Ice Age White Wine
Riesling is a winter hardy varietal, made even more so by grafting onto native American rootstocks. It has the ability to develop full fruit flavors and significant sugar without being totally ripe. These facts were known to ancient Europeans and one of the reasons the grape is popular in colder regions of the continent. However, central New York has extremes of climate (brutal winters and blistering summers) that are generally too much winter for this grape. So why the Finger Lakes, what is it about this region that is so friendly to the Riesling grape? What is it about the Terroir that yields such characteristic and special wines?
To answer this question we need to start with a brief discussion on the geology of the Finger Lakes because it is the unique geology of the region that is of significant impact on the wines. The story starts in the Devonian era where we find the region as a shallow sea. Mineral-rich sediment from runoffs from the surrounding uplands and carboniferous deposits from the teaming life in the shallow sea began the process of forming the shale slate so common to the region. At the end of this Devonian era, about 360 million years ago, this sea receded south leaving behind the early beginnings of the lakes as streams valleys draining to the ocean. Fast forward to about two million years ago when the glaciations of the great Ice Ages of the Pleistocene began the process of carving out the stream beds to the depths the lakes now exhibit. The repeated glaciations ground and dug these antediluvian streams into deep gorges and re-exposed the primeval Devonian shale. As it turns out, these Finger Lakes were really rivers that got clogged up as the glaciers finally receded some 11,000 years ago or so. An alternative version of the story, told by ancient Iroquois, was that the great creator god so loved the region of the Finger Lakes that he pressed his hand print into the land, hence the Finger Lakes.
Big Water and Big Riesling
The Finger Lakes, being long and narrow, function on the local climate in ways similar to rivers. The Rhine and Mosel which are the Riesling grape’s old world home perform some of the benefits to their grapes that the Finger Lakes do for their New York cousins. The deepest parts of the lakes are well below sea level, storing massive amounts of water in a concentrated area providing a tremendous heat sink that mollifies the extremes of the central New York weather. The ravages of northern winters, especially early or late frosts, are tempered by the lakes, effectively lengthening the growing season and making it possible for the grapes to ripen sufficiently to develop adequate fruit characteristics. The deep waters cool the fairly intense summers preventing flabby wines caused by over ripening. They provide air flow, which help to control rot and disease in grapes, critical in the East. The result in the glass is both intense fruit concentrations and clean crisp acidity. The benefit for the grape is that the Finger Lakes make it possible for the vines to survive and grow long enough to make not just a viable wine grape but an exceptional one.
Another critical ingredient to terroir is the character of the soil. Generally, grapes vines need a fair amount of drainage to produce fruit suitable for quality wines. The minerals in the soil also have a profound impact on the flavors of the wine as well, and the matching of varietal to soil is critical for the character of the wine. The preponderance of Devonian shale serves these two soil functions. It defines the slate driven mineral characteristic of the region’s wines and Rieslings in particular. It allows for proper drainage in the vineyard which helps to further accentuate the concentration of fruit flavors.
All of these elements come together produce a perfect new home for the Riesling grape. The products from the region are not like Germany, Alsace, Austria, Australia, or Washington. One of the most significant reasons for the uniqueness of the region’s wines is the uniqueness of the region itself.