When it comes to American wines, California seems to get all the attention. But those who are laser-focused on Napa and Sonoma are missing out. Upstate New York has quietly earned a reputation for excellent wine, and New York wine country has blossomed into a wonderful tourist destination.
To put New York’s wine industry into perspective, let’s turn to the latest research from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. There are over 1,600 family vineyards and 400 wineries in New York alone. This results in the production of over 175 million bottles of wine generating $408 million in local and state tax revenues. All told, it’s estimated that the New York wine industry generates $4.8 billion in economic benefits for the state of New York annually.
But as any wine lover will tell you, wine isn’t just about business! It’s about an undying love for the fruit of the vine. Quality is more important than quantity and, fortunately, the wineries in New York excel in this sense as well!
Seeing as we know a thing or two about wine, we decided to put together this guide to wineries in New York. Within the guide we will explore the history of grape growing and wineries in upstate NY and Long Island, along with an overview of the various New York wine regions and some of our favorite New York State wines.
So get ready to explore the best wine New York has to offer!
A Quick Note on Grape Species
When talking about wine in New York, it’s important to understand the distinction between the two most prominent species of grape that are grown there. The species of grape native to North American is known as the Vitis labrusca. Some of the most recognized varietals of this grape are Concord and Catawba. While they are popular for the production of grape juice, along with jellies and jams, they are often considered inferior for producing wine. The European species Vitis vinifera is the grape that produces the vast majority of fine wines.
The introduction of European grapes served as the springboard for the New York wine industry. However, it’s important that we not overemphasize the importance of the distinction, as some winemakers are starting to once again experiment with native grapes. In addition, some growers have also found great success with hybridizing the two species, giving grapes more of the European flavor character while preserving the native grapes’ hardiness in the New York climate.
Although the bulk of New York wines are made with European grapes, don’t write off a native varietal without at least giving it a try!
A Brief History of New York Wineries
In many ways, American wine making began in New York. Settlers first began to experiment with grape growing in the 1600s, and the first licensed winery was located in Hammondsport. However, the story of fine wine production really begins in the 1950s, when Dr. Konstantin Frank began to experiment with growing famed Old World grape varietals in the Finger Lakes region.
By the 1970s, the success of Dr. Frank’s experiment began to catch on as more wineries began to switch from sweeter juice grapes to the finer European varietals. However, many growers are also sticking to New York tradition and creating fine wines using some of the French-American hybrids that had been earlier dismissed as lower-quality.
Out of this commitment to New York’s rich wine history, melded with bold experimentation, five distinct wine growing regions have emerged: Long Island, the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie, Hudson Valley and the Niagara Escarpment. Each region is earning its own distinct reputation while working together to draw attention to the great wine making being done in New York.
Long Island’s wine growing is concentrated on the eastern side of the island. Its emergence as a fine wine region can be traced to the early 1970s, as the first winery opened in 1973.
Long Island’s climate has been likened to Bordeaux, so it’s unsurprising that Long Islands vintners have focused on Bordeaux grapes. The warm summers are tempered by the cooling sea breezes, replicating the seaside growing regions of France. As a result, cabernet franc, merlot and sauvignon blanc are the primary grapes being harvested in Long Island. Compared with other wine regions in New York, Long Island gets quite warm in the summer. This is why their Merlots are especially well-regarded. However, the Cabernet Franc should not be neglected. Black pepper is well-balanced with fruity plums and a delicate licorice flavor. In many ways, these are the best cabernet francs outside of the Loire Valley in France.
But if you prefer whites, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the most common. The former is probably the better representation of Long Island’s wine making skill.
This is a great region if you like a well-balanced variety of wines. Both strong reds and whites are grown on the island. It’s also a fabulous source of local produce, including asparagus, berries, tomatoes, squash and various root vegetables. This gives the North Fork a complete culinary vision, allowing you to pair excellent wines with fresh ingredients and great food.
As those familiar with Long Island geography will know, the eastern end of the island is divided into two forks. The southern fork is home to the famed Hamptons, where many of the rich and famous of New York spend their summer vacations. As such, much of this land is too expensive to be used for growing grapes. The northern fork, however, is much more affordable — and it’s here that you’ll find the vast majority of Long Island’s leading vineyards.
A number of wineries have become popular in Long Island, both for the casual and dedicated wine taster. There are around 40 wineries that you can visit. However, we especially recommend Bedell Cellars, Palmer, Pellegrini, Castello de Borghese, Paumanok, Raphael and Shinn Estate. If you happen to be taking a vacation in the Hamptons, it’s a easy drive to the other fork.
