Finger Lakes Wine Tasting Series: Red Wines

We recently participated in a tasting of red wines produced in the Finger Lakes AVA (American Viticultural Area). The Finger Lakes AVA is located in central New York State. This map will help orient you. This AVA is named for the eleven finger-shaped lakes that were carved out by glaciers some 10,000 years ago. These deep fresh water lakes moderate the climate of the area delaying budding in the spring so as to prevent damage from late frost. At the end of the growing season, the lakes absorb heat and warm the surrounding area which results in an extended growing season. Winters are snowy and summers warm to 80 degrees.

An Episcopal minister named William Warner Bostwick was the first to plant grapes in the region in 1829. He planted Vitus Labrusca, a grape native to the eastern United States. For a time wineries in the area produced sparkling wines and by the end of the 19th century 25,000 acres were planted. Phylloxera and Prohibition took a toll on wine making in the region until after World War II.

A major boost to wine growing and wine making in the region is attributed to Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant, who earned a PhD at Odessa Polytechnic Institute before coming to the United States. Dr. Frank’s thesis developed a technique for growing European varietals in a cold climate. He was able to successfully graft European varietals on to native root stock which allowed them to survive the snowy winters. In 1962 he established Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, NY where he successfully grew Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today the Finger Lakes AVA has over 100 wineries with 11,000 acres under vines. There are two sub-appellations within the Finger Lakes AVA, the Cayuga Lake AVA and the Seneca Lake AVA. These large lakes, soil type and steep terrain create unique growing conditions within the larger Finger Lakes AVA.

Finger Lakes AVA is often compared to the Rhine region in Germany because it has a similar climate and because of its success with white varietals. Red wines from the Finger Lake AVA should not be over looked, however. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir have a significant presence in the AVA.

We invited three of our wine tasting friends to sample these wines with us. During the virtual tasting we all watched the video feed from the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance which sponsored the tasting. A winemaker or representative from each winery was present to introduce their wine and tell us a bit about it. We tweeted comments during the tasting and had a chance to ask questions and read what other tasters thought of the wines. It was quite interesting.

Finger Lakes Red WinesSilver Thread Vineyard is a seven acre vineyard located on the east side of Seneca Lake, sustainably farmed and produces 1,500 cases per year. Owners Paul and Shannon Brock purchased the winery in 2011 and specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay.

2011 Silver Thread Vineyard Blackbird – this wine is a Bordeaux blend (70% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot). Each varietal was harvested, fermented and aged separately. Aging took place in in French and American neutral oak for 8 months. ABV is 12.5%. This wine had a surprising light ruby color for a Bordeaux blend. Flavors of berries and tart cherries accompanied smooth tannins and good acidity. This wine was light in the mouth and easy to drink.

Swedish Hill Winery celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011 and is very much a family operation. Dick and Cindy Peterson along with their children manage the winery. With a production of over 60,000 cases per year, Swedish Hill Winery is one of the largest in Finger Lakes. Their wines have won state, national and international awards.

2007 Swedish Hill Winery Optimus – this Bordeaux blend (42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 25% Cab Franc) is aged is small oak barrels for one year. ABV is 13.2%. This darker ruby wine had red plum flavors and significant tannins. A good food wine.

Heron Hill Winery, owned by John and Jo Ingle, is located overlooking Keuka Lake. The winery has increased annual production to 20,000 cases per year from 5,000 cases produced for its first vintage in 1977. Committed to sustainable farming practices, the winery uses no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. Bernard Cannac, born and raised in Languedoc, is the wine maker.

2010 Heron Hill Winery Cabernet Franc – the grapes are grown in the Ingle Vineyard on the west side of Canandaigua Lake and is aged for 14 months in French, Hungarian and American oak. ABV 12.5%. This wine was a light ruby color in the glass, but had lots of flavor. Dark fruit and spice with well integrated tannins and a light mouth-feel make this wine easy to drink.

Damiani Wine Cellars is the collaboration of winemaker Lou Damiani and grower Phil Davis who both grew up on the eastern shores of Seneca Lake. They tend approximately 25 acres in this area which is the primary source of for their wines. The winery is situated in what locals affectionately call the “Banana Belt” (as are Atwater, Hector and possibly Silver Thread), because it is several degrees warmer than surrounding areas due in part to the lake affect. Elevation and slope of the terrain also figure into the creation of this microclimate. They purchase selectively from other growers within the Finger Lakes AVA. Their 5,000 case production is divided approximately equally between red and white varietals.

