New York’s ‘Other’ Wines Are Rising Stars

In New York’s Finger Lakes region, Riesling is the undisputed king. On Long Island, Merlot reigns supreme.

But even kings have their princes and princesses and other members of the royal court who jockey for attention. And such it is for New York’s “other” grapes, which are slowly making a name for themselves in prime wine-producing regions across the Empire State.

The New York State wine industry already boasts 450 wine producers working nearly 12,000 acres of vineyards. The state’s wine-producing sector generates more than 100,000 jobs, more than $5 billion in wages and a total economic impact of $13.8 billion, according to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. So it makes sense not to put all the grapes into one varietal basket (or two).

Chris Stamp is co-owner and winemaker of Lakewood Vineyards, which has been producing wine in Yates County on the west side of Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region since 1988. Yates County is the largest grower of wine grapes outside of California, with more than 5,000 acres of vineyards and 20 wineries, and Rieslings made in many different styles and sweetness levels fill the tasting room menus.

Even though his personal email address incorporates the term “rieslingking,” Stamp says he cultivates and produces wine from several other varietals ― including Valvin Muscat, Cayuga and Lemberger ― that perform very well in Yates County and elsewhere in upstate New York.

“The Valvin Muscat and Cayuga White varieties were bred for the climate in the Finger Lakes, because they are both hybrids developed by Cornell University at their research station on the North end of Seneca Lake,” says Stamp, who has served for several years as a judge at the Ohio Wine Competition.

Cayuga is widely grown and used in the region, but the varietal name doesn’t appear on many labels. Often it is labeled and sold under a fanciful name or as part of a blend, Stamp says. “Our Candeo sparkling wine is 100 percent Cayuga, and our Long Stem White is 65 percent Cayuga and 35 Vidal Blanc.”

Finger Lakes winemakers are still in the experimentation stage with Lemberger, which also goes by the name Blaufränkisch. “We can’t even decide what to call it yet,” Stamp says.

For now, Lakewood is producing Lemberger as a dry, barrel-aged wine, “and we are very happy with the results,” Stamp says. “We have reduced the time in oak over the last couple of years and have started using older barrels” that impart a subtle barrel-aged character.

Tracey Dello Stritto, executive director of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, also singled out Lemberger as an up-and-coming varietal.

“Many growers have experimented with it in the past decade and have found that it is more consistent than Pinot Noir, and it responds well to our climate and terroir,” Dello Stritto says.

“While some producers have been growing or making Lemberger for decades, more are now producing it based on its consistent track record.  It’s another cool climate varietal that doesn’t get a lot of recognition with consumers, so there is a bit of education to share at the tasting counters.”

Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Gris are among other varietals gaining favor in the Finger Lakes. The region’s wineries are working to educate tasting-room visitors on the complexities and nuances of cool-climate grape varietals, Dello Stritto says.

Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, also is a believer in Cabernet Franc ― and not just in the Finger Lakes.

“Cabernet Franc appears to be another varietal that grows well across the major grape-growing regions of New York State,” Filler says. “It can be grown in a cool environment, and it has proven to be hardy to survive our winters.  It also serves as the base grape for many of the rosés now being produced in the state.”

New York’s “other” grapes may not be ready for their leading role on Broadway just yet – but these understudies are polishing their skills and waiting for their opportunity to seize the spotlight.

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