October 21, 2016
GROWING GRAPES IN NEW YORK
Does it seem a bit far fetched to compare the geography of France and New York State in a column about grape growing and wine making? Well, having lived in both places it seems perfectly natural to me. Even though France is almost four times larger than New York (213,000 to 55,000 square miles), both have multiple, and varied, grape growing regions.
Going from north to south in France there’s the Champagne Region and the Loire River Valley, and in eastern France, running north to south, is Burgundy. On the west coast you’ll find Bordeaux, and in the southeast lies the Rhone Valley, Languedoc, and Roussillon. France has more than a million hectares of vineyards!
Just like in France, there are several areas in New York where grapes grow well. In the extreme north are the Lake Erie region, the Thousand Island region, and the Niagara Escarpment. As you travel south there are the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Valley, and Long Island.
For this column I’ll concentrate on just one area: the Finger Lakes, however the principles outlined here apply to all micro climates whether in France, New York, or elsewhere.
Seneca and Cayuga Lakes are the largest and deepest of the eleven lakes which make up the Finger Lakes. These water-filled glacial trenches act as storage tanks, retaining the heat of the sun and moderating temperatures as cold winter winds move in. The heat from the lake can extend the growing season in autumn, helping to keep frost off the plants. And in winter, proximity to the lake can mitigate the damage from extreme low temperatures. The seemingly small variance from -11 to -15 degrees can make all the difference to a vintner’s bottom line as those four degrees could determine whether buds will freeze or not.
Orientation to the lake also plays a role. The Finger Lakes run north-south and the prevailing winds usually come from the west. As winds cross the lakes, they pick up the warm air rising from the water and bring it to the eastern shores, often causing the east to be 2-3 degrees warmer than the west. Eastern shores are also warmer because they are the beneficiaries of direct afternoon sunshine.
When the sun rises in the east it shines on the west shore and helps to burn the morning dew off the leaves and warms the plants. This restarts the plant growth that was suspended during the night.
For pragmatic reasons, winemakers tend to divide lake shores into four different micro climates: the east and west banks, and the upper and lower levels of each. The areas closest to the water get the benefit of the stored heat, while the upper levels are unprotected from the wind and cold.
So what does this mean to the winemaker? For one thing, it suggests that more tender grapes should be planted near the lake, and hardier varieties on the upper levels.
I recently had lunch with Steve DiFrancesco, who has been the winemaker for Knapp Winery and Glenora Winecellars for more than 20 years. Glenora is located on the west shore of Seneca Lake and Steve uses Route 414, which runs north-south between Watkins Glen and Geneva, as his own personal marker for which grapes to plant at different levels.
For example, below 414, closer to the lake, Steve grows grapes such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Blanc. Moving up the ridge above the road, he plants the more weather-resistant vines like Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, Cayuga White, and Geneva Red. The local-sounding names of the last two might lead you to surmise that they were developed by Cornell University, which is true.
Speaking of Cornell, their research facilities in Geneva and the professional expertise of their scientists have earned world-wide renown. In fact, some winery owners have located their vineyards and wineries in the area just to be close to Cornell.
Cornell scientists graft disease-resistant native grape rootstocks with more tender and complex flavored European grapes (vinifera) to combine the best qualities of each. Four of the most popular vinifera grapes in the Finger Lakes are Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. The two most prolific native grapes are Concord (red) and Niagara (white), however most of the production of these two varieties goes into juice.
Whether you’re growing grapes on a lake in a single state in the U.S., or in a large country like France, the weather and the soil may be different, but the same grape growing principles will apply.