Winery Spotlight — Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse
The roots of Shinn Estate began with the founders’ love of farm-to-table food. Barbara Shinn and David Page are Midwesterners who moved to California before deciding to open one of the East Coast’s first farm-to-table restaurants.
Building on the restaurant’s success, they purchased 20 acres of vines and began producing wine. Throughout the process, they have continued to focus on sustainability and respect for nature. In 2010, they became the first East Coast winery to be solely powered by alternative energy sources. Similarly, the grapes are farmed and harvested using holistic techniques.
In addition to the winery, they also have a distillery, which makes them a great destination for those with more eclectic tastes. As far as their wines, they produce excellent Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Francs and Rosés. Their tasting room is open daily, but we definitely recommend a scheduled tour. And don’t forget to stay for dinner! Check out their website for further details and a list of special events.
Hudson River Valley
Just as the state of New York started along the Hudson River, so too did New York’s winemaking. This region is home to the oldest winery in the US, the Brotherhood Winery, which was established in 1839. The winery, which only produces sacramental wines used in Christian religious services, was able to survive Prohibition because it was granted a religious exemption. Therefore, while many of California’s wineries closed down at the beginning of the 20th century, forcing the region to restart their wine industry after Prohibition was repealed, the Hudson River Valley continued to thrive.
However, while the Hudson River Valley holds a distinguished position in the American wine making world, on the whole, this is an underused wine growing region.
To put the valley’s potential in perspective, consider this: there are 225,000 acres of vineyard land available. However, currently only 500 acres are being used.
That being said, while the Hudson River region has a lot of room to expand, those who do make wine here are committed to their craft. While most of the various wine growing regions in the United States emulate and experiment with Old World grapes, the Hudson River proudly protects its own distinctly American wine making tradition.
As such, the two most representative wines are known as “Heritage Red” and “Heritage White.” While both are blends of older French hybrids, their production is tightly controlled by bylaws.
The region’s many hills help block the vines from the more intemperate cold air further north. Conversely, the river keeps the region cool during the hotter months.
As a wine tourism destination, this is an attractive place to visit, as it’s just a short drive from New York City. And while there may not be a large number of wineries to visit, the ones that do exist are definitely worth the trip. Besides the aforementioned Brotherhood Winery, the Hudson-Chatham Winery, Millbrook and Oak Summit are all excellent places to visit.
Winery Spotlight — Millbrook Vineyards & Winery
Founder John Dyson first started exploring fine wine grape growing in the 1980s. He found success when he purchased the land that became Millbrook Vineyards in 1983, and began to make wine the following year.
The first wines produced were Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and he has since expanded to include Riesling and the Italian grape, Tocai Friulano.
Tastings take place within the gorgeous confines of the Hudson River region, and are available year round. The rolling hills and gorgeous vistas are worth the visit, so think about the weather when planning a trip. They also have a grille that provides excellent cuisine that’s meant to be paired with the equally excellent wines.
The also offer special learning experiences, so if you’re interested in deepening your wine knowledge, take a look at their calendar and sign up for one of their special events.
The Finger Lakes
When people think of New York wines, the Upstate NY wineries in the Finger Lakes region are usually the first to come to mind. Of course, when it comes to making fine wine, the Finger Lakes, under the guidance of Dr. Konstantin Frank, started the trend in the state.
Because Dr. Frank was Ukrainian, he had an understanding of the climate of Upstate New York. Often much colder than most wine growing regions, the Finger Lakes have earned a sterling reputation nonetheless, especially in regards to their most famous wine: Riesling.
While the Finger Lakes, created by retreating glaciers, certainly define the region’s geography, they are also crucial for supporting the wine growing climate. The lakes stabilize the temperatures in an otherwise frigid part of the country. Similarly, when the summers grow hot, the lakes keep the region cool, again helping to provide ideal growing conditions for grapes.
The wine in the Fingers Lakes begins and ends with Riesling. They are known for their especially aromatic and dry version of the wine, although many wineries are also creating excellent sweet bottles. They also make excellent Gewürztraminer. However, if you prefer reds, they also have excellent Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs.
When traveling through the region, you should always make sure to check out the Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Not only is it still run by the founder’s heirs, but it also leads the way in producing the best Riesling in the Finger Lakes. But there’s a lot more than that for you to explore. There are over 11,000 acres of vineyards being used by 130 or so wineries. Agness Wine Cellars, McGregor and Kemmeter are all excellent wineries that also provide great tours and tastings.
There are also a number of distilleries, breweries and excellent eateries in the region, meaning you can combine your tour with a complete culinary experience. Plus, this region — along with perhaps Long Island — has the most developed wine tourism industry in place, meaning you can easily find tours and wine tasting experiences that are designed to make discovering Finger Lakes wine easy for those who are new to tasting.
