If I proclaimed that the most exciting red wines in the United States come from New York State, would you believe me?
On Long Island, classic Bordeaux varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon have flourished since their first plantings in the early 1970s. And in the Finger Lakes, where Riesling was long considered the only viable Vitis vinifera variety, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and other reds are gaining momentum.
Exemplifying a sense of balance often elusive elsewhere in the New World, the state’s best red wines marry ripeness and restraint, richness and acidity. They have a distinct, sometimes haunting transparency, says Finger Lakes Winemaker August Diemel of Keuka Springs Vineyard.
“They show everything you do to them,” he says. Unburdened by excessive alcohol or jammy, overripe flavors, they possess a purity of fruit that uniquely expresses New York’s climate, soils and vineyard conditions.
Despite fads that can sway consumer preferences, Merlot has maintained its prominence in legendary vineyards around the globe. It’s known for its robust cherry flavors and plump, yielding mouthfeel.
In New York, Merlot is the most grown red vinifera grape, with its production centered predominantly on Long Island. It has blossomed on the North Fork, where maritime breezes temper summer heat and autumn chills, allowing grapes to ripen slowly, sometimes well into October and November.
“Merlot is so dynamic in its expression on the North Fork,” says David Page, owner of Shinn Vineyard Estates. “It expresses itself with the most fascinating balance between fruit and earth.
“Our Merlot is dominated by fruit, but not like you see in the West Coast. It’s more subtle. It doesn’t jam up. It’s elegant and pure. And it’s expressed through this beautiful layer of acidity.” Fragrant of black cherries and richly textured, Shinn’s Merlots—while ripe—are nuanced by hints of earth, spice, leather and chocolate. That’s especially evident in the robust 2014 vintage 9 Barrels Reserve (not yet formally reviewed).
Extreme winter weather and sudden temperature dips in the Finger Lakes, however, make Merlot cultivation much more tenuous.
“Growing Merlot is a bit of a vanity project for me,” says Steve Shaw, winemaker of Shaw Vineyards in Himrod, on Seneca lake, near the town of Geneva. “As far as viability for a commercial grower, it’s a real stretch.”
If it survives the Finger Lakes winter, Merlot expresses itself beautifully, Shaw says. The diversity of clay and shale soils in the Finger Lakes is reminiscent of some of the best vineyards in Bordeaux, “like those at Pétrus,” he says, noting that the warm days and cool nights of a typical Finger Lakes growing season are well suited to the variety. In the best years, Shaw’s Merlots are subtly perfumed and display a keen balance of ripeness and structure.
“Merlot will hang on to its natural acidity, and it will be balanced by elegant tannin structure, allowing for complex, ageable wines,” he says.
Recommended New York Merlot
Paumanok 2010 Tuthill’s Lane Vineyard Merlot (North Fork of Long Island); $75, 94 points. Intense blackberry and plum perfume burst from this bold, concentrated red. It’s a rich, lavishly textured wine, but it’s keenly balanced in acidity and gilded by subtle layers of spice and toast. While delicious, it’s still brawny in its youth, and it should meld out gorgeously with more maturation. Drink 2021–2026. Cellar Selection.
Harbes Family Vineyard 2014 Proprietor’s Reserve Hallock Lane Merlot (North Fork of Long Island); $55, 93 points. The Hallock Lane Reserve stands out among an ever-improving array of Merlot offerings from Harbes Family Vineyard. Fragrant and lusciously ripe, it boasts deep juicy streaks of black cherry and berry flavors that are accented by nuanced layers of licorice, earth and smoke. An elegant backbone of acidity and ripe tannins gives it a foursquare frame. It’s delicious, but it should develop deeper complexity through 2030. Editors’ Choice.
Wölffer 2012 The Grapes of Roth Merlot (North Fork of Long Island); $44, 93 points. Since its inception, Wölffer Winemaker Roman Roth’s namesake Merlot has been one of Long Island’s best wines. The 2012 bottling is no exception. It’s a bold, densely fruity wine full of luscious black cherry, plum and currant flavors. Powerful yet finessed, it’s keenly anchored by a core of cranberry acidity and complexities of bramble, violet and spice. It’s delicious already, but sure to improve through at least 2030. Editors’ Choice.
A rarity until recently, Syrah seems likely to become one of New York’s most acclaimed red varieties in the next few decades. Element Winery and Forge Cellars in the Finger Lakes already make stellar versions, while Macari Vineyards and Harbes Family Vineyard have produced compelling bottlings on Long Island’s North Fork.
Of the grapes rhapsodized about for their seductive perfume, purity of fruit and otherworldly grace, none compare to Pinot Noir. Its delicateness and susceptibility to disease, however, make the grape notoriously difficult to grow and vinify anywhere.
“Pinot Noir is a son of a bitch to grow,” says Christopher Bates, MS, winemaker/owner of Element Winery in the Finger Lakes, adding that it also excels “at that absolute razor’s edge of possibility when it just as well may not work.”
