A New York State of Wine – Special Feature

By Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation

A wave of exemplary wines from New York State are about to reach our Ontario shores with a springtime LCBO release featuring eight wines from across the state. Four of the eight wines are available online as LCBO Destination Collection – Wines of New York on April 26th while the remaining four will be made available at Vintages stores as part of the May 15th release. The WineAlign team has had a chance to taste almost all of the LCBO release wines, a full listing can be found below with links to our full reviews. In addition to the LCBO release, the WineAlign team tasted two other New York wines available through consignment agents.

Despite our close proximity here in Ontario to New York’s Finger Lakes region, New York wines have been scarce in our local wine shops. Conversely, Ontario’s wines are not in wide supply in New York. The Niagara Peninsula and the Finger Lakes share much in common including size, a moderating lake effect, long sunshine hours, as well as an uphill battle in competing with a wide selection of international wines in their own local markets. It is perhaps these similarities which have kept them from focusing on entering each other’s markets in the past. Yet over the years they have developed distinct differences, styles and personalities, along with a stronger international reverence, making this an excellent time for these neighbouring regions to re-discover one another. 

New York Wine Virtual Tasting Series

Check out this excellent opportunity to taste New York wines by way of the New York Virtual Tasting Series. There are five virtual tastings in the series which can be bought individually for $50 or save $25 and buy all five virtual tastings for just $225. This includes charcuterie and delivery right to your home! Organized by Sips Toronto.

New York is changing rapidly. Since I last visited almost two years ago, regions like the Hudson River Valley and Long Island have succeeded in catching the eye of critics and sommeliers by dialling back oak treatments and focusing on fresh reds such as cabernet franc. They have easily risen to the challenge of increasing the production of rosés and sparkling wines. Small but savvy, The Hamptons growing region of the South Fork of Long Island, whose prohibitive real estate prices are 10 x that of the prolific North Fork, have begun to edge into the premium rosé market with a captive audience at bay. The Finger Lakes does riesling incredibly well, but cabernet franc is speedily gaining in repute along with rosé and a wide array of grape varieties, many of which have Germanic and eastern European origins such as grüner veltliner, blaufränkisch and even rkatsiteli.

A Deeper Dive

My latest visit to New York with the WineAlign team to last year’s grand tasting in New York City was derailed when the whole world changed in March. Since then, we have kept in close contact with our winegrowing friends across the border through a series of zoom sessions available from last April. If you’d prefer to listen instead of watch, John and I have also been busy with a five-part podcast series on the subject of New York featuring top producers from across the state, as well as regional overviews and insight on trending styles and little-known facts. Available now is our program on Long Island and Finger Lakes and coming soon, the Riesling of Finger Lakes.

The Lay of the Land

The Wines at the LCBO

There are 11 American Viticultural Areas or AVAs (delimited wine growing appellations). Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island are home to most of the wineries, but there are many other AVAs and emerging regions around the state. In the north there are the AVAs of Niagara Escarpment, Lake Ontario, Thousand Islands and Champlain Valley. In the west and centre are found Lake Erie, Central New York, Upper Hudson and Greater Adirondacks. Even New York City itself is a wine region with about 15 wineries or distilleries with most (but not all) grapes originating from outside the city.

Soils and climate play important distinguishing features in the various wine regions of New York. What defines the regions most is either their maritime or continental climates. Maritime regions such as Long Island are directly influenced by the sea which moderates their overall temperature and they have characteristically long growing seasons. Growers in Long Island find themselves in the challenging position of dealing with humid conditions as well as their location directly in the hurricane path.  Another notable maritime region is that of Bordeaux which shares many similarities with Long Island and one of the reasons that the Long Island excels with Bordeaux varieties like cabernets and merlot.

