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The Finger Lakes: America’s Next Great Wine Region

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By Steve Jermanok

Autumn in the Finger Lakes is the time of year when leaves on the maples turn a tad crimson and the grapes on the vines are ready to be harvested for their award-winning Rieslings. If you haven't tasted a Finger Lakes wine in some time, give it the chance to surprise you.

I found that their white wines can stand toe-to-toe with the best of Napa and Sonoma, and surprisingly their reds are starting to have much more complexity, with vintners creating top-notch pinot noirs and cab francs. Add majestic scenery, where rolling farmland rolls down to the blue waters of these long glacial lakes, and you have the perfect fall getaway for urbanites living in the New York, Boston, Philly, and Toronto area.

    As soon as I stepped foot into the tasting room of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards and was handed a bowl of popcorn and told it was their version of caviar, I understood the casual nature of wine tasting in New York state. Leave your wine snobbery at the door. As the name implies, grapes have been grown on the Hazlitt property since the mid-19th century, yet the winery didn't open until 1984. The Homestead Riesling is crisp, with hints of citrus, while the fruity semi-dry Riesling reeks of peaches and pear. I also enjoyed the creamy finish of the gewurztraminer, and Hazlitt's top selling wine, Red Cat, which is a perfect summer beach drink. Serve the sweet concoction on the rocks, like a wine cooler.
 

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View of Seneca Lake from Glenora Wine Cellars.

   On the opposite shores of Seneca Lake, Glenora Wine Cellars is perched on a picturesque chunk of hillside overlooking the water. A former Cornell University School of Agriculture graduate, Gene Pierce opened the winery in 1977.

    "When I started, there were about a half-dozen wineries in the region. Today, there are more than 110," says Pierce, who admits that he simply wanted to be a farmer and ride a tractor, not be one of the largest producing winemakers in the East. His wines are reasonably priced, all under $20, including the dry Riesling and the light yet tasty Signature, a blend of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Also check out the Cayuga White, a sweeter grape that was bred by Cornell. Glenora creates more than 30 wines, including a port and sparkling wines, so it's no wonder that the winery is also home to an inn for people who can't make it out of the parking lot.
    Another scenic stop for wine tasting is just up the road at Fox Run Vineyards, especially if you like that Riesling paired with gourmet fare like a smoked salmon quesadilla or a garlic sausage and white bean soup. Owner Scott Osborn takes his winemaking just as serious as his dining. The wine tanks were created in nearby Geneva, New York, based on an Italian design. The barrels are a blend of American and French oak, the American workmanship heightening the aroma, the French flavoring the taste. The result is 18 impressive wines including a 93-point Reserve Riesling that has a perfect balance of acidity and sugar. Surprisingly good were several reds like the gentle Lemberger and the fruity Merlot.

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    The next day, after a morning of biking around the bluffs of Keuka Lake, we had lunch on an outdoor deck overlooking the narrow northern part of the lake at Heron Hill Winery. The Blue Heron café takes full advantage of its locale nestled amidst the farmland to offer local seasonal fruit over field greens and a caprese salad with large fresh tomatoes. There's also an ahi tuna dish served on a bed of seaweed salad, and a lobster roll, chockfull of Maine lobster meat, that could rival any roll I've come across in Boston.
    Oh yes, then there's the wine found next door in one of the Top 10 wine tasting rooms in the world according to a recent story in Travel & Leisure. Walk in and peer at the wooden ceiling and you feel like you're inside an oak barrel. We started with the Ingle Vineyard Riesling, with crisp hints of apple, then moved on to the sweeter semi-dry Riesling, their number one seller. The creme de la creme, however, was the 2006 Ingle Vineyard Late Harvest Riesling, a dessert wine not too sweet, yet creamy enough to garner a rating of 90 in Wine Spectator.
    My last stop was nearby at Dr. Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars to pay homage to the man who had the audacity to plant vineyards of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in Eastern United and the perseverance to see it pay off. He created America's first Riesling in 1962 and ever since, the winery has been reaping accolades.  The New York Times, Time Magazine and many other publications have named Dr. Frank's the finest Riesling in America and, in 2009, the winery has already won 45 gold medals at wine shows across the globe. His grandson, Fred, is now in charge of the oldest vineyards this side of the Mississippi River.

    Certainly try the Riesling, but then move on to the delicious Rkatsiteli, a white wine that stems from the Republic of Georgia. The 2007 semi-dry Riesling was the best I've ever tried, not nearly as cloying as other semi-drys. Also unexpected was the complexity of the 2007 Pinot Noir, with a nose that rivals the pinots of the West Coast. Finally, end with a taste of the late harvest Riesling, "nectar of the gods," as Fred says. I have to agree.

In his former life when print was king, STEVE JERMANOK was a
columnist on the arts for Boston Magazine, a contributing editor for
Art & Antiques, and guest editor of the arts issue for the Boston
Globe Sunday Magazine. Now he's happy to share his passion with the
readers of Everett Potter's Travel Report. Reach Steve at his blog,
Active Travels.

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