Y’all, I am smitten! And I’m long overdue for this level of “smittenness.” I’m not sure if that’s really a word, but I’m not going to look it up and we’re just going to go with it. Work with me here.
Living in Houston, I have access to an amazing variety of wines. Between the big box stores, fantastic boutique wine shops, and grocery stores with wine selections on steroids (and not just boring, mass-produced stuff) – not to mention the fact that in the COVID-era, restaurants have now opened their wine cellars for retail sales – it’s a good bet that I can walk into an establishment and find wines from many corners of the globe. With nearly seven million people in the Houston metro region, variety is definitely the name of the game.
But with all the available wine selection, one gaping hole has been wines from New York’s Finger Lakes region. Maybe Texans hate New Yorkers? Probably not but who knows. Whatever it is, we’ve never had much of a selection of these wines and I’ve been curious about them for several years now. Any time I visit New York, I find myself ordering these wines and have even purchased some to take home to enjoy later. Additionally, there are some trust worthy wine peeps on social media that have seriously been singing the praises of the region, which of course, just made me even more determined to get some. But then my fortunes changed.
The folks from Ravines Wine Cellars reached out and asked if I’d be interested in trying some of their wines. Umm, yeah… One of those trusted wine peeps from social media (hey Meg!) had previously recommend Ravines Wines, so I was thrilled at the opportunity.
The Finger Lakes Region
Despite dealing with more challenging viticultural conditions than other parts of the US, the New York wine industry is flourishing and represents the country’s third leading wine-producing state behind California (of course) and Washington. With a handful of AVAs that produce about 5% of the country’s wine volume, New York is the leading state in the eastern United States in terms of production. The most prominent AVA, the Finger Lakes, along with its Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake sub-AVAs is by far the largest and accounts for about 85% of the state’s production. The region is defined by the eleven narrow (none exceed 3.5 miles in width), north-south lakes that sort of look like fingers or finger scratches. Of the eleven lakes, the most prominent are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, and Honeoye.
The climate of the Finger Lakes bears many similarities to that of Germany and as a result, cool-climate varieties such as Riesling excel in the area. To be sure, Riesling is the signature variety of the region and comes in expressions that range from bone-dry to sweet to ice wine. And lucky me that Riesling is one of my favorite varietals as well as one of the most food friendly wines around. But the Finger Lakes is more than Riesling. Other cool-climate varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc really shine as well. Like the rivers in Germany, the major lakes of the Finger Lakes help to moderate the temperatures in the region which helps make grape growing possible. The combination of the cool growing season, sloped vineyard sites, and moderating effect of the deep lakes creates ideal conditions for producing vibrant, balanced, and food-friendly wines.
It was Ukrainian Dr. Konstantin Frank, along with French champagne specialist Charles Fournier and German immigrant Herman J. Wiemer that first saw the potential for the region in viticulture. Wiemer saw the similarities in climate between the Finger Lakes and his native Mosel Germany and was one of the first to plant Riesling. And all three were instrumental in changing the region from one that grew primarily hybrid varieties to one the excelled in growing vinifera varieties, though hybrids still play an important role in the region. Today, vinifera grapes make up about 20 percent plantings. 1 Given its northern latitude and cool-climate, Finger Lakes wines tend to be crisp and light-bodied with lower alcohol and higher levels of acidity. The region also has a thriving wine tourism industry, which I absolutely cannot wait to visit! It’s certainly on my short list! Not to mention, the region is less than five hours from Manhattan.
Most wineries in the region (and the state) are small, family owned establishments and a little over a third of the wines are sold through wholesalers. This, of course, explains why I don’t see many in my market. But as I’ve previously discussed, since all of the COVID restrictions set in, I’ve found myself ordering more wine online than I ever have. This has really expanded the wine universe and has given smaller producers a fighting chance at getting in front of more consumers. If you’re like I was in the past and hesitated to buy much wine online, now’s a great time to re-think your wine buying strategy.
