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The Earthly Story of the Finger Lakes: A Unique American Terroir
By Wayne Belding
Jul 3, 2018
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The Finger Lakes of New York State have, after many decades, become recognized as a significant winegrowing region of the United States.  National publications now rate the Finger Lakes as one of the top wine regions for visiting.  The Finger Lakes (FLX to the locals) are indeed a beautiful spot to visit and definitely rising in notoriety throughout the wine world.

The Finger Lakes from the Air

The Finger Lakes lie at 42 degrees of latitude -- equivalent to Rías Baixas, Rioja, Bandol, Tasmania, and New Zealand’s Waipara.  There are eleven lakes within the Finger Lakes AVA.  Most of the vineyards are located around three of them -- Cayuga (25 wineries), Seneca (61 wineries) and Keuka (19 wineries).  These large bodies of water provide a needed moderating influence during the sometimes brutally cold winter months.

Map of the Finger Lakes Region

How did the unique terroir of the Lakes develop?  It’s a complex story that stretches back some 380 million years -- the Devonian Period to geologists.  In Devonian times, the position of the precursor to the North American continent was near the equator.  An ancient mountain range -- The Acadian Highlands – had risen to the east and sediments eroded from that upland area became the thousands of feet of dark shale that now form the bedrock of the majority of the Finger Lakes.

Devonian Shale Beds in the Finger Lakes

Fast forward some 378 million years and we find that the continental masses have changed.  North America has separated from Eurasia and moved to its current latitude.  This is the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch, the great ice age that transformed the topography of the northern part of the continent, including the Finger Lakes.  During the Pleistocene, masses of glacial ice, thousands of feet thick, moved south from Canada.  As they did, they moved across the Lake Plains of New York and bumped up against the 2000-foot high Allegheny Plateau.  The glaciers kept moving, however, gouging deeply into the land surface beneath, until they reached sufficient thickness to override the Allegheny Plateau and continue their march to the south.

Continental glaciers have the ability to pulverize and move massive amounts of sediment.  When climate changed and the ice sheets retreated, they dropped the sediments they were pushing forward wherever the forward motion stopped -- these are known as end moraines.  The ice masses retreated in fits and starts, with the retreat interrupted by re-advances and subsequent end moraines.  The southward drainage pattern of the region during the glacial maximum changed as the glaciers retreated. In the Finger Lakes, drainage to the south was blocked by end moraine deposits and thus turned north to its present configuration.

Moraines at the South End of Cayuga Lake

The result of this glacial back and forth action was the formation of the Finger Lakes.  Seneca Lake is the largest and deepest.  The glaciers carved a valley some 1450 feet below the current lake surface -- that’s 1000 feet below sea level.  Post-glacial deposition has filled in hundreds of feet of sediments, but Seneca Lake remains 610 feet deep at its maximum.  Cayuga Lake has a maximum depth of 433 feet and Keuka Lake 187 feet.  It’s clear that Seneca Lake has the strongest influence on the local microclimate, and it shows in the weather station data.  The average minimum temperature from October through April is 2 to 2.5 degrees warmer on the shores of Seneca than it is for stations away from the lake.  Vineyard plantings do not stray far from the lakeshores as the climate quickly becomes too difficult for consistent production.

Wine grapes were first planted in the Finger Lakes in the early 1800’s.  Reverend William Bostwick planted the first vines in Hammondsport, at the south end of Keuka Lake, in 1829.  Demand for grapes grew over the next few decades and, in 1860, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company became the first bonded winery in the United States.  Plantings were largely natural hybrids like Isabella and Catawba.  Vitis vinifera vines had routinely died in eastern sites due to the yet-to-be-identified phylloxera.  By 1889, there were nearly fifteen thousand acres of vineyard in the Finger Lakes region.

Prohibition in 1920 ended the bulk of wine production in the Finger Lakes as well as the rest of the United States.  Although Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the wine industry languished through the Great Depression and World War Two years before beginning to rebound in the postwar era.  It was in 1952 that Dr. Konstantin Frank, a horticulturist from the Ukraine, arrived in the Finger Lakes.  Dr. Frank was convinced that vitis vinifera grapes could grow in the region since they had survived the even greater cold of the Ukranian winters.  Combining his efforts with winemaker Charles Fournier of Gold Seal Winery in Hammondsport, he began planting vinifera varieties with success.  Ultimately, Dr. Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars on the west shore of Keuka Lake in 1962.

In 1976, the Farm Winery Law was enacted in New York, allowing wineries to sell their wines directly to consumers.  Now, forty plus years later, the number of wineries in New York has grown from a mere 19 in 1976 to over 400 today.  Wine tourism is now a big business in the Finger Lakes and many wineries have facilities to support concerts and weddings in addition to tasting rooms.

Today, there are three AVAs in the area -- Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake.  Vinifera grapes are widely planted in the warmest sites along the lakeshores, but there are still many plantings of hybrid and native vines.  Of the 9000+ acres of vineyard in the Finger Lakes, only about 23% are vitis vinifera.  Riesling accounts for about a third of the vinifera plantings, but there is increasing interest in red varieties.  Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Merlot comprise about twenty percent of vinifera vineyards.

Vineyards in Winter on Seneca Lake

Grapes can ripen fully in the warmer spots along the Finger Lakes.  A look at the mean growing season temperatures shows that, for June-July-August, the Finger Lakes are warmer than Bordeaux, Germany’s Pfalz, and the Napa Valley.  It is the sporadic extreme cold of the winters, rather than insufficient heat in summers, that limits the FLX vineyard area.

There are many new and exciting developments in the Finger Lakes.  Sparkling wines are growing in popularity.  There is plenty of acidity in many Finger Lakes grapes, creating excellent base wines for sparkling wine production.  Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris are all planted in significant amounts as well.  There are many new vineyards and wineries, as well as new financial investment.  The Finger Lakes are recapturing the innovative spirit that made the region so important in US wine history.  Take some time if you are in the region to explore and enjoy this magnificent American terroir.