Story by Terence Lane. Photos provided by the wineries.
Last May, as Americans grappled with the realities of the pandemic, the vineyards of the Finger Lakes were squirming with life. Vitis labrusca, the native grape species, was among the first to awaken from winter dormancy. Buds swelled and burst out of the canes. The shoots of Concord and Niagara appeared just in time for a late spring frost event.
“The labruscas just got hammered,” said Dave Stamp, vineyard manager at Lakewood Vineyards on Seneca Lake. “We usually get eight to ten tons of Niagara an acre. This year it was a little under a ton.”
Referred to as “slip-skins” for the way their skins slip off the pulp when squeezed, notable labrusca varieties consist of Niagara, Delaware, Concord, and Catawba. In addition to winemaking, they’re used for juices, jellies, and pies. While these resilient vines are built for cool-climate performance, the low temps in early May dealt a crushing blow. As hope for a successful year dwindled, with coronavirus tearing through the air, something changed. The sun came out.
June brought the heat and blew the chill off the vines. What followed was an all but unblemished set of hot, sunny days. “Between June and the last week of September we saw maybe three inches of rain,” said Stamp.
The extreme shift in temperature quickly made up for lost time in the vineyards. European Vitis vinifera grapes—Lemberger, Riesling, Pinot Noir—moved swiftly from bloom to veraison, the softening that gives way to ripeness. The berries sweetened and took on color.
Meaghan Frank, general manager at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery on Keuka Lake, was especially optimistic about this year’s turnout. “It’s looking exceptional,” she said. “Clean fruit, full ripeness. We’re seeing brix up to 23, 24 degrees.”
Brix is a measure of sugar in the grape. The riper the grape, the higher the brix. While mouthwatering acidity in Finger Lakes white wines is almost a given, that extra punch of ripeness worked wonders for the reds.
“Some of the grapes are smaller so there’s a higher skin-to-juice ratio,” said Frank. “It adds more texture to the wine.”
Smaller grapes also mean less wine and could potentially lead to price increases, especially if quality is high.
Rick Rainey, winemaker/partner at Forge Cellars in Burdett, was able to grow Pinot Noir on his home farm organically and bio-intensively in the absence of disease.
“It was lovely . . . though not nearly enough of it, unfortunately,” he said.
Pinot Noir takes its name from “pine cone,” after the cone-like shape of its clusters. The indigo-colored grapes grow in tight bunches, making them famously susceptible to sour rot and a host of other maladies, including bird strikes.
Shortages in the labrusca department were made up for on some farms in what appeared to be a surfeit of near-perfect Riesling, the crown jewel of the Finger Lakes. To know Riesling is to know its haunting range of complexity. A nose of white orchard fruit and flowers leads to a palate of citrus and flint. Dry Riesling pairs beautifully with sashimi, scallops, and soft cheeses. The sweeter styles play well with zesty, aromatic fare like jerk chicken and curry, foods notoriously tricky to pair. There’s a Riesling for every palate.
“My estimation is that this will be a bit like 2016 and favor everyone across the board,” said Rainey. “Not a lot of challenges thus far, but after 2018 and 2019 we all needed a break.”
The mercurial cool climate of the Finger Lakes makes grape growing an annual wildcard.
“Winemakers here are constantly having to adapt and be creative to make the best wines possible,” said Frank. “Good weather during our short growing season is not a given as it is in other regions.”
A vintage like this, especially during such a trying time, makes it feel somehow greater than its parts. A reminder that the earth works on a rhythm separate from our own. That it can reward us even in the darkest of times.
Terence Lane is a former New York City-based sommelier now making his way through the vineyards of the Finger Lakes. He works in the tasting room at Lakewood Vineyards on Seneca Lake.