While production is small, the drive to produce exceptional Pinot Noir fuels a core of passionate winemakers from the Hudson River to the Niagara Escarpment. The Finger Lakes region leads Pinot Noir production in New York and has carved an identity of its own.
Citing increasing ripeness levels in contemporary examples of even Burgundian Pinot Noir or German Spätburgunder, Kris Matthewson, winemaker and co-owner of Bellwether Wine Cellars, suggests that Finger Lakes Pinot Noir has a distinctly cool-climate, high-acid style.
“It has bright red fruit and delicate aromatics that you can’t find anywhere in the world anymore,” says Matthewson, whose winery is in Trumansburg, a mile away from the west side of Cayuga Lake.
Conviction in this distinct expression of American Pinot Noir compelled Rhône Winemaker Louis Barruol of Château de Saint Cosme to embark on a Finger Lakes partnership, Forge Cellars, with locals Justin Boyette (winemaker) and Richard Rainey (vineyard manager).
“Outside of certain regions in Europe, there really aren’t any other regions making wines with the delicacy and subtleties associated with a classic Old World Pinot,” says Boyette. “We’re not trying to copy any style, but we believe we’re making wines that truly represent the place and climate distinct to the Finger Lakes.”
The focus required to produce quality Pinot Noir in New York comes with sacrifices. Winemaker and Finger Lakes native Nathan Kendall is so devoted to the grape that it’s the only red variety he makes under his namesake label.
“It’s my only child,” he says. “Here in the Finger Lakes, we can make a fresh, delicate Pinot with complexity and grace every year.”
Recommended New York Pinot Noir
Forge Cellars 2014 Les Alliés Pinot Noir (Finger Lakes); $32, 92 points. Patience will reward those who wait for this stunning wine to reveal itself. It’s initially quite smoky and closed, but time and aeration bring out penetrating black cherry and berry flavors. It’s such a seductively perfumed wine with a lingering finish nuanced by spice and violet petals. High-toned acidity and fine, upright tannins will keep this wine lively for many years to come. Cellar Selection.
Millbrook 2013 Block Five East Estate Bottled Pinot Noir (Hudson River Region); $45, 91 points. Sumptuous aromas of raspberry preserves and violets perfume this exceptionally lifted, pretty Pinot Noir. A deep core of fresh cherry and strawberry flavors penetrates a palate marked by complex notes of tea leaves and potpourri, along with a firm frame of tannins. It’s likely to improve from 2020–2025. Cellar Selection.
N. Kendall Wines 2013 Pinot Noir (Finger Lakes); $35, 91 points. While ethereal in structure, there’s a seductively penetrating appeal to this light-footed Pinot Noir. Initially pronounced notes of smoke, dried herb and cedar fade into a dusty rose and cherry perfume. Blossom and sage aromas extend into the palate, which lend a sultry flair to brisk Maraschino cherry and raspberry flavors. The finish extends on a pleasant bite of bitter almond. abv: 12% Price: $35
Descendants of vines brought from the Eastern European country of Georgia by Finger Lakes pioneer Dr. Konstantin Frank in the late 1950s thrive still, and deliver exotic, smoky wines. Produced by only a handful of wineries such as Dr. Konstantin Frank, McGregor and Standing Stone, it’s a thought-provoking, remarkably ageworthy wine with robust tannins and acidity.
A touch wilder than Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is the unwieldy yet sexy underdog of red grapes. In France, its herbal, often green, peppery characteristics are embraced throughout the Loire, and it’s heralded as a blending grape in Bordeaux.
In New York, Cabernet Franc exhibits a breadth of styles distinct from anywhere else. Whether aided by New York’s long growing season or challenged by vintage or vineyard conditions, it can be bold, ripe and brooding, or ethereally delicate. Its herbaceous qualities (linked to aromatic compounds called pyrazines) can be expressed in fierce, savage tones of green pepper and grass, or mere whiffs of sage and bramble.
“Frankly, there’s nowhere better in the world to grow it,” says Bates. Cabernet Franc generally expresses itself better in a cooler climate, he says, and, if grown properly, it exhibits a purity of red and black fruit flavors that are balanced neatly with tartness. In his area, he says, it can display “graphite and mineral, and those fine, pretty pyrazines.”
Debra Birmingham, co-owner of Bloomer Creek Vineyard in Hector, on Seneca Lake’s east side, embraces Cabernet Franc for “its wildness; a high-pitched intensity and edge that many people find unexpected and unnerving.”
The Cabernet Franc bottlings at Bloomer Creek embody the diversity in the Finger Lakes. Vin d’été, unfined and unfiltered, is the winery’s designated “summer wine”—sprightly, subtly leafy and sheer, in contrast to its richer, fuller-bodied varietal bottling.
Bloomer Creek also makes a White Horse Blend that combines Cabernet Franc with a smaller proportion of Merlot. The mix tones down the Cabernet Franc’s riotous greenness while maintaining its zesty spice and herbaceousness, says Birmingham.