Continental climates are land-locked, like that of the Finger Lakes and have very marked seasonal differences. Large diurnal differences are common here (hot days, cool nights) and there is often significant vintage variation. This type of climate is responsible for making some of the world’s finest wines such as those of Burgundy and our Niagara Peninsula. Growers here are also no stranger to challenging conditions such as spring frost, hail and are often required to bury their vines. Despite the significant manual labour required, growers persist because of the sought-after characteristics of refreshment and vibrancy in the resulting wines.  

As important as the climate particularities may be, soils make a big impact on which grapes are best suited to the region. Two broad categories exist, those that are sandy and those that have heavier clay content. Sandy soils are generally warmer and have better ability to drain making them more suitable to later ripening varieties such as cabernet. These soils can be found throughout Long Island. On the North Fork of Long Island, sandier soils prevail and in The Hamptons, slightly higher clay content is common. The soils of the Finger Lakes are quite complex and are a product of glacial retreat leaving a mix of soils in their wake. Limestone, shale, gravel and silt can be found often with significant clay content. These soil types are perfect for complex rieslings and Burgundian varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay. 

Join the New York State of Wine Cocktail HourSaturday, May 15th at 5pm

Join critics John Szabo and Sara d’Amato for a WineAlign cocktail hour with New York Wines. Sara and John explore our closest wine neighbour and the 4th largest wine region in the US. Grab a glass and join these intrepid critics on this fun and casual hour where you are encouraged to ask questions and join in on the discussion.

Long Island

Long Island is the second largest wine region with over 2,000 acres and 70 wineries. It is more southerly (40 degrees latitude) with a moderate maritime climate and longer growing season. It is hugely influenced by the Atlantic, which deals humidity year ‘round plus strong storms, even hurricanes, in the crucial harvest season. Most wineries are on the more sheltered North Fork AVA at the island’s east end. The South Fork of Long Island is home to the smaller appellation of The Hamptons AVA that is slightly cooler and more influenced by the open water. The landscape is generally flat, the soils are sand and clay with some pockets of gravel and even seashells if close to the shoreline. Humidity and hurricanes are two of Long Island’s biggest challenges. Red vinifera like merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon are the stars here, making New York’s biggest reds, with chardonnay, gewürztraminer and riesling leading the whites, plus small amounts of albariño and chenin blanc.

Long Island aerial view.

Channing Daughters Scuttlehole Chardonnay 2019, Long Island AVA, $29.95 (Available online at the LCBO New York Destination Collection)

Channing Daughters is located on a unique site in Bridgehampton, on the eastern side of Long Island where over two dozen varieties are grown, with an emphasis on Italian, French and Eastern European grapes. Half of their grapes are sourced from the more prominent wine growing region on the Island – North Fork – and thus their labels are reflective of all three of Long Island’s AVA’s: North Fork, The Hamptons and Long Island. With a focus on sustainability and low-interventionist winemaking, Channing Daughters wines are known for their idiosyncratic and sometimes polarizing style. For a low-interventionist style, this chardonnay is rather clean with very little cloud appearance. The choice to keep this free of malo (malolactic fermentation) gives the impression of austerity that is somewhat reminiscent of Chablis.

Wölffer Estate Summer in a Bottle Rosé 2020, Long Island AVA, $38.70 (Available online at the LCBO New York Destination Collection)

The stunning Wölffer Estate in The Hamptons region of Long Island, only 4 km from the Atlantic, includes 55 acres of certified sustainably farmed vineyard in Sagaponack, but the family also manages 52 acres in the North Fork and another 200 acres in Mendoza, Argentina. As is common practice in Long Island, the family grows Bordeaux varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc along with chardonnay. Trebbiano, pinot noir and vignoles are found in small lots and the estate also produces some noteworthy ciders. Christian Wölffer’s estate is now managed by his children Marc and Joey, as well as winemaker and partner, Roman Roth. The Summer inspired series of wine reflects the elevated bohemia of the Hamptons’ seasonally charged lifestyle. This rosé is priced to give premium Provençal rosé a run for its money. Despite the fantastical label the wine deserves more serious attention.

