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Finger Lakes Has Its Own Challenges

The Finger Lakes region is a challenging area for successfully growing vitis vinifera. The winters are cold, vine diseases are always a threat and ripening is often an issue. The Cornell Daily Sun (October 23, 2007) reports that the answer might lie in newer hybrid grape varieties. Professor Bruce Reisch, of the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Cornell University, has been doing research on new disease- resistant hybrid varieties that can withstand the frost of upstate New York and still develop the types of flavors so desirable in table wine.

Testing of hybrid grapes can take as much as 20 years. Each year Reisch plants about 5,000 seedlings, looking for that one new selection which displays promise. The new hybrids are more resistant to disease and provide important environmental benefits because of the need for less pesticides and fungicides.

The Finger Lakes region has 80 wineries now, up from 45 in the late 1990s. Many of the wineries have turned to the new hybrids which offer interesting flavor profiles in their own right. Corot Noir makes a light red wine with cherry and raspberry flavors. Melody has notes of lemon and peach and is close to Reisling in taste. Other hybrids being grown include Valvin Muscat, Cayuga White, Noiret, and Traminette. Cayuga White, developed in 1972 as the first Cornell hybrid, now accounts for between $10 and $15 million dollars of wine production each vintage.

The biggest hurdle that hybrid wines face is that they are perceived as inferior to ones made with vinifera grapes. There are also a number of proponents in the region who are adamantly against hybrid varieties. Hermann J. Weiner came to the Finger Lakes region in the early 1970s to work at Bully Hill Winery on Keuka Lake. He was fired for developing an experimental nursery of vinifera vines. He later became famous for producing the first dry Riesling in the United States. This year, Weiner sold his winery to Fred Merwarth who is also a supporter of vinifera varieties. Weiner exclaimed, “Fred’s a vinifera man and he’s allergic to hybrids.”