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Seneca Lakes

Compare and contrast: Finger Lakes Wine and BC Wine

by Sujinder Juneja #TownHallOnTour

#FLXWine vs #BCWine

We have been lucky enough to attend the 8th annual Wine Bloggers Conference, a gathering of bloggers (naturally), industry professionals and wine lovers. This year, the event was held in Corning, New York with a focus on the great wines, producers and the people of the Finger Lakes AVA.


A diverse, progressive and passionate industry, the Finger Lakes wine region shares many similarities with that of British Columbia, where we are happy to call home. Here are a few of our observations on the connections between the two regions, for your reading pleasure:

Cool Climate Viticulture

The Finger Lakes and British Columbia are both described as ‘cool climate’ wine regions and on average, share a similar amount of degree growing days. However the Finger Lakes region experiences a highly variable climate, with cold winters, cool to warm summers and a short growing season. While there is diversity of climate within the five main BC wine regions (Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands), the climate is less extreme overall and degree days are higher on average.


Planting Grapes To Site

The most established wine regions in the world plant grape varietals that are best suited to that particular site or climate. The most planted grapes in the Finger Lakes are Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc along with a selection of lesser known Vitis vinifera (Blaufränkisch, Saperavi, Sereksiya Charni), native Vitis labrusca (Catawba, Niagara) and French-American hybrids (Traminette, Vidal, Seyval Blanc, Valvin Muscat) that suit the climate and produce balanced and delicious wines. By contrast, the top white grape varietals in BC are Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds. Other crosses and hybrids such as Ortega, Marechal Foch and select Blattner Hybrids are also planted to produce successful wines. The Finger Lakes and BC wine industries began with native and hybrid varietals with the belief that they would better suit the climate, but consumer preferences in the Fingers Lakes and British Columbia are favouring the more popular vinifera varietals.

Bottled sunshine within the Ventosa Pinot Noir.

What’s Wrong With Hybrids Anyway?

Nothing. If a hybrid grape is grown on a site which allows it to mature to full ripeness, and in the hands of a talented winemaker, they can produce wines that are both balanced and delicious. It’s worth noting that hybrids sell for significantly less by the ton, compared to vinifera varietals, which can affect a winery’s bottom line. Add to that the fact that hybrids are generally less well-known and often hard to pronounce, and therefore market to consumers. One of the most vocal debates during Friday’s Introduction to Finger Lakes Wine Country panel discussion swirled around the contentious use of crosses and hybrids in the region. Consider this: if a hybrid varietal, developed specifically for a particular climate, can produce tasty wines, should they not be celebrated, granting uniqueness to the wine region as a whole? Not all winemakers are convinced. But if you ask someone like Art Hunt at Hunt Country Vineyards, he’ll tell you that his varietally-labelled Seyval Blanc and Valvin Muscat are among their most popular wines. “Millennials want to try new things,” he says. “You can taste 100 Rieslings from the Finger Lakes, but wine drinkers want experience something unique.”

Judy Wiltberger at Keuka Spring Vineyards is proud to show off her Vignoles, a French-American hybrid that sells out every year. In her experience, the key is to market regionally, get people into the tasting room where people can try the wines in person. 70-75% of her sales are through her cellar door and challenging her guests with distinct varietals is a way to excite their palates with something new.

A view towards Seneca Lake.

A Sense of Community

Unlike other more competitive regions in the global wine world, the Finger Lakes and British Columbia both enjoy a strong sense of community and partnership. I know firsthand that winery owners and winemakers in BC regularly collaborate and share information and ideas that make the region stronger as a whole. The same is absolutely true for the wineries of the Finger Lakes. If you had the chance, for example, to taste the Tierce Riesling, made by Fox Run, Anthony Road and Red Newt, you’ll know that the wine – and the wine region – is greater than the sum of its parts.

