Move over, California! For the second year running, New York’s Finger Lakes were named Best Wine Region in USA Today 10 Best Reader’s Choice awards. And that’s not all the accolades for this burgeoning wine country. VinePair, a digital review site for beer, wine and spirits, ranked the Finger Lakes #2 on its 2019 list of the World’s Top 10 Wine Destinations.
So what makes this area in central New York, centered around three of its 11 Finger Lakes — Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga — so special?
I was able to “sip” for myself last May on a first-time trip with other writers to the Southern Finger Lakes, concentrating on Keuka Lake wineries. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to stay longer and sample award-winning vintages from more Finger Lakes wineries.
New York has become the nation’s third largest wine and grape producing state, and the Finger Lakes are now the home of more than 140 wineries.
It’s all about the terroir
As with all great wine regions, it’s all about the terroir (“tare WAHr”, a French term meaning “a sense of place”), which takes into account an area’s climate, soil, and terrain. Its cool climate, moderated by glacially carved lakes, which left behind acidic soil, has contributed to its growth and development.
Since the Finger Lakes Region is on the same latitude as Germany (it’s sometimes compared to the Rhein valley), it is no surprise that Riesling is the most widely planted varietal and has become its signature wine. You’ll find dry, sweet, and late harvest ice wine Rieslings in the Finger Lakes, although Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner are German varietals that also continue to be successful.
Dr. Konstantin Frank and the Vinifera Revolution
If you are a true oenophile (a lover or connoisseur of wine), you may be familiar with Dr. Konstantin Frank, a professor of plant science, who is credited with igniting the “Vinifera Revolution.” Before Dr. Frank, American grape varieties such as Concord and Catawba were the norm, producing what some termed “drinkable” table wines but none had garnered international attention.
His plantings of Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and others from European species of “old vine” grapes (Vitis vinifera) in 1957, changed the course of wine growing in the Finger Lakes and the United States. They are among the oldest vines in the country.
Visit New York’s most award-winning winery
The Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, established in 1962, is located on the west side of Keuka Lake, and is still going strong. You can choose from several different tasting experiences, some including food, from this iconic winery that won the most gold medals ever in 2013, half a century after the first vines were planted.
Oldest winery in the region
Get a sense of the history of wine in the Finger Lakes by making time to visit the oldest winery in the region, Pleasant Valley Wine Company, located just outside the small town of Hammondsport at the southern end of Keuka Lake.
It was established in 1860 and was the first winery in the country to win an award in Europe for American Sparkling Wine, way back in 1867! That’s why its sparkling vintages can still be called “champagne.” It proudly displays its designation as the first Bonded Winery in the U.S.
Guided tours are offered daily from Memorial Day through mid-November through eight historic buildings and caves carved into the hillside, which are used as natural wine cellars. Wine tastings are free; there is a $3/pp fee for groups of 8 or more. Visitors can also take a self-guided tour through the Great Western Winery Visitor Center.
Weis Vineyards and Domaine LeSeurre
Now, cross over to the east side of Keuka Lake (driving time for a complete circuit of Keuka Lake is just over one hour) to sample wines from two of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery’s former employees who have gone on to open successful wineries of their own.
Hans Peter Weis, a native of the Mosel region of Germany, opened Weis Vineyards along with his wife, Ashlee, in 2017. The day we visited its tasting room in a former one-room schoolhouse overlooking Keuka Lake, Hans was on hand to pour us samples of several of his award-winning German-style wines, including Dry and Semi-Dry Rieslings, Grüner Veltliner, and Gewürztraminer.
Although we didn’t have time to taste them all, Weis Vineyards also produces a full range of red grape varietals, including unusual ones like Blaufränkisch (Lemberger) and Saperavi.
Travel from Germany to France by walking next door to Domaine LeSeurre Winery, which specializes in dry, French-style wines. Sébastien and Céline LeSeurre produced their first vintage as Domaine LeSeurre in 2012, and opened their tasting room in October 2013. Stay for a wine tasting and, if time permits, consider ordering a cheese and charcuterie board or a French cookies flight to pair with its current wine selections. When we visited, my personal favorite was a 2016 Rosé Cabernet Franc.
If time permits…
I’ve mentioned four wineries, but there are many more on or near Keuka Lake, all unique in their own way. If time permits, sip, savor and see for yourself what makes the Southern Finger Lakes worthy of putting on your travel list. Read about them at this link: Finger Lakes Wineries
There’s a craft beverage trail, too!
If you’re interested in sampling beers, ales, hard ciders or spirits, the Southern Finger Lakes region has something for you, too. A self-guided Craft Beverage Trail called the Craft Your Adventure Trail pairs over 30 craft breweries, cideries, or distilleries located in four counties with various outdoor adventures. Download the Craft Your Adventure App to find nearby craft beverage producers and discover suggested outdoor adventure pairings (optional, of course!).
Where to eat and sleep
We were based in Hammondsport, voted “Coolest Small Town in America” by readers of Budget Travel. Our stay at the Best Western Plus, included a full hot breakfast, and is just minutes away from the wineries.
There are several other choices, including the Village Tavern Inn, near the historic town square. It’s not only a great choice for dinner after a day of wine tasting, but it’s an Inn as well. (Restaurant closed seasonally; check the site for opening dates.)
Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR) – Driving time to Hammondsport, approx. 1 hr. 45 minutes.
Elmira Corning Regional Airport (ELM) – Driving time to Hammondsport, approx. 45 minutes.
Thanks to Corning & the Southern Finger Lakes for hosting me, along with several other writers, to this beautiful region of central New York. Log onto the website for more information about how to plan your visit.