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North Country wines were featured at the Viticulture 2013 conference in Rochester earlier this month.  Photo: David Sommerstein.
North Country wines were featured at the Viticulture 2013 conference in Rochester earlier this month. Photo: David Sommerstein.

What North Country wineries are doing right

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When you hear New York wines, you probably think about the Finger Lakes. Wineries in that region have become world famous for their Rieslings and other white and red wines.

There are four other official wine regions in New York - the Hudson Valley, the shore of Lake Erie, the Niagara Escarpment, and Long Island.

There are also almost 30 wineries in the North Country, and wine aficionados are starting to take notice.

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I went to New York's biggest wine and grape industry conference in Rochester earlier this month. It's called Viticulture 2013.

I knew next to nothing about New York wines, let alone North Country wines, so I was really surprised to sit down at the big luncheon with hundreds of industry insiders and see that all four featured wines were from northern New York. They were new to the guy sitting next to me, too: John Stires, co-owner of Brooklyn Winery, an urban winery in New York City.

John Stiles of Brooklyn Winery puts some North Country wine to the test. Photo: David Sommerstein.
John Stiles of Brooklyn Winery puts some North Country wine to the test. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Stires is a young, hip looking guy. He buys grapes – two-thirds from New York State – and makes wine from them in Brooklyn.

Stires pours himself a glass of one of the North Country wines – Coyote Moon's LaCrescent – puts a look of concentration on his face, and picks up the glass. He smells the wine, swishes it around in the glass, tastes it, and pronounces it "nice on the nose. It makes your mouth water and it kind of like has a little bit of a brightness to it, which you want in a lot of wines like this, and then there's some sugar on it."

Stires says he likes that sugar. But it does reflect a problem that's dogged New York State wines since commercial production began in the 1800s. They tend to be sweet, in part because the grapes don't have time to fully ripen and mellow in New York's relatively short growing season. One of the four North Country wines on our table – I won't say which – had that cloying sweetness that once gave New York wines a bad reputation.

Stires says wine drinkers around the world have been trained to value rich, dry wines from warm climates, like Cabernet Sauvignons or Riojas or Malbecs.

"It's difficult for wineries like this to go to New York City to go to restaurants and say, hey, put my cold climate wine on your menu, because a lot of people have preconceived notions that if it's not of these established wineries that are in these regions, then I'm not going to give it the time of day."

The New York wine industry is dealing with this in a couple ways. First, science. Cornell University is working with the University of Minnesota to create new cold-varietal grapes that taste good. Anna Katherine Mansfield is with Cornell's Enology Extension Lab.

"Areas that get lows of minus 36 where normally you could not grow anything, really, into a grapevine can now over-winter all kinds of interesting new grapes, so it's just a brand new way for growers to diversify."

Sommelier Thomas Belelieu of the New York Wine & Culinary Center believes the North Country's wines have a high ceiling.  Photo: David Sommerstein.
Sommelier Thomas Belelieu of the New York Wine & Culinary Center believes the North Country's wines have a high ceiling. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Another way to persuade the public that New York wines are worth paying attention to is simply to have insiders say so. That includes people like Thomas Belelieu, sommelier and general manager of the New York Wine and Culinary Center.

Belelieu promotes New York wines at the center. His French accent sure doesn't hurt.

Wine is a $3.7 billion industry in New York. And it's growing quickly. More than 200 new wineries have sprung up in the last three years.

Belelieu says North Country wines in particular have a lot of potential, largely because of the soil and climate by eastern Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and Lake Champlain.

"It's a hilly area, not flat, [and it] has great drainage. You have incredible soil differences. Each grape loves a different type of soil. You also have little pockets of microclimates. People actually do not know about it, either because of a small production, or it could be that it's not fully recognized yet.

Wineries by county in New York as of December 2012.  Image: New York Wine & Grape Foundation
Wineries by county in New York as of December 2012. Image: New York Wine & Grape Foundation
One reason North Country wines aren't well recognized, says Belelieu, is northern New York is not yet recognized as an official wine growing region, called an American Viticultural Area. Belelieu says Cornell is lobbying the federal government to list the North Country as New York's sixth AVA. It would lend the region's wines a stamp of respectability.

Phil Randazzo owns Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton. He says since they started making wines three and a half years ago, Coyote Moon has won more than 400 medals, including best Chardonnay in New York State twice and Best in Class Gold last year from the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the country's most prestigious wine competitions.

Randazzo says he's overjoyed, and "in total disbelief."

Randazzo says the soil of the North Country is starting to produce great wines and build a reputation: "just magic. The French refer to it as terroir. And I just think we have something magical up here."

New York Wine and Culinary Center director Thomas Belilieu says he's a believer. The center will feature Coyote Moon wines at upscale wine and food tastings this spring.

"Yet we could have picked anyone from Hudson River Valley or Long Island, so I firmly, firmly believe in the future of your blessed land and the production."

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