Where to Go in the Finger Lakes to Drink Some of the Country's Best Sweet Wine

Make a trip to taste late harvest wine, ice wine, and plenty of off-dry Riesling.

Keuka Lake and Vineyard Fall
Photo: Courtesy of Luke Petrinec

In New York's Finger Lakes, visitors pour in to sample their way through the region's robust cluster of world-class wineries. And while producers make plenty of dry wines from the wide variety of grapes that thrive here, like Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay, they're also making some of the country's best sweet wines.

Nick Massimilian, director of food & beverage at the Lake House on Canandaigua, has noticed an uptick in guest demand for sweet wine. "More and more people are exploring this subcategory of beverage—it's increasingly becoming part of the dining experience," he says, adding that guests are paying particular attention to how well the Finger Lakes is executing sweet wine.

Among the types of sweeter wine made here, off-dry Riesling is the most ubiquitous, says Brian Combs, the Lake House's director of beverage, estimating that upwards of 90 percent of wineries make a version. (Off-dry is categorized as a wine with between 10 and 30 grams of residual sugar per liter.) "Riesling is kind of our flagship white grape here," he says.

Combs also estimates that upwards of 50 percent of the region's wineries make a version of late harvest wine, which is made from grapes left to ripen on the vine longer than usual, resulting in more dehydrated and concentrated fruit and sweeter wine.

Weis Vineyards Ice Wine
Bob Knill

Finally, the region is one of only a handful in the world that produces ice wine—made from grapes left on the vine until they freeze, creating an intensified juice and preserving the sweetness. With a slew of variables at play, including having to pick the grapes when the temperature hovers between 12 and 18 degrees—when the water freezes but the sugary grape does not—these wines are incredibly difficult to produce. "We're lucky in that there's about a dozen wineries that at least give it a shot every year," Combs says.

And though the category has suffered from a bad rap for decades, many visitors are surprised by the quality and flavor of these off-dry and sweet wines, not to mention how well they pair with food, says Combs, who especially loves to balance an off-dry Riesling with spicy Chinese takeout. Not only does the sweeter wine mellow out the heat, but, with notes of lemongrass and minerals, Riesling's flavor profiles often pair well with the cuisine, says Combs. "I think more people like slightly off-dry wine than would admit that in a survey."

Whether you're already a fan of sweet wine, or want to test the waters with some of the best and most balanced around, read on for five wineries well worth a visit in the Finger Lakes.

Red Newt Cellars

According to Combs, Red Newt Cellars, located on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, makes a "fantastic breadth of all wine—white, red, sparkling, and the whole gamut from dry Rieslings all the way through ice wine." Among the sweet wines produced, find a Noble Riesling Late Harvest, made from botrytis-infected grapes, and Tango Oaks Ice Wine, made from Riesling grapes picked in the early morning by a small team wearing headlamps to see in the dark. (They pick before dawn because sunlight raises the temps too high, risking warming the frozen grapes.)

Weis Vineyards

Overlooking Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, Weis Vineyards specializes in German-style, drier wines, but also produces highly-rated sweet wines, including Riesling Ice Wine. According to Ashlee Weis, who owns the vineyard with her husband Hans Peter Weis, their customers have been receptive to ice wine, which they started producing in 2017.

Weis Vineyards Ice Wine
Bob Knill

"On our tasting sheet it is listed as a 'specialty' tasting, and we go into a good amount of detail explaining the process of creating it … before they even take a sip," she says. "We also always make a point to showcase it as a 'sweet wine for the dry wine drinker" and explain the difference versus an added sugar sweet wine."

Other sweet wines made here include Port—a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc fortified with Brandy—and Winzer Select Riesling A. The A stands for Auslese, or select harvest—a German-style Riesling made with hand-harvested grapes, some of them with botrytis, or noble rot, which makes for a sweet wine balanced with acidity and heady fruit aroma.

Sheldrake Point Winery

Sheldrake Point Winery is another one that "consistently makes quality late harvest wines," says Combs, who stocks the producer's 2017 ice wine. Set on 155 acres on Cayuga Lake's western shore, Sheldrake Point produces both table and ice wines, and has been named New York State winery of the year twice. Besides ice wine, which they've been producing since 2000, the winery has also made an award-winning late harvest Pinot Gris, with notes of tropical fruit and candied apricot, and a late harvest Cabernet Franc, which was made with grapes that dried on the vine for over three months past the traditional harvest, offering notes of orange marmalade, cherry, and cranberry.

Heron Hill Winery

The nearly 50-year-old Heron Hill Winery is located near Keuka Lake, but also has a tasting room on Canandaigua Lake. Though Heron Hill doesn't make ice wines, the winery produces award-winning late harvest wines, plus semi-dry and semi-sweet Rieslings. The 2020 Late Harvest Vidal, for example, is medium-bodied, with a balance of sweetness and acidity, that pairs well with both desserts and foie gras.

Boundary Breaks
Brittany Gibson

Boundary Breaks Wine

Boundary Breaks specializes in Rieslings that range from sparkling dry to ice wine. The relatively new winery first planted vines in 2009, released its first Riesling in 2013, and has been producing complex, balanced, and highly-rated wines since. The 2020 Riesling Ice Wine was made with grapes picked at 15 degrees Fahrenheit or below, which produces a sweet wine with a bouquet of honey and caramelized apples. Visit the outdoor tasting room, overlooking Seneca Lake, to sample the fruits of their labor, accompanied by local cheese and charcuterie.

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