A year in the Finger Lakes wineries – The complete analysis

Last August (2014), I decided to visit a wine region almost unknown of all my friends and colleagues in the wine industries, the New York state Finger Lakes wineries. I will be honest and tell you that my expectations were not that high; I almost never  heard or read anything about these wines produced in the northern part of the United States.

What I found (and tasted!) over there was way over my expectations. I found delicate, elegant and nuanced wines. Especially the white wines, believe me, there are wonderful Riesling grown and vinified around here.

This first visit in the Finger Lakes was so eyes opening that it triggered two additional visits of the region in the next months. I continued to discover and explore the regions. Imagine there are more than 100 wineries around three major lakes. You can taste wines from sunrise to sunset for a few days!

All in all, in three journey in the region, I visited 40 wineries, tasted and noted 240 different wines. I can tell you the majority of these wines were good. Only 3 were obviously failed, and more than a dozen are exceptionally good.
I will share with you all my findings, presented on different axis.

A note on my personal preferences

Of course the notes I gave to the wines I tasted are relative to my personal preferences. And to be fair, I will list what I like in a wine. The more your tastes align with mine, the more you shall agree with my findings.

I like:

  • Dry wines. Sugar notes should be absent or very subtle. Sweetness is great for dessert wines. I can’t stand semi-sweet wines.  Very few were tasted during my visits.
  • I like as much white than red wines. It is a fifty-fifty with no winner. White wines can be as refreshing than complex. Red wines can be as fruity than flamboyant and structured.
  • Everything is about balance. Aromas, acidity, persistence, tannins (for reds) shall mix and find a proper balance to reach elegance.
  •  I tend to prefer the wines than are shy at the start but provide a long and rich experience on the long term. The wines that are too intense, too stateful on the first seconds in mouth are not my favorites.

I took a lot of notes, and I spent a few hours to aggregate it, regroup it. I searched a long time what would be the best ‘top list’ I could  share with you. Finally, instead of giving you only my top X wines, and the top X wineries, I will provide you a series of analysis based on different axis and point of views.

The notation system

I normally note my wine tasting on a ’20’ basis.
A wine below 13 is a poor wine. A wine between 13 and 15 is an good/average wine. 15 to 17 are reserved for impressive wines, while 17 and up are only for exceptionally great wines.
The notes are given disregarding the wine price.

The Lakes axis

There are three major lakes where wineries have established their vineyards. Which one got the best wines notes?

Lake  Wines tasted   Average note (/20)
Keuka Lake 17 15.12
Seneca Lake 140 14.49
Cayuga Lake 81 14.30
You can see the wines count tasted per lake are not equal, not even close. I spent much more time around Seneca Lake than Keuka Lake, only because the majority of wineries are located around this Lake. However, you can see that what I tasted at Keuka lake was outstanding. There is not much difference between Seneca and Cayuga lake as far as the average of notes given to the wines grown around these lakes.

The grapes varietal axis

Was there better mastered grapes than other? Yes, of course. The whites are generally above the reds. But don’t get me wrong, some of these wineries can still produce great red wines. I did not include in the below listing the wines made from a blend of several grapes.

Varietal  Wines tasted   Average note (/20)
Riesling 63 15.06
Chardonnay 28 14.70
Cabernet Franc 24 14.56
Pinot Noir 26 14.44
Cabernet Sauvignon 12 14.38
Pinot Gris 7 14
Merlot 9 13.83
Gewurtztraminer 3 13.67
Syrah 3 13.50
Vignoles 3 13.50
Sauvignon Blanc 3 13

Riesling is getting clearly out of the group. It is by far the most successful dry wines I tasted in the region. I found so many great dry riesling, that I would now nickname the Finger Lakes as the ‘Little Alsace’ . For those not knowing what is Alsace, it is a famous wine regions in the norther east part of France, close to Germany, well reknown for their mastery of Riesling and Gewurztraminer wines (other varietals also!). Talking about Gewurztraminer wines, I know I did not taste that much of these wines, even if the majority of wineries produce it. There is a good reason for that: I don’t like Gewurztraminer. I just can’t stand it. It is often too much ‘perfumy’, too much in the rose and the litchi aromas for my palate. Sorry. Maybe one day I’ll learn how to enjoy such wines.

