The Grapes of New York State

Today’s blog was written by Dan Mitchell of Fox Run Vineyards.

The majority of wine drinkers seem to have an inherent belief that “great grapes” and, therefore high-quality wines, have to come from faraway lands, especially hot, dry ones. It’s possible that I may be more sensitive to this notion because we grow grapes in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, where the winter temperatures range from single digits to the mid-30s Fahrenheit (F).

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However, many of the finest traditional wine producing regions of Europe are relatively cool climates such as Germany, Austria and Georgia. While Germany is famed for its Rieslings, many other of the finest and most widely planted varieties in these regions are much lesser known. How was the last Rkatsiteli you tasted?

Here in the Finger Lakes of New York, the same cool climate grape varieties thrive in the microclimates provided by the lakes themselves—11 long, narrow lakes carved out some 12,500 years ago by the last glacial retreat. Our farm is situated on Seneca Lake, a lake that is 650 feet deep and virtually never freezes over. The radiation of the above-freezing temperatures from the lake create a climate that is vital to surviving the otherwise frozen tundra of Upstate New York.

At Fox Run Vineyards we’ve capitalized on these microclimates—we have close to 50 acres planted of traditional Vinifera (European) grape varieties. A majority of our plantings are made up of Riesling (17 acres), Chardonnay (8.5 acres), Lemberger (6 acres) and Cabernet Franc (4.5 acres).

The flavor profiles and complexity of these varietals is quite different from their warmer-climate counterparts. And now, many judges, writers, sommeliers and other wine professionals are starting to recognize and seek out wines from the Finger Lakes and New York state for their uniqueness, enhanced by the cooler climate. In fact, the most recent issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine showcased New York state red wines, saying: “Exemplifying a sense of balance often elusive elsewhere in the New World, the state’s best red wines marry ripeness and restraint, richness and acidity.”

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Every grape variety has a different winter hardiness threshold, the temperature at which the buds of the vine start to sustain damage. Here at Fox Run Vineyards, our vineyard manager John Kaiser automatically expects 50% bud damage every year. That means after harvest, he prunes each vine and leaves roughly 40% of the buds on the vine for the next growing season. Half of these will not survive due to winter damage or just failure to sprout. Two of our primary vinifera varieties, Riesling and Cabernet Franc, experience some winter damage if the temperature (usually overnight) reaches -4.2F. By -7.1F they lose 50% of their buds, and by -12.4F they lose 90% of their buds. Even so, the microclimate helps to boost their resiliency. By comparison, in Washington state, Riesling will lose 90% of its buds by -2.0F.

Each spring, John plants about 1,500 new vines to replace vines either killed by winter damage, “tractor blight,” or just plain old age. After an especially damaging winter, as the last three consecutive winters have been, that number could be as high as 5,000.

And new vines aren’t just out for one year. After assessing the damage and replanting, it will be roughly four years before we see a usable yield of fruit. However, sometimes winter damage doesn’t show its effect for another year or two, so severe damage could put a vineyard area out of production for up to six years.

Needless to say, cool climate grape growing is not for the faint of heart. But the incredibly unique flavor profiles and balance make the challenges absolutely worth it.

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