Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Finger Lakes (New York) Wine Region

The US Wine Bloggers travelled to the Finger Lakes region of New York for their 8th annual conference which, as per usual, included immersion in the wines and winemaking practices of the host region. This year was no exception as we were exposed to the wine, grape growing, winemaking practices, and the hospitality of the region's producers and support system. This blog post provides my understanding of the landscape and viticulture of the region.

The Finger Lakes is one of five major wine grape producing regions in the State of New York (the others being Long Island, Hudson River, Niagara Escarpment, and Lake Erie) and, according to, is the second largest grape growing area in the state.

New York State wine regions (Source:

The Finger Lakes region was awarded AVA status in 1982. Its coverage area encompasses 4000 square miles and 2.5 million acres of land, 9432 of which are planted to vines. A total of 118 wineries operate in the AVA.

Finger Lakes wine region

Included within the broader Finger Lakes AVA are two sub-AVAs, Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake. The characteristics of these sub-AVAs are summarized in the table below.

Included AVAs Year Established Counties Plantings (acres) Wineries Growing Season (days)
Seneca Lake
Portions of:
Cayuga Lake

Landscape Formation
In the Late Silurian and Early Devonian periods (about 416 mya), what is today the Finger Lakes region lay beneath a warm, shallow sea which, over millions of years, deposited eroded material, corals, and shells on its bottom to form the bedrock that undergirds the region today. The deposits of those periods were primarily limestones, shales, sandstones, and conglomerates. The Silurian deposits also contained salts, gypsum, and hematite. These were predominantly sedimentary rocks.

New York State deposits by geologic age

According to the New York State Geological Survey, significant amounts of clay-like sediments were deposited in vast glacial lakes that occupied the state at the end of the last Ice Age. A map of those clay deposits is presented below and shows some intrusion into the western and southern portions of the Finger Lakes region.

Two million years ago the first of two glacial encroachments from the Hudson Bay area signaled the beginning of the Pleistocene glaciation and the eventual formation of the landscape that exists today. According to Allan Lasko's (Cornell University Professor) presentation to the bloggers at WBC15, very large lakes remained after the glaciers retreated. Gradual drainage of these post-glacial lakes led to glacial soils plus salts on the landscape and lakes of varying elevations, depth, and slope. It is estimated that there were two major ice incursions with the first doing most of the "heavy cutting" and the second leaving behind the current surface deposits.

The Finger Lakes macro-climate is humid continental with significant temperature variation between summer and winter. The mean annual temperature is 60℉. The cold winter conditions, plus the relative shortness of the growing season (190 - 205 days), should preclude successful vinifera plantings but a mix of microclimatic effects and cultural practices combine to make the growing of fine wine grapes possible:
  • The harsh winters provide an environment wherein primary buds could be destroyed or vines killed. The practice of "hilling up" protects the graft union which, according to Fox Run Vineyards Winemaker Peter Bell, is considerably more cold-sensitive than the rest of the permanent portion of the vine. The hill is taken down in the Spring to prevent Phylloxera from feeding of the scion wood (Bell) 
  • The lakes provide a mitigating effect in the fall and winter in that the water (and the air above it) is warmer than the land. As the warm air rises, the cold air moves down the slope to occupy the space thus created. This serves to drain the cold air away from the vineyards rather than staying put and damaging the vines. 
  • In the spring, the land warms up more rapidly than does the water and as that warm air rises, the cold air seeps into the open space. This cold air keeps the vines from early budding and encountering potentially damaging late spring frosts. 
According to Kay Whitehall, these lake effects are directly related to the volume and thermal mass of the lake as well as to the distance away from the lake. Her research showed, for example, a 1.72 degree difference in temperature between the weather stations at Valois and Groveland.

Annual rainfall in the region averages 34 inches. The preferred situation in grape growing is for rainfall during the winter months, but fully 60% of the Finger Lakes rainfall occurs between April and October.  An abundance of rainfall during the growing season can cause improper fruit set (a result of shattering of new blooms by rainstorms) and can encourage the growth of mildew.

Finger Lakes soils range from well-drained sandy loam to iron-oxidized red clay with the common characteristic being shallowness and sloping beds. Around Seneca Lake the bedrock is primarily shale with the southern region being a mix of sandstone and shale. Cayuga Lake bedrock is shale. The bedrock is calcareous in some places and non-calcareous in others. The limestone soil is found in the north of the region with more acidic soils to the south. In the areas with limestone soils, acid rain leaches calcium carbonate out of the bedrock and deposits it in the soils and lake. This calcium carbonate acts as a buffer against soil pH, rendering said soil ideal for grape growing. In the non-limestone zones, ground limestone has to be added to the soils to create this buffering effect.