Ravines Wine Cellars
Sitting on a hillside overlooking glacier-carved Seneca lake is Ravines Wine Cellars, one of the region’s prominent producers. The winery was founded in 2001 by the husband and wife duo of European winemaker/oenologist Morten Hallgren and chef Lisa Hallgren. Their mission was to create a truly dry and outstanding Riesling in the Finger Lakes. And they’ve done just that. They pioneered the bone-dry, mineral-laden style of Riesling that has become their flagship wine. From the very beginning and even today, their ‘Dry Riesling’ continues to be met with high acclaim and has made the Wine Spectator Top 100 list on three occasions.
When they first opened up shop twenty years ago, they were the only winery to exclusively make dry, vinifera wines. The winery soon became one of the top destinations, not only in the region, but also in the eastern United States and has very much contributed to elevating the perception of the Finger Lakes region as a whole. Being one of the early producers in the region, Morten and Lisa were able to acquire some of the prime vineyard sites. Their first land acquisition was a 17-acre parcel of land on the steep, eastern slopes of Keuka Lake situated between two deep ravines. The ravines represent an important geological feature in that they funnel cold air and water away from the vineyards. In fact, these ravines are what inspired the name of the winery.
Today, Ravines owns 130 acres of prime vineyard land in the region, operates two tasting rooms, and hosts numerous wine and food events courtesy of their onsite Ravinous Kitchen. In addition to their flagship Dry Riesling which comes from parcels throughout the Finger Lakes, they produce several other single-vineyard Rieslings as well as sparkling wines, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and various white and red (I’m eyeing the Cerise) blends.
2017 Ravines Wine Cellars Dry Riesling ($18)
The flagship wine of the winery, the Dry Riesling is grown in limestone and shale stone soils on the steep slopes surrounding the Finger Lakes and comes in at 12.5% alcohol. Oh man! When I took my first sip of this, it just reminded me of why I love Riesling so much.
Elegant and delicate with beautiful minerality and bright acidity, it is just an absolutely gorgeous wine. The nose offers up apricots, pear, orange marmalade, green apple and a touch of slate. The palate has more of the apple and pear as well as mineral and petrol. A lovely balance of the acidity and fruit richness. And yes, I tried on its own as well as with some gumbo. Y’all know how we do!
2017 Ravines Wine Cellars Chardonnay ($20)
I was intrigued by this one as it’s made in an appassimento style. The Chardonnay grapes are partially dried in the sun which results in a wine with more intense aromas and flavors.
It’s a brilliant gold in the glass and the nose offers up aricot, pear as well as some toast and nuttiness. On the palate, I got yellow pear, lemon curd along with some wet stone. Such a deft balance of lush fruit and mouthwatering acidity.
2017 Ravines Wine Cellars Pinot Noir ($25)
Almost shockingly translucent brick in the glass. The nose beckons with wild strawberries, violets, dark cherry and earth. On the palate, it offers red berry fruit, a touch of spice, and herbs along with light tannins and refreshing acidity. And I love that this is only 12.7% alcohol.
This is the type of wine that could pair easily with a number of things. I’d pair this with chicken, pork loin, or vegetables. And it’s light and versatile enough to even pair with fish. Such a gorgeous and elegant wine.
So after tasting these wines, I definitely want to try more. More Ravines and more Finger Lakes. While doing research for this article, I found a resource on the New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s page called BuyNewYorkWines. I think I will! And if you have any recommendations, please don’t be shy!
- A little science class y’all. Vinifera is the genus (class) of grapes of the most well-known varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling, etc. Labrusca is a different genus and these grapes aren’t as good for making wine. Think about Concord grapes which are great for grape juice but don’t do quite as well for wine. A third class of grape varieties known as hybrids are those that were crossed to create a wine that could handle the cold temperatures for a region. Hybrids such as Vidal, Niagara, and Cayuga are grown in the Finger Lakes, Canada, and other cold regions.