A Window to the World

The Finger Lakes and British Columbia wineries both face the double-edged sword that most of their wine is consumed in their local areas. The challenge offered by the locavore movement in North America means that major cities such as New York and Vancouver consume most of the wine produced in each respective region. Add to that the high tourism rate that each region enjoys means that most wine is sold via the cellar door, limiting the chance for export and global distribution. What this means is that fewer consumers internationally have the chance to taste the wines and understand what the region is all about. At this point, allocation to outside markets becomes a critical path to increasing the prestige and recognition of the regions as a whole.

Fox Run  Vineyards owner Scott Osborn & Town Hall's Sujinder Juneja.

With Open Arms

At the end of the day and at the end of this conference, the greatest impression left on us about the Finger Lakes wasn’t the wine. It was the people. It wasn’t just the wineries and winemakers that opened their arms to welcome us, but also the restaurants, shops, hotels and the community at large. From our first day in Keuka Lake, throughout the expertly-organized pre-conference excursion and to the last day of the conference itself, there was an excitement and overall warmth that was impossible to ignore, and wonderful to be a part of. When the wine bloggers visited Penticton, British Columbia for #WBC13 it was a similar experience as well. Community, a sense of place, and the celebration of diversity were as much a part of the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference as they are in 2015.

See you in 2016 in Lodi, California.

Bob Halifax, April Yap-Hennig, Leeann Froese, Jeff Kralik at James Melendez at Wine Bloggers Conference 2015.

Finger Lakes Offer Diversity of the Grape

by Sujinder Juneja For #Winesday we look to our wine growing neighbours to the east...

Since grape vineyards were first established in the Finger Lakes region of New York State in the mid 1800s, winemakers and grape growers have never lost their thirst for adventure and experimentation. They work with lesser known and cold hardy varietals and we are looking forward to celebrating the region’s diversity at the Wine Bloggers Conference pre-excursion in August.

Photo by East Lake

The Finger Lakes AVA, officially recognized in 1982, is a cool climate growing region in upstate New York, south of Lake Ontario, and surrounds eleven glacier lakes. These lakes moderate the local microclimate, keeping the it milder in the winter, relative to the rest of the region. Similarly to other cool climate regions such as Germany and Austria, the vines are often planted on steep hillsides near the lakes, offering better drainage, increased sun exposure, with less chance of frost.

Vitis Labrusca vines were first planted in the region in 1829, but it wasn’t until 1862 that commercial viticulture began. For years, the most successful and popular wines from the area were sparkling and sweet, but demand for dry still wines produced from Vitis Vinifera grapes increased after soldiers returned from Europe following World War 2, their tastes influenced by wines from France, Italy and Germany. Unfortunately, the majority of plantings in the region were either from Labrusca or French-American hybrid stock, since previous experiments with Vinifera had failed to yield successful wines.

But in 1951, Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD in viticulture, arrived at the Cornell University Geneva Experiment station where he began grafting the more climate-sensitive Vinifera varietals to native cold-hardy Labrusca rootstock, eventually resulting in commercially and critically successful wines from Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon, among other noble varieties.

WBC15_SenecaLakesWineTrailLogoIn 1986 the Seneca Lake Wine Trail was formed in the heart of New York State’s Finger Lakes Wine Country to attract more visitors to experience its rich history, beauty and production of world-class wines. Today, Seneca Lake Wine Trail is the largest and most active wine trail in New York State with a community of 35 wineries

Even though Riesling and Pinot Noir has become the dominant white and red varietals in the region, Seneca Lake wineries such Villa Bellangelo, Ventosa Vineyards, Anthony Road Wine Company and Fox Run Vineyards, among others continue to push the envelope with interesting and delicious left-of-centre varietals. These include lesser-known Vinifera (Blaufränkisch, Tocai Friulano, Grüner Veltliner), French-American hybrids (Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, Vignoles, Rougeon), native Labrusca (Catawba, Isabella), hybrids developed in the region (Cayuga White, Melody) and three new wine grapes created at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva (Noiret, Corot Noir and Valvin Muscat. While some of these grapes are used in varietally-named wines, most of them are used in blends or sparkling wine.

When we visit the region we look forward to tasting this diversity.