Finger Lakes

By far, the largest of New York’s growing region with 80% of the wine grown in the region. Finger Lakes is also the closest neighbour to those of us living in southwestern Ontario. A 3 ½ hour drive from Toronto or an hour and a half from Niagara Falls. The area was commercially planted in the 1970s after pioneering viticulturalists Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from the Ukraine, and Hermann Wiemer, a native of Bernkastel, Germany, undertook research into the local terroir discovering its suitability to vinifera varieties (European grapes). Fifty years later, Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards are both leading producers of riesling in the region.

Finger Lakes scenic view.

Made up of 11 glacially carved lakes, the most widely planted of the Finger Lakes are those of Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake that have been recognized with their own AVAs. These are also the deepest of the lakes and as such don’t freeze over in the winter. The slopes surrounding Keuka and Canandaigua lakes have been emerging as other regions of importance. Most vineyards are planted to the deep and free-draining soils on the hillsides surrounding the lakes and benefit from a long growing season for slow and even ripening. A multi-faceted terroir, east vs. west bank plantings, divergent soil types and proximity to the lake make for a great degree of site variability. There are currently 146 wineries in the Finger Lakes that focus on a wide array of grape varieties but most notably riesling of all styles, Chinon-esque cabernet franc, pinot noir, and mineral-driven chardonnay. A multitude of other intriguing grape varieties are also grown here in smaller quantities, including grüner veltliner, lemberger (blaufränkisch) and rkatsiteli that are worth seeking out. As was mentioned earlier, the region is also a hotspot for hardier hybrid grape varieties.

Living Roots Wine & Co Cayuga White Pét Nat 2019, Finger Lakes, $35.60 (Available online at the LCBO New York Destination Collection)

Established in both the Finger Lakes and in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, husband and wife team Sebastian (a native of Adelaide and 6th generation winemaker) and Colleen (a marketing specialist of Rochester, NY) have established the winery with a flare for the experimental with a solid foundation of technique and respect for place. While sparkling wine is a growing trend in the Finger Lakes, it comes as no surprise that Living Roots also produces a less conventional, Pét Nat style(a single bottle-fermented sparkling wine). A notably clean example of this style, this gentle bubbly is also quite dry and pleasantly briny with delicately yeasty flavours.

Element Winery Can’t Stop/Won’t Stop 2016, Finger Lakes $32.80 (Available at Nicholas Pearce Wines and by the bottle at Grand Cru Deli & Sips  Wine Store at 304 Richmond St W., Toronto)

The winery of highly decorated Master Sommelier Christopher Bates who was drawn back to his roots in the Finger Lakes region to produce his own label and run the F.L.X. Hospitality Group. The focus of Element Winery is delicate, low alcohol, higher acid wines, high on aromatics, created to match with food. Bates makes wines that are a true expression of place using a low-interventionist approach. True to style, this high energy red blend of cabernet franc, pinot noir, syrah, gamay and merlot with a touch of blaufränkisch is meant to be appreciated in its youthful condition. Drinking at its peak now. In addition, be sure to source out their perspective changing Lemberger the next time you’re in the Finger Lakes.

Heron Hill Reserve Series Pinot Noir 2017, Finger Lakes, $38.15 (Available online at the LCBO New York Destination Collection)

Established in 1972 by John and Josephine Ingle on Canandaigua Lake, now known as the Ingle Vineyard, is the largest site for vinifera on the lake. The winery has had a long-time focus on sustainable production, working with cover crops and manual labour in an attempt to avoid the use of sprays wherever possible, which is a challenge in such a humid climate. This pinot noir is sourced from two different vineyard sites on Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake from a cooler vintage. One of the better examples of pinot noir from the Finger Lakes that can show quite a bit of variability. Elegant with a distinct minerality and saltiness, the flavours are surprisingly concentrated despite the expectedly pale colour. A long fermentation and oak ageing for 14 months in French and American oak has given the wine impressive structure and yet it remains balanced and harmonious.