More beautiful examples of Cabernet Franc can be found throughout Long Island and the Hudson River Valley from McCall, Harbes Family, Paumanok, Macari, Shinn and Channing Daughters on Long Island, as well as Millbrook in the Hudson River Valley.
Recommended New York Cabernet Franc
Hermann J. Wiemer 2014 Magdalena Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Seneca Lake); $32, 93 points. Hermann J. Wiemer may be synonymous with New York Riesling, but its Cabernet Francs are consistently some of the best reds made in the state. Subdued shades of cigar box, cedar and tomato leaf lend savory, Old-World elegance to this ripe, richly concentrated wine. Pristine blackberry and plum flavors are juicy and penetrating yet briskly composed. A bristle of soft, cocoa powder tannins extends the finish. Editors’ Choice.
McCall 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc (North Fork of Long Island); $45, 93 points. While 16 months in French barriques lend roundness of mouthfeel, there’s hardly any oak embellishment here. Instead, this wine showcases perfumed, concentrated black cherry and berry shining through. It’s rich and mouthfilling, yet it’s impeccably structured, with a long, delicately tannic finish. Editors’ Choice.
Shaw 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc (Finger Lakes); $35, 93 points. A contrast to the producer’s fresh and fruity unoaked Cab Franc, Shaw’s late-release reserve bottling showcases the massive concentration and depth found within the same grape variety in NY. Blackberry and cherry flavors are lush and ripe, intensified by regal tones of wet soil, spice, vanilla and tobacco. It’s a powerful, richly textured wine that should continue to develop well through 2025. Editors’ Choice.
Regardless of what you call it, there’s not much market recognition for this Central European variety in the U.S. But this uniquely spicy red has the fortitude to thrive in New York’s challenging climates, and the grace to attract new fans. Producers like Hermann J. Wiemer and Red Tail Ridge in the Finger Lakes, and Channing Daughters in Long Island make exemplary examples.
There’s an unparalleled precision that gives Cabernet Sauvignon its vaulted place in the wine world. The late-ripening grape produces wines that are full bodied and berried, yet stridently high in tannins and acidity. It has never grown easily in New York, where climactic conditions vary dramatically with each vintage.
Of all New York’s wine regions, the North Fork of Long Island, with its temperate maritime climate and long growing season, has the best conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We can’t make a truly great Cabernet Sauvignon every year,” he says. “Maybe just once or twice in 10 years. But the challenge is what makes it so fun.”
In the best vintages, Long Island’s Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits black-fruit ripeness calibrated by cool shades of dried herbs, tobacco and graphite. Nappa says there’s been an evolution with how people embrace Cabernet Sauvignon’s unique expression from Long Island.
“It used to be that green flavors in red wine were always the enemy, that green notes meant grapes were underripe, and therefore not very good,” he says, noting that growers used to overripen fruit to avoid greenness, which would result in big, flabby wines.
“But if you embrace that greenness, and the fact that these herbal-sage and tomato-leaf notes are components of the grape itself, it lends balance, structure and complexity to a wine,” he says. While production is limited, Finger Lakes winemakers also strive to produce Cabernet Sauvignon unique to their region.
“Cabernet Sauvignon has its own distinction,” says Glen Allen, co-owner of Damiani Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes. “It’s more elegant and delicate than most New World versions, and has distinct eucalyptus and spice notes. Because the fruit is not overwhelmed, not jammy or big, its delicacy lets us frame it gently with oak without being overwhelming.”
Recommended New York Cabernet Sauvignon
Raphael 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (North Fork of Long Island); $50, 92 points. Luxurious notes of vanilla, cedar and spice go head-to-head against lusciously ripe blueberry and blackberry flavors. Deeply fruity yet structured, it’s freshened by crisp cranberry acidity and swathes of bramble and herb. While big boned and densely tannic now, it should meld beautifully from 2019–2025. Cellar Selection.
McGregor 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Finger Lakes); $25, 91 points. Complexity abounds in this spicy, cedar-toned wine. Ripe red plum and cherry flavors are juicy and plush, yet balanced by sharp edges of acidity and graphite. It’s intensely earthy and studded with notes of bramble and autumn leaf. Fine, feathery tannins lead into a long, lingering finish.
Damiani 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Finger Lakes); $25, 90 points. Red cherry and raspberry flavors show remarkably fresh and pure. It’s a juicy, approachably fruity wine, but also structured keenly by zesty acidity and fine, firm tannins. It’s surprisingly well balanced for a big, ripe red. abv: 13.9% Price: $25
New York winemakers have traditionally shied away from the state’s long history with American Vitis labrusca grapes like Concord and Delaware, or French-American hybrids like Baco Noir. In recent years, however, there’s been a small renaissance. Motivated by a mix of local pride, nostalgia and curiosity, wines like Hudson-Chatham’s Baco Noir, Nathan Kendall’s Delaware pétillant-naturel or Element Winery’s Concord “nouveau” are worth seeking out.