2010 Damiani Wine Cellars Cabernet Franc Reserve was aged in 20% new American oak for 3 months, then transferred to old French oak for one year. ABV 13.9%. This wine had a dark ruby color with a bit of jalapeño pepper on the nose. Flavors were a bit vegetal with dark fruit and grippy tannins. This wine showed the complex flavors a cool-weather Cabernet Franc can exhibit. It was our favorite wine of the tasting.

Finger Lakes Red WinesRooster Hill Vineyards is located on the east side of Keuka Lake. Amy and Dave Hoffman relocated to the Finger Lakes region from southern California. They planted Savina Estate Vineyard in 2002 with Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Riesling. In 2003 they planted Catherine Estate Vineyard with Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. This vineyard is at a slightly higher elevation than the Savina Estate Vineyard. Finally in 2007 the Guiseppe Vineyard was planted. All three vineyards are named for Amy’s Italian relatives. In naming the winery Rooster Hill they aim to bring a bit of Tuscany to the Finger Lakes region. The wine maker, Barry Tortolon, was born in Finger Lakes.

2010 Rooster Hill Estate Lemberger is aged 21 months in French oak and has ABV 13.6%. This ruby wine exhibited berry fruit flavors with a hint of asphalt, vanilla and significant tannins. A good red wine for chicken.

Atwater Estate Vineyards is located on the southeastern shore of Seneca Lake. The vineyards date back to the early 1900s and have been farmed by several owners. In 1999 Ted Marks purchased the vineyards and in 2000 established Atwater Estate Vineyards. Production is about 7500 cases per year, with red wine production averaging about 30% of the total. With the exception of Merlot, their vines are not yet producing, all red varietals are estate grown.

2010 Atwater Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir – the fruit was hand-picked. 2010 was the warmest growing season in 37 years and produced excellent fruit quality. The wine spent 11 months in new French (10%) and neutral French oak (90%). ABV 12.5%. 191 cases were produced. A light ruby color you would expect in a Pinot Noir followed with cherry flavors, a light mouth-feel and a surprising amount of tannins.

Hector Wine Company is located on the east side of Seneca Lake and opened during the harvest of 2010. The winery is owned by Jason Hazlitt, a local viticulturist, and winemaker Justin Boyette. Grapes are sourced from neighboring Sawmill Creek Vineyards, Jason’s family business. Both men have years of local experience growing grapes and making wine.

2011 Hector Wine Company Essence is a red blend composed of 40% Syrah, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot. ABV is 12.5% and the wine was aged in small oak barrels for approximately 10 months. This blend had a light ruby color with spice on the nose. Flavors echoed with cedar, dark fruit and significant acidity. It was a surprising combination of light color with a lot of flavor and very light mouth-feel.

McGregor Vineyards (15) was established in 1971 on the eastern side of Keuka Lake. Dedicated to the European varietals, dry red wines comprise 50% of the winery production. 40 acres are tended by hand with the average age of the vines being over 30 years of age. In addition, McGregor grows several eastern European varietals uncommon to the region. Saperavi, from the Republic of Georgia and Sereksiya Charni from Moldova.

2008 McGregor Vineyards Black Russian Red – the grapes for this Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni blend were hand-harvested. A second block of Saperavi was harvested and vinified separately. These eastern European varietals are rare in the US. Aging took place in American oak for 26 months. ABV is 12.4%. This very dark ruby wine had an intoxicating nose. It was an unfamiliar spice and dark fruit combination. The flavors followed the nose and were complex. Tannins were significant but well integrated. None of us had ever tasted either of these varietals prior to this tasting. It was a very pleasant surprise. This was a lovely wine.

This series of red wines was an interesting study in cool weather red wines. The combination of very light color in some of these wines with complex flavors and light weight in the mouth was very surprising and pleasing. These wines all drank very well by themselves and made pleasant company to our dinner, boeuf bourguignon.

With an ABV in the 12 to 13% range, these wines are a pleasant change from higher alcohol wines that are so common. These wines will not fight with your food. The use of oak was mostly judicious and did not over run the flavor of the fruit.

I now feel I will be able to look for Finger Lakes red wines in wine stores and on restaurant wine lists and have an idea of which varietals I might like best. This was a most informative tasting and thanks go the winery representatives and the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance.

The wines were provided as tasting samples by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance.


  1. Pingback: Celebrating Finger Lakes Wine Month – Aromatic White Wines | Pull That Cork

  2. Hi – great article, except as I’m sure you’ve heard, it’s Hammondsport NY for Dr. Frank.