Deeper Into Seneca Lake

  • By Charles Curtis MW
  • 04 Jan 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
Made possible by
Argetsinger Vineyard - Credit : Ravines Wine Cellars

Seneca Lake is the largest and deepest glacial lake in New York, carved over two million years ago by glaciers during the Pleistocene era. The lake is named for one of the five nations of the Iroquois confederation of native American tribes, and lies at the heart of New York’s Finger Lakes region, which includes a total of eleven glacial valleys in the centre of the state. It is these lakes that permit viticulture in an otherwise hostile climate.

A Look At The Region’s History

The first to plant grapes for wine in the region were missionaries active in the early 19th century, and the Gold Seal Winery, the first commercial winery in the Finger Lakes, was established in 1866. The burgeoning wine industry continued to grow during the 19th century, winning medals in European competitions, before the industry was shut down by Prohibition in 1919. Gold Seal remained open to produce sacramental wine, and after Prohibition they brought in Charles Fournier as technical director. Fournier, a winemaker from Champagne Veuve Clicquot, was the first to introduce interspecific hybrids of European wine grapes (Vitis vinifera crossed with native north American varieties). 

Fournier brought in pioneering viticulturist Konstantin Frank to assist with the project. Frank, who had emigrated from the Ukraine in 1951, was an expert in the production of Vitis vinifera in cold climates. Most authorities at the time did not think it possible to produce Vitis vinifera in the cold climate of central New York. Frank proved them wrong, however, and through his efforts is known as “The Father of Vinifera”. 

The Finger Lakes Today

Today, the Finger Lakes is responsible for 85% of New York state’s wine crop. Much of this is still inexpensive wine made from native and hybrid grapes, but the production of Vitis vinifera is increasing rapidly. More than 70% by volume is made with native varieties (largely Concord) and hybrids such as Catawba and Delaware. Among Vitis vinifera varieties, the most widely planted are Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer. 

Finger Lakes AVA (along with the Hudson River Region AVA) was the first in New York state, established in 1982, and the subregion of Seneca Lake AVA was formalized in 2003. There are more than 1,500 ha planted to wine grapes in the AVA, with more than one third of the total for the entire Finger Lakes’ 3,800 ha. According to the most recent data available (from 2013), there are 405 wineries in New York state; 128 of these are in the Finger Lakes, and of these 61 are in Seneca Lake AVA.

A Closer Look At Seneca Lake AVA

Seneca Lake AVA is a long, skinny region, since the lake is 38 miles long. It is among the deepest glacial lakes in the U.S. at 183m deep. Because of this depth it rarely freezes completely during the winter, and thus serves as a heat reservoir. Soils are predominantly shale, a sedimentary rock well suited to the Riesling production that dominates the most prestigious sites, although shale is mixed with sandstone and even some outcroppings of limestone throughout the region. 

The weather is cold and wet. There is an average of 530 mm – 790 mm of rain each year, and the mean summation of degree days for the year is 2,500 (The sum of the sunlight hours with a temperature over 10°C), making it warmer than the Loire Valley but cooler than Rías Baixas. The average mean temperature is 15.6°C. In this context it is easy to see that the warming effect of the lake, simply called the “Lake Effect”, contributes greatly towards quality.

Within the Seneca Lake AVA there are significant differences. The vineyards on the west side of the lake face east and thus get the sun in the morning when it is cool, while the west-facing sites on the eastern shore of the lake get the warmer afternoon sun. Locally, the west side of the lake is referred to as “The Dark Side”, and the east side of the lake, particularly the south-east corner, is referred to as “The Banana Belt”. To navigate Seneca Lake, remember that the towns of Dundee and Glenora are on the Dark Side and that Hector and Valois are in the Banana Belt, while Geneva is at the northern tip of the lake and Watkins Glen is to the south. Vineyards on the west side include White Springs and Magdalena, while sites on the east side of the lake include Argetsinger Vineyard, Caywood Vineyard, and Leidenfrost Vineyard.

Argetsinger Vineyard - Credit : Ravines Wine Cellars