25

The current cuvée is a blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Gamay, which is basically my love language. They made another 2018 version under the same name that was 100% Cabernet Franc, but sadly that's already sold out. Both are in homage to the French concept of "glou glou" as the name implies. (Vin d'été translates to summer wine.) Drinkable, chillable, and energetic. If you're into natural wine, this is the one for you!

2009 vs. 2019 Pinot Noir comparison at Hermann J. Wiemer

In my glass: Sheldrake Point Meritage

Considering a trip to the Finger Lakes? Here are five things that surprised me on my first visit.