The vintage (year) axis

I will not provide you a big table about different years average, since they end up almost all with a similar note. I can only note that the 2012 wines were slightly ahead of all other years.

The wine category axis

What kind of wines were the best? White or red?
While I did not taste that much rosés, sparkling or sweet wines, the latter got very good notes. Rosés are still a ‘work in progress’ and could use a bit more improvement over the years.

Category Wines tasted   Average note (/20)
White 109 14.65
Red 106 14.23
Sparkling 8 14.88
Sweet 9 15.22
Rosé 6 13.67

The best wineries

Now, enough said about varietals, years, categories. I hear you ask: What are your top wineries Mathieu?
This is, you might guess, a very tough question to answer. Of course, it is personal, based on my own tastes and convictions of what make a great wine or not. Also, I have to admit that the price labelled over some wines make them either more attractive due to a very good price, or less attractive due to a somehow overprice cost.

I will them provide you with two listing: My top 10 Finger Lakes wineries based solely on wines scores, followed by My top 10 Finger Lake wineries best value, which is a homemade secret calculation based on score and price.

My top 10 Finger Lakes wineries
Rank Winery Average note (/20)
1 Domaine Leseurre 17.0
2 Hermann Wiemer 16.3
3 Toro Run 16.1
4 Ravines 15.9
5 Red Tail Ridge 15.8
6 Hearts & Hands 15.7
7 Shalestone 15.3
8 Bloomer Creek 15.2
9 Damiani 15.1
10 Cayuga Ridge 15.0
This listing is based purely on total scores noted, white and red wines combined.

My top 10 Finger Lakes wineries, best value*
Rank Winery
1 Toro Run
2 J.R. Dill
3 Wagner
4 Goose Watch
5 Swedish Hill
6 Cayuga Ridge
7 Red Tail Ridge
8 Bloomer Creek
9 Lakewood
10 Glennora
* The above list was made calculated using a weighting coefficient of price versus score for each wine tasting from all these wineries.
You can see that some of these wineries are present in both my Top 10 (Absolute scores, Best value) such as Toro Run and Cayuga Ridge. Some other wineries disappear from the Best value list since their prices affected their overall value score. That doesn’t mean they don’t produce excellent wine. It just means that you have to pay a bit more to get a hand on such delicious creations.

My top 5 best wines

To conclude this exhaustive post, I will leave you with my top 5 best wines tasted during these 3 trips to the Finger Lakes.

Winery Name Year Type Price (US) Score (/20)
Domaine Leseurre Chardonnay Barrel Select #2 2012 White  50$ 18
Hermann Wiemer  Dry Riesling 2012 White 36$ 17.5
Hearts & Hands  Mo Chuisle Estate Blend 2012 Red 56$ 17.5
Damiani Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Red 45$ 17.5
Domaine Leseurre  Chardonnay Barrel 2012 White 25$ 17

Last words

I will now call this wine region the ‘Little Alsace’ of North America. A region where great white wines are grown and bottled. Riesling and Chardonnay are shining here. Some of the winemakers around have achieved mastery on how to produce complex and balanced dry white wines.

I often have dinner at some US East coast restaurants , it is a shame that such great wines from the Finger Lakes are not on most of the wine menus. Too often , I see basic, common California wines but no traces of any Finger Lakes wines. They should be on every good restaurants wine card on the US East Coast.

For red wines, some good one are produced but the overall scores show that it is still a challenge in the region. Don’t get me wrong, you can find great red wines (Leseurre, Damiani, Shalestone, Toro Run, Hearts & Hands, etc) around, but only a few are great yet. I hear quality rise year after year, so I would not be surprised to comeback here in a few years to discover even greater wines.

Pictures from : Finger Lakes Wine Country

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Finger Lakes · U.S.A

Wine enthusiast, blogger and globetrotter. Mathieu fell in love with wines years ago, and now is blogging his discoveries with out there.

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