The Finger Lakes Are About More Than Riesling

These destination wineries specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and more New York wine.

Hickory Hollow Wine Cellars

Dan Bell / Courtesy of Hickory Hollow Wine Cellars

Nestled in central New York between the Catskill Mountains and Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes AVA (American viticultural area) takes its name from a collection of eleven spindly bodies of water that affect the area’s climate and terroir, turning it into a prime location for prestige winemaking. Fans of Riesling (a light and fragrant white wine originating in Germany’s Rhine Valley) already know that the Finger Lakes is a famous hotspot for New World Riesling growth and production, but winemakers from this region has no intention of resting on that grape alone. Instead, they’ve ventured into making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Blaufränkisch, as well as Georgian wines like Saperavi and Rkatsiteli. The thirteen wineries on this list represent the absolute best that the Finger Lakes has to offer.

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Atwater Vineyards

A vineyard and winery on the southern end of Seneca Lake, Atwater Vineyards uses the slightly-warmer microclimate of its particular location to produce sophisticated European-style single varietals and blends. Atwater’s intense “Celsius” ice wine (made with botrytised Riesling), Cabernet Franc (rich with notes of red fruit and black pepper), and skin-fermented “orange” Pinot Gris are especially noteworthy. The winery’s tasting area includes an outdoor deck with direct views of Seneca Lake, which proves an ideal spot for enjoying a glass of wine and a locally-sourced cheese and charcuterie platter. 

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Barnstormer Winery

Also on the southern shore of Seneca Lake, Barnstormer Winery sources grapes from small-acreage vineyards located along this particular lake to create well-balanced, highly drinkable wines. The public facility is inside a beautifully restored 170-year-old farmhouse, and boasts a fireside tasting area where the staff can guide you through comprehensive tastings. Barnstormer’s Blaufränkisch and Cabernet Franc serve as excellent examples of red wines produced in cooler climates, thanks to their precise flavor balance and food-friendly nature. They also use Blaufränkisch and Sangiovese to make fruit-forward and refreshing rosés, and their dry and off-dry Rieslings hold their own among the Finger Lakes’ other prestige whites. 

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Bloomer Creek Vineyard

Natural wine isn’t just a trendy buzzword for winemaker Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek ––  it’s a way of life. Engle and his team claim three decades of experience with organic grape growing and low-intervention winemaking, and the wines that come out of this quaint winery on Seneca Lake are among the most experimental and innovative bottles in the Finger Lakes. Bloomer Creek’s grounds and tasting room remain closed to the public in the wake of the COVID pandemic, but natural wine enthusiasts can order bottles (like a racy and vibrant Riesling Pét-Nat and an herbaceous “orange” skin-fermented Gewürztraminer) online until the winery’s public areas reopen. 

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Bright Leaf Vineyards

Compared to many other Finger Lakes wineries, Bright Leaf, which put in its first plantings in 2014, is something of a young upstart.  Winemaker Colleen Lukas and her team have already established a strong local reputation for its elegant French-style Chardonnays which benefit from the vineyard’s location on a limestone quarry that infuses the soil with minerality and smooth, earthy Lembergers and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery’s property provides clear views of Cayuga Lake, and guests are welcome to enjoy their wine on the outdoor patio or on the lush green lawn. 

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Buttonwood Grove Winery

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape that’s largely associated with warmer climates, from its homeland of Bordeaux to high-yield regions like Tuscany, Chile, and New Zealand. Therefore, it makes sense that wine tasters visiting the Finger Lakes might question the quality of Cab Savs from this (much cooler) area, but the team at Buttonwood Grove Winery is more than happy to chase those doubts away. Their Cabernet Sauvignon boasts serious dark-fruit flavor and a robust mouthfeel, and it’s in good company with Buttonwood Grove’s acclaimed dry Riesling, crisp Sauvignon Blanc, and French oak-aged Chardonnay. 

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Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery

If not for Dr. Konstantin Frank, a viticulture Ph.D who came to the Finger Lakes from Eastern Europe and started planting European vinifera grapes in the late 1950s, the Finger Lakes wine industry may never have truly launched. Dr. Frank’s championing of vitis vinifera grapes (instead of the hybrid grapes that were the previous standard in the region) pioneered the production of Old World-style wines in the Finger Lakes, and after several generations, the Frank family still maintains a lofty level of quality in the wines made at their Keuka Lake property. In addition to its celebrated Rieslings, Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery is a leader in a growing (but still somewhat under-the-radar) trend in Finger Lakes winemaking: the production of Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines. Their Brut and Blanc de Blanc prove that the future of American sparkling wines just might be happening right now in Central New York. 

