In New York State, the Finger Lakes region, which has become the third largest wine growing area in the United States, is the champion of the Alsatian grape variety.
Riesling is the grape variety of the Rhine basin par excellence. It has been mentioned in Alsace and southern Germany since 1435; the most audacious historians have attributed it to the argitis minor, a grape variety from Roman times. Installed on the edge of the Vosges or on the more or less steep slopes of the Moselle and the Rhine, it produces wines of great finesse on a beautiful fresh structure. Many consider it to be the world’s largest white wine variety.
For a long time, it remained attached to its favourite terroirs. Alsatians are very careful on the subject: they want to keep it at home and avoid its proliferation in other French regions. Yet, against all odds, he found another favourite area south of Lake Ontario, in New York State. The Finger Lakes form a set of parallel lakes all in length like the fingers of a hand, although there are about ten of them. These long and deep bodies of water have on their edges very beautiful slopes which have nothing to envy to Alsace or the banks of the Moselle, with a very comparable ecosystem.
As early as 1829, the Reverend William Bostwick planted his first vines there, followed by many others. In 1850, Andrew Reisinger, a native of Germany, introduced pruning and modern viticulture, and the phylloxera, a formidable insect that decimated European vines at the end of the 19th century, did not spare the region. And the planting of European varieties on rootstocks, which makes it possible to rebuild Europe’s vineyards, is hampered by the harsh American winters. Producers then turned to the hybrids developed in France, which had their moment of glory at the beginning of the 20th century. Although these hybrids have almost completely disappeared in France today – with the exception of the baco in Armagnac – they remain well established in the Finger Lakes. It is thus possible to taste wines from baco noir and other maréchal foch, not to mention the concord, with a rather special foxé taste, close to crushed strawberry and blackcurrant.
In 1951, Dr Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian, finally found the solution to acclimatize European grape varieties to the harsh winter climate. Today, the Finger Lakes represent a fully-fledged wine-growing area (American Viticultural Area), with nearly 5,000 hectares of vines planted, with production in third place, after the giant California and Washington State. The terroirs, which date back to the last ice age, are particularly well suited to the production of great wines. If the list of grape varieties planted is impressive – it is close to 150, according to the latest counts carried out by the nearby Cornell University -, Riesling is making a remarkable breakthrough. At the last blind tasting, organised in August 2013 by the New York Wine & Food Classic, the winner, in front of more than 800 other wines, was a 2012 Keuka Spring Vineyards Riesling: “An impressive wine of class”, according to René Chazottes, a French master sommelier who has lived in California for thirty years.
New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a likely Democratic candidate in the upcoming presidential election, came himself to present the coveted cup after spending all day in the vineyard. His state includes nearly 500 wineries, cider factories, breweries and other distilleries, a group mediated by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and its president, the very active Jim Trezise, who gradually manages to coordinate all the disparate initiatives.
Beautifully located on the shores of the lakes, wine tourism has become a major challenge for the region and the least winery has beautiful facilities, with always tasting rooms and often a catering proposal. The climate is very pleasant, without excess heat, the very deep lakes acting as climatic dampers.
Among the 150 grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon and all the reds, Riesling is gradually emerging as the largest in the region. Certainly, much remains to be done, especially on the side of viticulture, which is often more oriented towards quantity than quality. But the road is now paved.