The Terroir of New York

When it comes to wine, a region’s soil, sunshine, wind, water, glacial silt … each has a hand in impacting the final product.

Editor’s Note: This story—originally published in our 2018 innovation issue—is the first installment in our ‘The Terroir of New York’ series. Stay tuned for more.

Terroir. It’s a dirty word—and I mean that literally. French in origin, the word signifies a sense of place, the natural environment in which a wine, specifically, is produced. In other words: The dirt. What makes a wine a wine? It is not just the grapes, after all, or the human manipulation that defines how the end product tastes. Wine becomes wine. It evolves, from grape to glass. A region’s soil, sunshine, wind, water, glacial silt … each has a hand in impacting the final product.

With no small degree of snobbery, many sommeliers will tell you that the Old World (Europe, mostly) is home to the world’s finest wines. They will recite an incantation of qualities that make French wine superior: Wood barrels made with oak from the Alliers forest; fist-size boulders that contribute to drainage and minerality in Châteauneuf-du-Pape; sauvignon blanc grapes grown in Sancerre’s Silex soil, which consists largely of fossilized sea creatures. Wines made in France betray a sense of terroir: They scream of whence they came.

With a scant six winegrowing regions (compare that with the 300+ that France boasts), New York may feel smaller and less significant than other winegrowing regions. The state only officially gained entrée into the wine scene in 1976, when the New York Farm Winery Act was passed. The law allowed Empire State grape-growers to establish wineries and sell directly to the public. And New York proved itself to be a fast learner. Forty years later, Empire State winemakers produce consistent, award-winning wines and can now boast mature vineyards, experienced growers and respectable representation in New York City’s finest restaurants and wine stores. New York wines command serious real estate in a seriously competitive market, which speaks volumes about their quality.

Geologically, New York reads like a bifurcated version of Europe. To the Southeast, where the Long Island AVA (American Viticultural Area) resides, the land is reminiscent of Bordeaux.

In the Finger Lakes Region of Northern New York, a Ukranian expatriate named Dr. Konstantin Frank had been working on perfecting New York winemaking well before the Farm Winery Act passed. Beginning his work in 1951, Frank and others—notably, Hermann J. Wiemer, a Bernkastel, Germany, native who emigrated to the United States in the 1960s—recognized that the terroir of the Finger Lakes resembled that of Germany and Alsace (in fact, these two pieces of land had once been one, in the Mesozoic Era, when the continents were joined in one large Pangaea), with its blue slate soils and cool weather. Both regions had enjoyed longstanding success with cold-thriving aromatic varietals, and, given the climate and the soil, which mimicked that of this part of northern Europe, Frank surmised that the Finger Lakes could enjoy equal success with the planting of the same grapes.

Ultimately, the European ex-pat approach to American winemaking in New York became a road map for future vintners. “What’s really exciting about the Finger Lakes is this new generation of winemakers who are really hitting their stride with their abilities and their understanding of the soil and the climate,” Edible Finger Lakes publisher Michael Welch said. “There are really skilled winemakers here exporting to 20 countries. All of these winemakers are standing on the shoulders of Wiemer and Frank.” Today, winemakers like Ann Raffetto (Wagner Vineyards), Fred Merwath (Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard), Richard Rainey (Forge Cellars), Morten Hallgren (Ravines Wine Cellars) and Dave Breeden (Shelldrake Point Winery), who understand the connection between the Finger Lakes and European winemaking, are creating astounding wines by embracing cool-climate varietals.  

Geologically, New York, then, reads like a bifurcated version of Europe. To the Southeast, where the Long Island AVA (American Viticultural Area) resides, the land is reminiscent of Bordeaux: Soils are loamy and sandy and the climate fluctuates between cool and hot-humid.

Today, New York produces some of the country’s most consistent, most impressive wines.

Great wines are made, not born. Which is to say: A winemaker’s taste and intervention has just as much to do with the final product as the grapes, left to their own devices. In a poor vintage, the hand of the winemaker determines balance. And yet, the specificity of the land contributes an unquantifiable quality to a wine. The Finger Lakes’ blue slate soil imparts a minerality that one will not find in a wine, say, from California’s Napa Valley. And Long Island’s sandy soils are perfect for, say, the vegetal and spicy cabernet franc grape, which has come into its own in this wine region. In the era of localism—of the celebratory dance done in anticipation of the season’s bounty, of the obsession with artisan pickles and house-cured salumi—it only makes sense that we return to our imbibing roots.

Today, New York produces some of the country’s most consistent, most impressive wines. Long Island, in particular, has enjoyed a renaissance. Wine tourism to the region has increased, restaurants along the wine trail have cropped up to accommodate the culinary minded, and winemakers have risen to the occasion. Many of Long Island’s vineyards have been producing wine—and honing their craft—since shortly after the passing of the Farm Winery Act.

In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced the Craft New York Act, legislation designed to raise the profile of New York beverage producers. The act allocated three million dollars to New York brewers, winemakers and distillers, and the result has been an unprecedented resurgence in localism in the Empire State. New York now ranks in the top five in the United States for number of craft beverage producers and, since the initiative began in 2014, 340 new businesses have joined the craft beverage producers’ ranks. On Long Island alone, 29 new businesses have opened their doors since the act went into effect.

But, market health notwithstanding, New York wine is unique—and well worth one’s time. For one, the state enjoys a climate perfect for food-friendly wines, wines that are low in alcohol and high in acidity. Microclimates differ profoundly throughout the state, but the common thread lies in cool winters (aided, in some cases, by maritime influences), which prevent the over-ripening of grapes. You won’t find high-octane, 17 percent alcohol wines in New York, but you will find lean aromatic whites from the Finger Lakes, and vegetal reds from Long Island—wines that pair perfectly with food.

Most of Long Island’s food benefits from a symbiotic relationship with the wines produced there.

Given the culinary bounty bestowed on the state, it’s only appropriate to quote the old adage, “What Grows Together Goes Together.” In Europe, it’s no secret how wine pairings have evolved; they reflect a marriage of the wines grown in each region to the food for which each region is known. There is, perhaps, no better example of this organic wine-pairing principle than on eastern Long Island, home to Peconic Bay scallops, Montauk lobster, duck, Blue Point oysters and too much seasonal fresh produce to list. Pair briny Blue Points with Palmer Vineyards’ bright, clean and almost saline sauvignon blanc, for instance, the inherently American version of the Loire Valley’s Muscadet and Brittany oysters.

In fact, most of Long Island’s food benefits from a symbiotic relationship with the wines produced there. Buttery Montauk lobster is complemented by Greenport’s Kontokosta Winery, which produces the inimitable Anemometer White, a rich blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and viognier aged in French oak barrels. Peconic Bay scallops sautéed in brown butter meet their match with the creamy Scuttlehole Chardonnay from Channing Daughters—one of the few wines grown and produced on Long Island’s South Fork. And while Long Island duck may be known the country over, those feasting in the City and beyond may not know that McCall Wines’ cabernet franc—from the vineyard’s North Ridge vineyard, which was planted over 30 years ago—has the perfect amount of tannin, earth and structure to emphasize New York’s finest poultry.

For a lesson in terroir, then, one need not cross the Atlantic. France is lovely, it’s true, and their wines do turn heads. But here in New York, where we, in our youthful winemaking adolescence, are still mastering the masters, the tide is turning in our favor. Drink up, Empire-Staters. Our time is now.