A taste of home outside the Finger Lakes
By Laura Winter Falk
During the Finger Lakes off-season, one of my family’s favorite things to do is visit other off-season regions around New York State. Just like in the FLX, there is a serenity and peacefulness to these small towns and villages that creates a magical backdrop for some nice R&R during the winter season. A last-minute decision found us driving just a short 2.5 hours north to the beautiful Thousand Island region of our state – a 50-mile archipelago of 1,864 islands that protrude out of the head of the Saint Lawrence River flowing east out of Lake Ontario. At first, I was struck with how different in was from the Finger Lakes. Instead of rolling hills of sedimentary shale, you have flatlands of exposed granite and shist bedrock. Instead of the stillness of the lakes at sunset, I was taken aback by how fast the river currents flowed. But when you dig a little deeper (warning, bad pun), you discover that like the Finger Lakes, the defining geological characteristic of the region (its thousands of islands) was also created by the glaciers retreating from Lake Ontario. But instead of creating long, deep lakes, they exposed the tips of an ancient granitic mountain range that was later filled in by the flooding river. The river creates a meso-climate that is supporting a small, but burgeoning cool-climate wine industry. So just like every vacation since 2014, we set out to discover the local wines of our holiday destination.
Thousand Islands Winery, located in Alexandria Bay, is the oldest and by far the largest of the Thousand Island wineries (There are seven on the Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail, but I counted of a total ten in the region). Founded in 2003 by Steve Conaway, the winery has 40 acres of vineyards of cold-hardy hybrid varieties that include the University of Minnesota varietals Marquette, Frontenac, and LaCrescent. The winemaking program is headed up by Australian native James Radcliffe. James actually spent two years in the Finger Lakes back in the early 2000s as an assistant winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank. I had the pleasure of meeting assistant winemaker Kevin DeRue and wine lab technician Merisa Soluri, who graciously gave us a tour of the winemaking facilities. That is when I discovered the soaring ceiling-high tanks holding tens of thousands of liters of wines, which immediately informed me that this was not a small winery. In fact, this farm winery produces 130-thousand gallons of wine each year to its enthusiastic North Country (and beyond) fans. The Thousand Island wine-growing region is significantly colder than the Finger Lakes with an average total 2100 growing-degree-days in a season verses the 2500 in the FLX. This is why the Minnesota hybrids are so important here. However, when one peruses the tasting menu and finds Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Grigio among the twenty-three wines vinified at the winery. This is where we discovered another connection to the Finger Lakes. Thousand Islands Winery, like so many other farm wineries in the state relies on New York State growers from other regions to diversify their wine offerings. Specifically, each year, the winery purchases these vinifera varieties from Morris Vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake that provided a little flavor of “home” when I tasted through selections on their wine list. Their prices are really affordable as well, so it’s really easy to take home some consumable souvenirs. So next time you are looking for a quick getaway, I suggest making the easy trip up Interstate 81 and discover what this winery and the beautiful region has to offer.
2020 Chardonnay ($13.89) – Barrel fermented in American Oak, this wine beautiful concentrated ripe aromas indicative of the beautiful 2020 vintage. 100% Finger Lakes grapes.
2020 Marquette ($15.99) – This is their dry red estate varietal that had some lovely undernotes of blackberry with overall bright cherry and spice character.
2020 Captain’s Select ($12.99) – A dry red blend of estate hybrids Marquette, Vincent, Chambourcin and Maréchal Foch that creates an easy-drinking everyday red with expressive fruit and acid, and light tannins.
*Bourbon-Barrel Marquette (unreleased) – This was our favorite of all the wines tasted. Sampled from one small bourbon barrel from Iron Smoke Distillery in Fairport, this single-trial experiment created a distinctive full-bodied red wine with fresh black berry, toffee and toast aromatics. On the palate you got the full-on bourbon flavors in the front that quickly evolved into rich black fruit and spice flavors in the mid-palate, and a beautiful fruit and vanilla finish. I am typically skeptical of bourbon-barrel wines, as they are often overpowered by the barrel influences. However, this wine was surprisingly balanced with tons of character and will continue to evolve and integrate until they decide to release it. When it becomes available, it’s going to go fast as there will be only around 150 bottles coming out of that one small barrel. Let’s hope they decide to make more.
Laura Winter Falk owns Experience! The Finger Lakes, a touring and events company. She holds a PhD in food and nutrition, is a Certified Sommelier and is an adjunct professor of wine at Tompkins Cortland Community College.