Wagner Winery Select Riesling 2017, Finger Lakes, $24.95 (May 15th VINTAGES release)

The well-established Wagner Winery resides on the banks of Seneca Lake, the deepest of the Finger Lakes and never freezes. Its ability to moderate the climate is key in making it home to wealth of vinifera grape varieties and it is fast becoming a benchmark destination for riesling. The winery recently celebrated 40 years in the wine business having been founded by Bill Wagner in the late 1970s and now overseen by his son John. Wagner now boasts the largest plantings of riesling in the Finger Lakes with 60-acres grown and can claim that 100% of their fruit is sourced from their own estate. Their prized fruit is also sold to many wineries in the region. This dynamic riesling of medium-sweet character is so finely balanced that it is distinctly nervy and goosebump-inducing. A classic expression of Finger Lakes riesling and a stand-out in this release.

Hosmer Single Wheel Riesling Patrician Verona Vineyard 2017, Finger Lakes/Cayuga Lake, $33.95 (May 15th VINTAGES release)

Cayuga Lakes is home to Hosmer and is the longest of the Finger Lakes, with vineyards resting mainly on its sunny western slopes. Hosmer Winery established itself here in the mid 1980s and has made a name for itself by growing vinifera varieties. Chardonnay is a specialty for the winery and it is the 3rd largest planting on the property (as well as the oldest). Cornell and Adelaide educated winemaker Julia Hoyle is at the winemaking helm of Hosmer, transforming the estate’s Patrician Verona Vineyard fruit into energetic, food-friendly wines that critics love. The 2017 incarnation is notably chalky with intense flavours of lime and bicarbonate. Off-dry, yet still somewhat austere, so hold for another year for best expression, or pair with roasted chicken breast with a blue cheese sauce.

Forge Cellars Dry Riesling Classique 2019, Finger Lakes $38.15 (agent only The Vine)

Lead by winemaker Rick Rainey, Forge specializes in bone dry riesling, cool climate pinot noir and dabbles in cabernet franc from vineyards surrounding Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. Grapes are all hand-harvested and spontaneously fermented with a low interventionist approach. Forge’s single vineyard series offers insight into the diverse terroir and the importance of site selection in the fringe climate of the Finger Lakes. This dry style riesling has just enough ripeness to make it a pleasant solo sipper with a nervy backbone and fruit that ranges from citrus to tropical.

Hudson River Region

Early wine growing dates as far back as the 17th century with both Dutch and Hugenot plantings in the Hudson River Valley, located just north of New York City, but commercial endeavors didn’t begin until the 19th century. The region is one of the very few to subsist through prohibition due to their production of sacramental and medicinal wines. The AVA is situated in the valley created by the Hudson River that runs through the center of New York on its way east towards the Atlantic Ocean and is a conduit for maritime breezes. One of the oldest winegrowing regions in the USA, the Hudson River Region received its designation in 1982. Home to native grape varieties and hybrids, the region is becoming more recently known for its production of riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc.

Brotherhood I Love NY Red, New York, 15.95 (May 15th VINTAGES release)

Well-established in the Hudson River Valley, Brotherhood is the oldest continuously operating winery in America with its roots stretching back to 1839 when it began making wine for medicinal and sacramental purposes. It has steadily grown to become one of the largest producers of wine in the state of New York and has recently celebrated its 175th anniversary.

The I Love NY red is a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and baco noir partially aged in barrel from the Finger Lakes and Long Island (hence the non-AVA specific labelling). Cheerful, upbeat and on the lighter end of the spectrum, this fresh, silky and uncomplicated red is well-priced for weeknight sipping.

There you have it, your complete guide to local offerings available at the LCBO both in your stores and through the LCBO On-Line channels. If these selections have piqued your interest, as borders inevitably begin to re-open, you may want to consider a visit to explore the complexity New York Wine regions have to offer.


Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.