The soils in the region have a high clay content and while clay has some beneficial qualities (moisture retention and high mineral content) it also has some disadvantages:
  • It takes longer to heat up in spring
  • Swells when it absorbs water and shrinks as it dries. This can cause cracking through which water is lost and can also damage the root system
  • Does not drain well
  • Becomes sticky when wet and structure deteriorates if worked in that condition.
Vineyards and Vines
The lakes have north-south orientations and the vineyards are located on the slopes above. The vines, therefore, have east or west aspects depending on the bank on which they are sited. Vines run perpendicular to the slope -- as a counter to erosionary tendencies - and are trained Scott-Henry or VSP, depending on soil type. According to Bell, this palnting orientation allows the plant to intercept the maximum amount of sunlight.

Drainage tiles are deployed below the surface because the water table is only 4 feet down. The relative fertility of the soils, ready access to water, and the shortness of the growing season dictate an active canopy management program in order to: ensure adequate sun exposure; promote fruit ripening; and promote air flow which, in turn, reduces disease pressure.

As shown in the tables below, the region is in the midst of a long-term shift towards a greater reliance on vinifera plantings. Fully 65% of the vinifera grown is white, with Riesling, the region's focus, experiencing a 56% increase in plantings since 2006.

Table1: Finger Lakes AVA acreage by vine type, selected years
Vine Type
Vinifera N/A
Source: Caplan and Gerling; Newman

Table 2: Finger Lakes Vinifera plantings
Color Variety Acreage
White Riesling



Pinot Gris

Gruner Veltliner N/A

Sauvignon Blanc
Red Cabernet Franc

Lemberger N/A

Pinot Noir

Cabernet Sauvignon


Source: Caplan and Gerling

The Riesling clones used in the Finger Lakes are 90, 239, 198, and 110 and the rootstock is 3309.

Diseases and Pests
A survey by Fuchs, et al., found that 2/3 of all Finger Lakes vineyards were infected with Grapevine Leaf Roll (GLR) virus (GLRaV-1, -2, and -3). Seven percent of the vineyards had low levels of infection, 21% moderate levels, and 40% had high or extremely high levels of infection. Infection with GLR complexes can result in delayed fruit maturity, poor color, and reduced yield. Infection is most likely the result of poor sanitary status of planting material and mealybugs and soft scales as vectors. The control mechanism employed is to replace infected vines or vineyards with certified products.

The insect and mite pests most likely to be encountered in Finger Lakes vineyards are shown in Table 3 below.

Table 3: Insect and Mite Pests in Finger Lakes Vineyards
Budswell to Bloom Bloom to mid-Season Towards Harvest
Steely Beetle Grape Berry Moth^ MALB
Climbing Cutworm Grape Leafhopper Spotted Wing Drosophila***
Soft Scales* Phylloxera Vinegar Flies***
Mealybugs* Grape Rootworm

Banded Grape Bug** Spider Mites

Lygocoris Bug** Japanese Beetle

Grape Plume Moth Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (MALB)

Source: Greg Loeb
*Vectors for GLR virus
**Greatest insect risk for yield loss
***Role in spreading sour rot bacteria
^Most important arthropod pest

Atallah et al., Working Paper.
Benjamin Linhoff, Soil Acidity in Vineyards of the Finger Lakes of New York,
Fuchs et al., Survey for the Three Major Leafroll Disease Associated Viruses in Finger Lakes Vineyards in New York
Greg Loeb, Grape Insect and Mite Pests -- 2014 field season
James L. Newman, Vines, Wines, and Regional Identity in the Finger Lakes Region, Geographical Review 76(3), July 1986.
Kate Whitesell, The Lake Effect on the Surrounding Climate of the Finger Lakes in New York,
New York State Geological Service
New York Wines,
Peter Bell, Winemaker, Fox Run Vineyards, Personal communication.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. You have the pH trends exactly backward. Higher pH calcareous soils are in the north, low pH shale in the south.

    1. Tim I will look into it and correct as necessary. Thank you

    2. Tim, checked and I had I had transposed the data. Corrections made.