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Element Winery

Christopher Bates, a master sommelier who also happens to be one of the most prolific restaurateurs in the Finger Lakes, launched his own winery in 2009 with the goal of creating low-intervention wines that showcase the Finger Lakes’ terroir –– and pair nicely with the dishes served at his restaurants. Bates uses a minimalist approach to winemaking, allowing the natural flavors of the grapes to shine. While Element’s Chardonnays and Rieslings are noteworthy, Bates strives to produce red wines that can stand alongside European reds, and Element’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (an engaging and well-balanced blend of Cab Franc, Syrah, Gamay, Merlot, and Blaufränkisch) counts among its top sellers. 

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Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

Courtesy of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard

Conveniently located between Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake, the tiny village of Dundee is a prime centerpoint for any Finger Lakes wine tour, especially because it’s home to Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, a destination-worthy purveyor of locally- and estate-grown wines. This vineyard’s namesake hailed from the Mosel Valley , so it stands to reason that Wiemer still focuses on expertly-crafted dry, off-dry, and sweet Rieslings. That said, they also dabble in Champenoise-style sparkling wines, well-rounded Cab Franc and Blaufränkisch, and even in Saperavi, a red wine from the nation of Georgia that’s becoming increasingly popular in the Finger Lakes. In addition to their single origins, Wiemer’s blends (like their bright and picnic-perfect Field White) are well-worth your attention. 

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Hickory Hollow Wine Cellars & Nathan K. Wines

If we could recommend one “winemaker to watch” currently located in the Finger Lakes, that designation would have to go to Nathan Kendall, a Finger Lakes native and internationally-trained vintner who’s the power behind Hickory Hollow as well as Nathan K., his own specialty label sold at Hickory Hollow. Kendall uses his considerable talent and knowledge to make sophisticated vinifera wines like Riesling, and Chardonnay, but also experiments with hybrid grapes like Delaware and Catawba. His chëpika project, a collaboration with acclaimed sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, turns these commonly-found but little-respected Finger Lakes grapes into exceptional wines.

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Hosmer Winery

Hosmer Winery

Courtesy of Hosmer Winery

One of the oldest and most well-established wineries on Cayuga Lake, Hosmer Winery places major emphasis on conservation and sustainability in their grape-growing and winemaking practices. The Hosmer team believes that the natural Finger Lakes terroir, packed with silt and shale, should experience as little mechanical interference as possible, and they’ve been recognized by national conservation organizations for their efforts to reduce waste in their winemaking and packaging. Hosmer’s dry, semi-dry, and sweet Riesling, prove that sustainable wines don’t need to compromise on flavor, texture, or overall quality.

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Kemmeter Wines

Kemmeter Wines, a tiny boutique vineyard and winery on Seneca Lake, is something of a local secret, due to the fact that Kemmeter only sells its very small-batch wines on-site (or online, for delivery to a very limited number of states). But visitors who make their way to the winery’s rustic barn and tasting room to participate in an intimate tasting with winemaker Johannes Reinhardt quickly discover that Reinhardt is doing something very special at his under-the-radar operation. Reinhardt came to the Finger Lakes from the German state of Bavaria, where he worked at family-run vineyards and gained an encyclopedic knowledge of Riesling. His wines  burst with fresh flavors of citrus, stone fruit, and minerals, but are also substantial enough to undergo cellar aging. Another Kemmeter highlight is the Pinot Blanc, a delicate, perfectly-calibrated white with notes of green apple and white flowers. While visiting Kemmeter, be sure to stop in at Sans Dumplings, a counter-service shop offering tender, juicy potstickers handmade by Reinhardt’s wife Imelda. 

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Ravines Wine Cellars

Ravines Wine Cellars

Courtesy of Ravines Wine Cellars

Morten and Lisa Hallgren, the husband-and-wife team behind Ravines Wine Cellars, passionately believe in the relationship between wine and food.. Morten Hallgren studied winemaking in France and brought his Old World expertise to the Finger Lakes, where he’s become locally famous for his very dry Rieslings, earthy and complex red blends, and bright, zippy dry rosés. On the food side of the operation, Lisa helms Ravines’ tasting-menu restaurant and produces small plates to accompany wine tastings, and her focus firmly rests on developing and executing seasonal dishes that complement the flavors of Ravines’ wines.

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Red Tail Ridge Winery

At Red Tail Ridge, winemaker Nancy Irelan cultivates grapes that naturally thrive in cooler climates, like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, as well as  Northern Italian varietals like Teroldego and Lagrein. Irelan eagerly plays around with blends and bubblies, creating multidimensional wines like 2019’s Rebel With A Cause (a blend of Teroldego, Cabernet Franc, Blaufränkisch, and Lagrein), Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines, and Méthode Ancestrale Pét-Nats. Red Tail Ridge’s airy, sunny tasting room near Seneca Lake makes an excellent environment for tasting your way through their impressive lineup.

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