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Could the Finger Lakes be the next Napa Valley for whites?

At the end of August, the Finger Lakes were named the “Best Wine Region in the United States” by national daily USA Today. Around 130 wineries strive to turn the spotlight on a region where admittedly the climate can be harsh, but whose potential for growing top Rieslings is undeniable. Growers include France’s Louis Barruol, owner of Château Saint Cosme in Gigondas and also chairman of the local producers’ organisation. He shares some of the exciting moments, and unpleasant surprises, he has had since setting up a vineyard across the pond.
By Sharon Nagel November 16, 2018
Could the Finger Lakes be the next Napa Valley for whites?
Seneca Lake, around which many of the Finger Lakes estates are located and which provides protection from the cold winds of Lake Erie. - crédit photo : Chandra Russell
ldquo;The Finger Lakes are the ultimate wine region”

I’d had the idea in the back of my mind for a very long time. As the owner of an historic estate, I had always wanted to take the opposite tack where I would discover a place, assess its potential and then build something from scratch”. After travelling the length and breadth of the wine growing world - from South America to Australia via South Africa, and other French wine regions - the Rhone winegrower finally opted for the Finger Lakes where he founded Forge Cellars in 2011. “It is my belief that you cannot make great wines in climates that are too hot. In my opinion, great wines come from temperate or even fairly cool climates”. A self-confessed Riesling enthusiast, climate change was also uppermost in his mind: “When it comes to planting a new vineyard, you have to consider the next 50 years. Obviously, you would not start out in a region that is already quite hot”. Other criteria that led Barruol to the Finger Lakes included the region’s inherent propensity for growing wine. “Just because a region is less well-known, or makes lesser quality wines than another, does not mean that it is less suitable for growing wine. I believe the Finger Lakes are the ultimate wine region. For me, any region that requires irrigation is not a top wine region, because it flies in the face of nature. The vines develop surface roots and produce wines that I don’t feel show true sense of place”.


The significance of the lakes

The truth is that the quality vocation of this northern New York State wine region had for decades been undermined by local powerhouses that marketed entry-level wines made from Vitis Labrusca or hybrids. A case in point is Canandaigua Industries, now Constellation Brands. Dairy and then fruit farming subsequently encouraged producers to favour quantity over quality. That is until a Ukrainian expatriate, Dr Konstantin Frank, imported Vitis Vinifera and symbolically founded the aptly-named Vinifera Wine Cellars in the early 1960s. The prestigious Cornell University nearby began to study the techniques used by Dr. Frank, and then a new generation of winegrowers started to make their mark, with more of a quality focus. “Originally the growers here were fighting Mother Nature," explains Edward Jurkiewicz of Ravines Wine Cellars, owned since 2006 by Denmark’s Morten Hallgren, a former recruit of Dr Frank and graduate of ENSA Montpellier. “They had money but they knew nothing about wine growing. Then, young producers arrived and saw the potential”. Located on the north-western shores of Seneca Lake, the estate's 50 hectares of vines benefit from the micro-climate effect of the lake. “Seneca Lake never freezes and acts as a buffer against winds from Lake Erie. The wind comes across the water and warms up. Admittedly the winters are brutal but the vines have acclimatised," says Jurkiewicz.


Initially, wine tourism was at the top of Ravines Wine Cellars’ business model, but the focus is now on wines”, explains Edward Jurkiewicz.



