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  • Christina Pickard

New York State of Wine

*This piece originally appeared in Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine

Why all this buzz recently about New York wines?

Simply put, because it’s the first time we’ve had so many at our disposal!

Despite it being the second largest wine producing region (volume-wise) in the US, only a smattering of wines from New York State have ever been available here in the UK. But recently this has changed with importer Wine Equals Friends bringing in around 70 wines from 14 different New York producers which now grace the lists of top British restaurants including Chez Bruce, Hotel Terravina, Pollen Street Social, Hakassan, and Hotel du Vin, Bristol (who list no less than 20). The wines are also being sold to private customers and to specialist merchants like Hanging Ditch in Manchester.

But how can you grow grapes in a big concrete city?!

Although the image that comes to most Brit’s minds when they picture New York is one of a tangle of skyscrapers and city lights, the Big Apple, while containing the majority of the state’s population, is actually only a fraction of the state’s land mass. In fact, New York State is roughly the size of the whole of England. Within its borders lie the Adirondack Mountains, abundant lakes, rivers, and rolling green hills. This picturesque landscape is a stark contrast to the state’s most famous city, and it is here that wine production thrives.

So where are the wine regions?

There are four major wine growing regions in New York (encompassing 9 AVAs), the oldest being the Finger Lakes, located in the center of the state about 5 hours drive north of New York City, and named after the series of deep narrow lakes along which the vineyards are planted. The lakes’ unique micro-climates protect the vines from the region’s harsh snowy winters by retaining warmth within their waters. The soil varies from gray slate, to clay, sand and silt. Cool climate varieties rule in this part of the state, with high-acid Riesling being king. While often lacking in the intense minerality of its German counterpart, New York Riesling can be fresh and limey, textured, and flinty, or floral and peachy. Sometimes made dry, but more often off-dry or sweet (although this is changing), it’s the perfect pairing for spicy Asian cuisine. The Finger Lakes also produce reds of increasingly good quality from Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Lemberger, as well as some Vitis Labrusca varieties like Concord and Delaware, and French hybrids like Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, used mainly for dessert wines.

Wine from 8 Finger Lakes producers is now available in the UK, from the likes of Hermann J. Wiemer, Lamoreaux Landing, Fox Run, and Dr. Konstantin Frank, namesake of the Ukranian viticulturist responsible for championing the Vitis Vinifera species of vines in the 1960s which led to a giant leap in quality in the region (really it is he whom we have to thank for putting New York wines on the modern map at all).

And where else?

In the very south of the state, on the peninsula east of New York City, grapes from Long Island enjoy a three week longer growing season than their northern neighbours. Thanks to the milder climate, the sandy free-draining soils, and maritime influence from the Atlantic, Bordelais varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon thrive here. In this part of the world the fruit is bright and bouncy, sometimes floral and herby, with lashings of sometimes-over-the-top new oak. Chardonnay and the occasional Chenin Blanc also does well. Vineyards are planted on what’s known as the south fork-the area around The Hamptons, a famous vacation spot for wealthy New Yorkers-and the north fork, more rural and agricultural. Wine from six different Long Island producers is being imported into the UK, including Lenz, Paumanok, and Channing Daughters.

Wine production in New York State can also be found on Lake Erie in the west of the state, and along the Hudson River in the east, however these wines have yet to reach our shores.

What are the sommeliers saying?

‘They are a perfect bridge between the New and Old World,’ –Edouard Oger, head sommelier at Gidleigh Park in Devon

‘Elegant, pure and lithe. You sense the cool climate in the wines. They are not fat, ripe and fruity, but much more restrained and tense than that. They’re also very food friendly because they have that lovely vibrant acidity that works well with summer foods and spring dishes particularly.’ –head sommelier of the River Café Emily O’Hare on Finger Lakes Riesling

‘NY state wines couldn’t be more different to the west coast. Wonderfully crisp, fresh and mineral Rieslings from the Finger Lakes, and spicy, soft and supple Bordeaux Blends from Long Island. Their ability to match with a wide range of food is something that appeals to customers. However, there are two disadvantages to listing these. Firstly, the wines are quite pricey. This is mainly due to the quantity produced. And secondly, the region is still completely unknown the general consumer, making them difficult to sell. However, this also makes them a unique addition to anyone’s wine list.’  –Ben Austin, head sommelier at Hotel du Vin, Bristol

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