Winery Spotlight — Kemmeter Wines
While many wineries try to trace their heritage back to Italy or France, Kemmeter Wines, along with its founder, Johannes Rienhardt, is a product of the German winemaking tradition. The Rienhardt family hails from Wuerzburg, an excellent winemaking region in the Franconia region of Germany.
Rienhardt received further training in Germany before coming to work at Dr. Konstantin Frank’s winery in the Finger Lakes. From there he set off to establish his own winery, which is quickly earning a reputation as one of the finest in a region that’s already quite crowded by excellence.
They focus on Rieslings, which makes sense considering the grape’s German heritage. Their tasting room is intimate and, as such, requires an appointment. However, it’s worth the experience — especially if you want the opportunity to take your time and avoid some of the more crowded touristy wineries.
Check out their website for further information on planning your visit.
This is a traditionally Concord juice grape growing region that has only recently begun to explore the possibilities of fine wine grape growing.
The region is becoming known for its success in growing lesser-known varietals, including the French-American hybrids of Seyval Blanc and Vignoles. In addition, they are working to elevate native grapes, including Catawba, Niagara and Delaware. Like much of New York, Riesling also plays a prominent role in the region’s grape industry.
In addition, Lake Erie is earning a reputation for ice wine, which derives its dessert-caliber sweetness from allowing grapes to freeze on the vine before harvesting them.
This is definitely a region with plenty of room to grow. They currently harvest 20,000 acres’ worth of vineyards, although 90% of those grapes are currently Concord.
It should also be noted that this wine region crosses state borders into Pennsylvania and Ohio.
If you’re looking to stay in New York while exploring all that the Lake Erie region has to offer, we suggest checking out 21 Brix Winery. Woodbury Vineyards is also excellent.
Winery Spotlight — 21 Brix
This is a newer winery, having opened its doors in 2011. Winemaker and founder Kris Kane combined his experience on his parents’ farm with a wealth of wine making experience, both domestically and abroad in Australia, to establish 21 Brix as a true up-and-comer.
They offer a wide range of wines, including excellent Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and specialty Vidal ice wines. They also experiment with other fruit wines, such as cherry, blueberry and raspberry.
The visitor experience is truly wonderful, as they feature a 60-foot tasting bar, and the winery itself is nestled right along the shore of the lake. They are open daily for tastings, and host a number of special events as well. So head over to their website in order to check out their calendar.
Or, if you’re in the area, just keep an eye out for Ella, the life-sized pink elephant that guards the entrance to the winery along Route 20!
The Niagara Escarpment is a new winemaking region to be sure, but they also have good neighbors to emulate. Ontario has grown in reputation, especially when it comes to ice wine, and Niagara is looking to capitalize on that success.
This is also definitely a small region. Only 800 acres are currently being cultivated, with a total of approximately 15 wineries producing wines. But, in a sense, this plays to their strength. Ice wine can be consistently produced, and the smaller scene means that each winery can focus on doing what they do best.
Furthermore, wine experts are confident that, as Niagara grows in renown, this is a region due for an explosion.
As for wineries worth exploring, Spring Lake and Niagara Landing are both well respected and are a great place to start if you’re looking to get in on the ground floor of this up-and-coming region.
Winery Spotlight — Spring Lake
Spring Lake was born from the visions of Dr. Nicholas and Tamre Varallo. Inspired by the deep Italian heritage of Nana and Papa Varallo, Nicholas began making wine in his basement when he was just eight years old.
They’ve won numerous awards for their wine, including a bronze medal at the International Riesling Challenge. Obviously, their award-winning Rieslings are the star of the show, but they also bottle excellent Merlots, Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons.
To round out the experience, they also offer train excursions. The Vineyard Express includes a tour of the Medina Railroad Museum, combined with dinner and music at the vineyard.
For more information and to purchase tickets, head over to their website.
Your Wine Tour Begins Now!
We hope this tour through New York wine country has given you a glimpse into just how wonderful East Coast American wines can be. You don’t have to go to California or even France just to get a taste of the best fruits of the vine!
Whether you’re looking for a day trip out of the city or a more in-depth vacation in New York wine country, there are a number of excellent wineries throughout New York’s five main winemaking regions.
And, of course, for the rest of your wine purchasing needs, check out our cellars at Marketview Liquor.
We have one of the largest selections of New York wines available under one roof – available online or for pickup at our Rochester NY location following your wine tour. We take wine seriously, and we’re always here to connect you with your new favorite bottle.
So raise a glass to all the great wine that New York has to offer. We look forward to sharing a toast with you!