If you thought New York was chilly in the winter, you should have seen it 10,000 years ago. What we see in New York today is primarily thanks to mile-high glaciers and Viticulture today wouldn’t be possible without them.
New York is the 27th largest state in America, yet it’s the 3rd largest producer of wine after California and Washington state. And despite being just 330 miles (530 km) north to south and 283 miles (455 km) east to west, New York has 11 different AVAs and a tapestry of soil types.
Let's explore the three main categories of geological and geographical features that moderate New York climate:
Expect elegant tasting wines due to New York's cool climate
New York state ranges from 40-45°N: you can find Bordeaux at 44°N and southern Italy at 40°N.
However, because of the continental climate, winters are freezing here, summers can be very warm, and spring frost can be a constant worry.
This range of climates also significantly impacts the grapes grown throughout the state, from cold-resistant hybrids such as Seyval Blanc to Riesling, and you can even find Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs more warmth.
The average annual temperatures range from 57°F (13.8°C) in Long Island to 42°F (5.5°C) in Lake Champlain. Long Island has a similar climate to Bordeaux, which has a mean annual temperature of 57°F (13.8°C), and partially why we see Bordeaux varieties grown there.
However, Lake Champlain, the coldest part of the state, is cooler than the Mosel in Germany. Mosel has a mean annual temperature of 49°F (9.4°C). This is why we see some Riesling grown there, but mainly hybrid and native grape species.
In reality, New York should be too cold to grow high-quality grapes, but some critical geographical features appeared after the last ice age, allowing great viticulture to happen here.
Geography: Glaciers carve out a place for viticulture
1.6 million years ago, a mile-high glacier covered New York, but 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, those glaciers started to retreat. In their retreat, they etched deep scars in the landscape today called the Finger Lakes.
In addition to these narrow yet very deep lakes, the last ice age also helped form the The Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario, Lake Champlain, the Hudson River valley, Long Island and the Erie and Niagara escarpments.
Each of these geographical features moderates the local temperature in some way. In Long Island, the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, just as in Bordeaux, helps elongate the growing season.
In the Finger Lakes, the depth of the lakes and the heat storage capacity of water helps extend the growing season and prevent spring frosts by delaying budding in the spring.
The Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario, along with their respective escarpments, experience the Lake Effect, which ensures winters aren't too cold, and autumns are long and warm enough to even ripen red grapes.
Primary wine soils of New York
Many of the soils in New York also help with heat retention, which is key to ripening and creating fruity flavors.
As the mile-high glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, they left behind them glacial moraine - lots of gravel, sand, shale, and limestone. While it's possible to find all these soil types throughout the state, specific areas will have high concentrations.
Shale and Limestone: Commonly found in central and western New York, these soils contain a specific hard limestone, Dolomite Limestone, located in the Niagara Escarpment.
Clay, Sand, and Gravel: These soils are concentrated on Long Island and are well drained, which is perfect for the maritime climate. Shale, Sandstone, Slate, and Gravel: Lake Champlain and Hudson River Valley have some of the most mixed geology in the state, with a mosaic of soil types found throughout.
So what do these soil types mean to the wine?
Shale: Shale is dark and retains heat well, so in places like the Finger Lakes, this is critical for helping the grapes ripen. Vine roots can easily go through slate, as it's quite friable and gives easy access to the water table. This gives the wines concentration, ripeness, and a distinct mineral note. The Mosel, in Germany is another famous wine-producing region that has shale soils.
Slate: Heats up quickly, which can help ripen grapes in cooler climates and can give extra mineral notes to the wine. Riesling does particularly well on these soils, found in the Hudson River Region.
Limestone: This soil has a high base pH, meaning it's not acidic. It can add freshness to wine by increasing the overall acidity. This is one of the reasons why Niagara wines are ripe and fruity tasting but have a strong backbone of acid. Burgundy and Barolo are famous for their limestone soils.
Gravel: This is a perfect soil type for maritime climates, as it freely drains excessive precipitation. Thankfully this, along with sand, are the main soils in Long Island. These soils allow for ripe, juicy, yet savory styles of Bordeaux blends to flourish.