Viticulture and Winemaking

Winemakers transport us to their wineries and vineyards to explain how terroir and winemaking create these unique wines.

Dive deep into New York’s terroir with some of its winemakers to learn more about this unique state.

New York has everything; from hybrid and native varieties that are cold-resistant, to winter-hardy grapes like Riesling, to the sun-loving Cabernet Sauvignon. We spoke to three different winemakers in the Finger Lakes and Long Island to discuss how the terroir impacts their wines.


This is New York's most planted Vitis vinifera grape variety and it thrives in the Finger Lakes. We explore the terroir of Finger Lakes through discussion with winemakers John Wagner at Wagner Vineyards and Meaghan Frank of Dr. Konstantin Wines.

Discover why New York is such a great place to grow Riesling and Hybrid grape varieties.

What about the terroir in The Finger Lakes makes it a perfect setting to create world-class Riesling?

“The Finger Lakes consist of 11 lakes, but the three largest -- Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka -- have the necessary depth and slope conducive to growing V. vinifera varieties.

Our cool nights and steep hills provide air drainage routes necessary for preserving acidity in the summer while not allowing cold pockets to rest among the vines in other times of the year.

The region boasts many different soil types (courtesy of the glacial deposits left during the last ice age roughly, 11,000 years ago) but we primarily are on silt loam soils, which are well-draining and encourage adequate vine vigor.

This allows us to establish a large canopy, which is necessary when trying to capitalize on an inconsistent amount of sunlight in a given growing season.

For us here at Wagner, we benefit from having our vineyards adjacent to the deepest portion of Seneca, which is 640 feet at its deepest.

That depth keeps the lake from freezing over in the winter (1912 was the last time that happened). The moving water is warmer than the cold winter air above it, so when a prevailing northwest wind passes over the water, the air warms a few degrees just before passing over our vines.

Those extra degrees play a major role in lessening the amount of winter kill our vines experience each year. We also place a mound of soil over the graft union of each V. vinifera vine before winter starts, providing extra insulation against the cold.”

If you had to describe Finger Lakes Riesling to someone in one sentence, what would you say?

“How about just one word? Balanced. Our cool climate provides plenty of acid backbone to our Rieslings, while diurnal temperature variation still gives ample amount of warmth to grow the grape to physiological ripeness.

That beautiful fruit expression can vary in characteristics depending on the amount of residual sugar left, but no matter what, the wine will be bolstered -- and balanced -- by the presence of acid.

This gives our Rieslings the energy and verve to make them stand out in a crowd.”

What about hybrids makes them unique and special? Why are they misunderstood?

“The growing and harvesting of indigenous and French-American hybrid grape varieties predate our foray into V. vinifera vines by a substantial margin.

Because the hybrid varieties we plant are engineered to withstand our cold winters as well as disease pressures endemic to the region, they require fewer inputs in the vineyard.

As we continue to grow and evolve our sustainability initiatives, we are constantly reminded of the important part hybrid varieties -- and subsequent wines -- play in our past, present, and future.”

John WagnerWagner Vineyards Estate Winery

What do you do in the vineyard and the winery to produce such high-quality Riesling?

“Riesling is one of the wines that must be made in the vineyard. It is one of the most transparent varieties to communicate where it is grown so making sure the site works is key.

We have sites with more shale-based soils and more loamy soils – the expressions of Riesling are vastly different. The difference in characters between sites allows our winemaking team the creativity to blend sites for complexity or showcase exceptional single vineyards.

The other important consideration is how much sugar to leave after fermentation. Due to its high acid, Riesling often benefits from leaving a bit of unfermented sugar in the final wine to achieve balance.”

Why do you find the biggest difference to be between hybrids and Vitis vinifera?

“In the vineyard, V. vinifera is generally more difficult to grow than hybrids in a cold climate.

However, there is a range of cold hardiness within different varieties of V. vinifera. Some V. vinifera varieties are more tolerant than others, such as Riesling and Cabernet Franc.

We believe that there is a much greater breadth of complexity and profoundness of quality for what is achievable with V. vinifera compared to hybrids. Poor wines can be made from any grape variety, hybrid or V. vinifera, but many would agree that a truly exceptional wine can only be made from V. vinifera grapes.”

Meaghan FrankDr. Konstantin Frank Winery

We spoke to winemaker and owner of Paumanok Vineyards, Kareem Massoud, to discuss how New York’s warmest AVA, Long Island, has the perfect setting for Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

What makes Long Island, and in particular the North Fork, the perfect place to grow red Bordeaux Varietals?

On Long Island, we are blessed with a long growing season, sufficient rain and heat, and a prevailing climate that sees seasonal high and low temperatures moderated by the bodies of water that surround us.

The east end of Long Island forks out in a fishtail past the town of Riverhead into what is known today as the North Fork to the north and the South Fork or the Hamptons to the South.

The South Fork is a moraine that was deposited apparently over a million years ago. The North Fork, and from here to Cape Cod and all the islands in between, such as Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, are part of a much younger moraine that was deposited about 130,000 years ago.

In 1986 at a cool climate symposium, Professeur Gérard Seguin of Bordeaux concluded about the soils, "this reminds me a lot of the soil of the Graves, Bordeaux. These soils drain very well and do not hold water. Given your potential for rain in the summer, this is a necessary feature for successful grape growing".

Long Island summers are very changeable and to this day I say no two summers have been alike since we planted our vines in 1983.

Our weather can be hot and humid. It can be very dry. It can rain a great deal and they all can happen in one summer. We are also subject to the occasional assault of hurricanes and Nor'easters.

But with a well-drained soil and an average of around 3000 growing degree days, there are similarities with some of the Bordeaux region.

While I dwell on the similarities with a well-known place like Bordeaux, this is not Bordeaux. Every wine region is unique and to be successful we must tune into our own environment, observe, experiment and learn.

No two summers are alike. One summer, our Cabernet Franc will ripen so well that the wine may gravitate to a St. Émilion-like product.

The next summer may be cool and rainy, and it will produce a wine that is more like a Chinon or Bourgueil from the Loire. They are both attractive for different reasons. And will be enjoyed with different foods.

A lighter Cabernet Franc is the wine of choice if having a fresh, locally caught tuna steak. This being a cooler growing region, our fruit reaches physiological maturity at around 21 to 23 brix.

Since, in general, the acids in the fruit drop as the sugar rises, that the fruit ripens at these levels results in preserving good acidity.

This means that our wines are very food friendly, and that is perhaps the one dominant feature about the quality of Long Island wines.”

Kareem MassoudPaumanok Vineyards