Lack of collective promotion

Barruol, who has joined forces with two American partners, Richard Rainey and Justin Boyette to meet US legal requirements, has witnessed a marked change in the region's climate. “You hardly ever see winter kill in the Finger Lakes anymore. Many vines are no longer buried in winter”. Ironically, it was not so much weather issues that posed a problem for the French winegrower when he moved into the area as other obstacles. “It is challenging to make fine wines in an environment that is not yet heavily focused on quality. You have to manage on your own when you want to buy equipment or dry goods, for example. We bring equipment from France and we even do our analyses in France and in our own laboratory here because the local laboratories on site are not up to speed. French winegrowers do not realise how wonderful the environment for growing wine is in France. We have good vocational education facilities; people who are trained; knowledgeable young people; winemaking equipment and plant material; and nothing is expensive because of the competition. The French don't know how lucky they are! They think it's normal because that’s what they’ve always been accustomed to, but it's actually the result of a very strong wine culture”. Significant investments can also lead to financial obstacles: “American banks are the worst in the world! You’re dealing with the worst side of capitalism!” Then, there is the issue of promotion: “There is no culture of collective wine promotion in the United States. This is true in the Napa Valley and elsewhere, but even more so in the Finger Lakes. An environment where everyone works for themselves, unlike the collective approach that producers’ organisations and marketing boards take in France, makes the task complicated for us. Not to mention Riesling’s image which has been undermined by high-yield, over-sweet wines, turning an extraordinary grape variety into a difficult category to market”.


Specialisation taken to the extreme

Nevertheless, colossal efforts by Barruol and his associates over the past seven years are literally beginning to bear fruit. The original, organically-farmed vineyards are producing their first wines and bolstering Forge’s range of single vineyard and blended wines revolving entirely around Riesling and Pinot Noir - though Barruol believes that Cabernet Franc has its rightful place in the Finger Lakes. Specialising in Riesling and Pinot noir to ensure the estate remains focused, Forge Cellars also buys grapes from winegrowers located along the south-east shores of Seneca Lake. “Most of the grapes are handpicked as whole clusters with spontaneous yeast”, explains Richard Rainey, who is also Western divisional manager with the American import company Wine Bow. “We use our own soil amendment to cover the graft in the winter and we control the vigour of the vines through grassing with high planting densities - 5,000 vines per hectare compared to a regional average of 2,000”. Production is expected to reach approximately 10,000 cases in 2018, with an easily achievable production potential of 17-18,000 cases, explains Rainey.


Louis Barruol, centre, surrounded by Richard Rainey (left), and Justin Boyette (credit: Chandra Russell)


“A world-class site for Riesling”

Though Barruol believes that “Riesling is king in the Finger Lakes”, he also sings the praises of Pinot Noir. His opinion is shared by the prestigious Wine Spectator, which last summer awarded Forge Cellars' 2015 Les Alliés Pinot Noir an unprecedented 90 rating, making it only the second time a Finger Lakes red wine has achieved such a score. “The real surprise for us here is the quality of the wines”, says the French winegrower. “We have seen no limits so far. We are on an upward trend and we do not know where it will end. For us, the Finger Lakes offer a world-class site for Riesling. There is no doubt about that”.  Here too, his opinion is shared by the top American critics: “No American wine region excites me as much about Riesling as the Finger Lakes of New York”, Eric Asimov enthused in the New York Times.


Replicating the work of the Burgundian monks

To further deepen their knowledge of the soils along the eastern shore of Seneca Lake – “the cradle of great wines in the Finger Lakes” – Barruol and his partners intend to continue their work on soil characterisation. “Actually, we are doing what the Burgundian monks did in the 16th century”, he says. “We are in the process of identifying the potential of each plot, be it great or small”. His motivation is fuelled by the growing interest shown by the American press and consumers in the Finger Lakes. "The Finger Lakes can be likened to California in the 1970s, then the Judgment of Paris came along and people started to realise the potential for quality”, says Edward Jurkiewicz. “The future of the Finger Lakes is very bright because the market is beginning to understand that for white wines showing real natural freshness, there is no equivalent in the United States”, claims Louis Barruol. “The Finger Lakes could potentially become the next Napa Valley for whites. There is no doubt that the potential is there”. Michelin-starred restaurants in France certainly seem to share Barruol’s opinion... Whatever the future of the region as a whole, Forge Cellars and Saint Cosme undeniably combine all the ingredients of a successful story. One complete with its trials and tribulations, where Old World meets New, where a centuries-old estate rubs shoulders with a wine region barely decades old in its present form and where the collective French spirit - whatever people say - reveals the limitations of American individualism...

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