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The Finger Lakes AVA

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | January 28, 2012

The Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York has long been recognized for its scenic beauty, vast resources and historical importance. Throughout history any visitor to the Finger Lakes area has immediately come to appreciate the scenic diversity and natural beauty of the region. Touring the various state parks and viewing some of the waterfalls, rock formations and of course the lakes themselves is proof of this fact. In addition to this, the Finger Lakes area offers some of the best land for agricultural endeavors within the United States. Finally, the Finger Lakes holds historical importance as in 1848 the first Women's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls. The development of winemaking in the Finger Lakes area comes as no surprise when taking into account the many positive characteristics of the region.

The Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York gets it name from the various lakes found within the region. The lakes of the Finger Lakes area are long narrow lakes laid out in a side-by-side fashion, resulting in the lakes being parallel to one another. The Native American tribes believed that the Finger Lakes were formed by the imprint of the hands of the Great Spirit, hence the name. From a geological standpoint, the lakes were formed by glacial activity eons ago. The resulting glacial activity and their eventual retreat left an area with prime soil conditions and an abundant supply of fresh water.

With prime agricultural conditions as well as a continued influx of settlers and regional development, it was only a matter of time until vineyards were introduced to the Finger Lakes region. Winemaking itself was late in coming to the Finger Lakes area. In 1829 the Reverend William Bostwick planted Isabella and Catawba varieties in his rectory garden. From this humble beginning came the birth of winemaking in the Finger Lakes region.

Since these early winemaking days, various important developments have occurred with winemaking in the Finger Lakes. Readers should refer to the article History of New York Winemaking for a more detailed explanation of early winemaking developments in New York State. Looking from the 1960's and forward, five large wineries--Pleasant Valley, Gold Seal, Taylor, Canandaigua and Widmer's--were responsible for the development of the Finger Lakes Wine Industry. Change was however on the horizon. Political changes as well as an amazing development in 1961 ushered in a whole new paradigm for the Finger Lakes region.

Politically speaking, the remnants of the 1920s Prohibition movement were still strong in Upstate New York and as such shaped the resulting Repeal legislation. This resulted in economic hardships being created, which effectively stifled the development of new wineries. The Farm Winery Act of 1976 removed many of the economic hardships and new wineries began to emerge in the Finger Lakes region. Perhaps most importantly was a development that occurred in the early 1960s. During the redevelopment of the Finger Lakes wine industry after Prohibition, vintners turned to planting French-American hybrids rather than Vitis vinifera varieties. That Vitis vinifera was not grown was of little consequence to most people except to Dr. Konstantin Frank and Mr. Charles Fournier. Dr. Konstantin Frank was a Russian born German scientist and an expert in Vitis vinifera. Upon immigrating to the United States after World War II, Dr. Frank made his way to the Finger Lakes region in hopes of finding a career in the winemaking industry. Upon settling in the Finger Lakes area he was surprised to find that Vitis vinifera was not cultivated for wine production. Upon further inquiries he was told that the local climate was too harsh for Vitis vinifera as repeated plantings had failed. Drawing upon his considerable experience, Dr. Frank hypothesized that the Vitis vinifera had failed not due to climate but to disease. His theory's gained the attention of Charles Fournier, president of Gold Seal wineries. Setting out to do what seemed to be impossible, Dr. Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier worked toward the goal of successfully growing Vitis vinifera in the Finger Lakes region. A root stock program was used and in 1957 success was achieved. The plantings of Vitis vinifera grafted on Canada rootstock survived the harsh winter and yielded an excellent crop. The end result of this experiment was the production of the first vinifera wines of New York State.

The success of Dr. Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier forever changed the course of winemaking in the Finger Lakes region as well as the rest of the Northeast United States. Upon realizing the success of Dr. Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier--and also recognizing the changing tastes of the American wine consumer--wineries began embarking on developing vineyards exclusively of Vitis vinifera varietals. Today new vineyard plantings of Vitis vinifera in New York State exceed 400%.

Both the political changes and the varietal changes have had a huge impact on the development of winemaking in the Finger Lakes region. New vineyard development is no longer confined to five large wineries but to the countless smaller "Farm Wineries" surrounding the Finger Lakes. These "Farm Wineries" fill a niche market and specialize in predominately Vitis vinifera varietal wines. It is important to note that the purpose of this article is not to promote one winery over another, but to rather showcase the development of "Farm Wineries". Thus, two of the first "Farm Wineries"--Glenora Wine Cellars and Wagners--are still going strong today. A review of the various awards won by the various "Farm Wineries" demonstrates the quality of wines produced in the Finger Lakes area. A list can be found in the New York Wine Course and Reference and is quite impressive.

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With respect to the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA), various microclimates and soil conditions exist. Most important in the localized microclimates are the lakes themselves. The glacial development of the Finger Lakes has left some unique characteristics. For example Seneca Lake--the largest of the Finger Lakes by volume--is 600 feet deep. The characteristics of the various Finger Lakes include lakes that typically do not freeze over. As such, temperatures of nearby vineyards are positively moderated year round. This moderation combined with specific soil types leads to growing conditions very similar to the wine regions of Europe, particularly those conditions found in the Rhine wine growing areas. This is one of the main reasons why Finger Lakes Riesling wines are praised for their quality. Soil types found in the Finger Lakes AVA alternate between layers of sandstone & shale in the south and calcareous shale in the North. As the calcareous shale soil lends itself better to agricultural purposes, vineyard development is slightly easier in the northern part of the Finger Lakes AVA. The growing season of the Finger Lakes AVA is roughly 190 to 200 days with the moderating effect of the lakes protecting the vines from freezes due to frost. Grape varieties found in the Finger Lakes AVA include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot gris, Isabella, Catawba, Concord, Delaware and Niagara, to name a few.

The Finger Lakes AVA is further sub-divided containing 2 additional AVAs--the Seneca Lake AVA and the Cayuga Lake AVA. The Seneca Lake AVA was established in 2003 and contains roughly 3,756 acres of vineyards. The Cayuga Lake AVA was established in 1988 and contains roughly 460 acres of vineyards. Both AVAs are roughly contained to the lake for which they are named.

As the enjoyment of wine is ever increasing in American's lives, the continued development of the Finger Lakes region is only natural. With the amount of wineries surrounding the lakes today, many people find that the Finger Lakes region is an excellent vacation spot.

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