The Seneca Lake Wine Trail and Seneca Lake American Viticultural Area (AVA) are known for high quality Rieslings and other aromatic whites, which grow exceptionally well in our cool climate. For too long our stellar reds have gone a bit unnoticed due to the many accolades for our white wines.
Some wine drinkers might be surprised to learn that red wine grapes including Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Pinot Noir grown here on the shores of Seneca Lake. The wines crafted from these grapes in the Seneca Lake AVA are dry yet fruit-driven, lower in alcohol than dry reds from other regions around the world and thus, more food-friendly. Remember though, that comparing wines from one region to another is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Terroir is arguably one of the most overused yet misunderstood words in the wine world, but it is generally accepted that terroir refers to the way a region’s climate, soils, and terrain affect the taste of wine produced there. You can learn more about terroir in this excellent article from Wine Folly. We often focus on wine as a “sense of place”. That is, wines are an expression of the land and climate where the vineyards are planted, the people who care for those vines and craft the wines. A culmination of the labor and love that goes into the wine from the moment the vines are first put in the soil, to the moment the cork (or cap) goes on the bottle.
So, while, when it comes to the Finger Lakes and Seneca Lake, white wines may reign supreme in the eyes of wine publications and industry experts around the world, our red wines are equally as deserving of a place in the spotlight, and we’re going to put a focus on a handful of the top producers and top wines right here – enjoy!
Wagner Vineyards 2019 Pinot Noir Reserve
Like all of Wagner’s wines, the grapes used are 100% estate grown from their farm on the east side of Seneca Lake, and the fruit used for this wine comes from a singular vineyard block. It is one of the few wines that they primarily hand-pick the grapes for, as the light-skinned nature of Pinot Noir makes its harvest a delicate dance.
The entire winemaking process is done gently with this fruit. It is fermented until dry before the wine is aged for 11 months in a mixture of French and American Oak barrels — the barrels vary in age, with the majority being older/more neutral so as to not overpower the fruit.
The Wagner team only bottles this wine in years with exceptional growing seasons, so even though these vines bear fruit each year, they exercise extreme restraint and take great pride in letting the fruit tell them when it’s the proper vintage for a Reserve Pinot. This wine also showcases the deft hands of their entire vineyard crew, as Pinot Noir is notoriously fickle to grow and the climate here on Seneca Lake is equally well known for the curveballs it likes to throw year after year.
I asked Marketing and Public Relations Manager Alex Jankowski, what makes this red wine stand out, and he shared, “A great Pinot has nuance and depth intertwined with a lighter color and inviting fruit flavors. When done right, it shows how a cool climate region can be far more enchanting than just aromatic white wines.”
At $29.99 per bottle, this wine is a tremendous value. You can taste it in the Wagner Vineyards tasting room on the east side of Seneca Lake in the town of Lodi, or purchase it online.
Anthony Road Wine Company 2019 Cabernet Franc
This wine was released two weeks ago, and it’s already a favorite. The fruit was sourced from Martini Vineyards (which is operated by Peter Martini, the son of Anthony Road Wine Company founders Ann and John Martini). Winemaker Peter Becraft placed this wine through primary fermentation in bins and stainless steel tanks. Then the free run finished wine was moved to a stainless steel tank for malolactic (ML) fermentation. After ML, the wine was moved to neutral French oak for 14 months.
The result is a fresh, smooth Cabernet Franc, with none of the overly vegetal or green flavors that Cabernet Franc can sometimes pick up. Liz Castner (daughter of Ann and John Martini, and the Tasting Room Manager at the winery adds, “This is the first varietal Cabernet Franc we have made in a number of years. The wine is fresh and flavorful with a mineral impact and long finish. Aromas and flavors of cherry and baking spice.”
The Anthony Road 2019 Cabernet Franc is $26, available in their tasting room just north of Dresden on the west side of Seneca Lake, or it can be purchased online.
J.R. Dill Winery 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet Franc
J.R. Dill Winery is a bit of a hidden gem. Though he doesn’t have vineyards, owner and winemaker Jeff Dill is committed to sourcing only the highest quality fruit, and he works with exclusively local growers, actually, hyper local.
For example, the fruit for this wine came from highly regarded Sawmill Creek Vineyards, just 2 miles of the J.R. Dill Winery tasting room and production facility. Sawmill’s close proximity to lake with gentle slopes and maximum sun exposure during the critical afternoon into evening hours, means beautiful, ripe fruit.
This particular vintage is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc, but that blend can vary every year, based upon flavors and wine development, so it’s never the same thing twice. Jeff adds that this wine was fermented on the skins in a stainless steel tank, with pump overs daily for 3 weeks, to ensure maximum flavor extraction. Malolactic fermentation was done in conjunction with primary fermentation, then the wine was aged in French oak barrels for 18 months. This particular wine is not filtered, so as not to lose any of the tremendous characteristics it presents.
Jeff Dill adds, “I enjoy working with dry reds. They’re a surprise to visitors because they know us (the region, that is) for whites, but our reds are just as good. This wine is continually in the top 3 best sellers for the winery and it’s a favorite of mine.”
At $19 a bottle, you’ll want to grab more than one! You can find the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet Franc in the J.R. Dill Winery tasting room, just north of Watkins Glen on the east side of Seneca Lake or shop online.
Boundary Breaks 2020 Cabernet Franc
This wine is 85% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Merlot. Remember, that although this wine has other grapes in it beyond Cabernet Franc, in the United States, you may label wines under the varietal name as long as it’s at least 75% of those grapes.
Boundary Breaks co-owner Bruce Murray shares the rationale behind his approach to this wine, “For us, we like to follow in the tradition of Bordeaux for our reds. For Cabernet Franc, the dominant grape variety in the blend is always Cabernet Franc, but we believe the additional of small amounts of the other Bordeaux varieties yields a more interesting wine. Each year, the blend is different, but there is always at least 75% Cabernet Franc.”
This wine was fermented in open-topped containers, pressed, and then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels, which are a combination of 2-3 year-old barrels and some older neutral barrels. Bruce doesn’t believe reds in the Finger Lakes should get too much oak. He adds, “Our red wines are very ageable. Although they are tasty when they are young, they really begin to show their character after 2-3 years in the bottle.”
You can find this standout Cabernet Franc for $19.95 per bottle in the tasting room on the east side of Seneca Lake or shop online.
Leidenfrost Vineyards 2018 Merlot
One of the early grape growers in the region, John Leidenfrost now works alongside his daughter, Liz, and together they manage their vineyards, which are located right behind the tasting room (which John designed and built). Winemaking is a joint undertaking as well.
The dry reds at Leidenfrost are exceptional. Their limited production means they have maximum control over the evolution of the wine from fruit to bottle. Liz Leidenfrost shares what makes this wine so special, “2018 was such a wonderful year for Finger Lakes red grapes and this newly released Merlot is quite a bit richer, darker and has a slightly higher alcohol content than normal due to the hot, dry year. We’re continually impressed by the dry red wines coming from this vintage in particular!” Tasting Associate Rowan added, “I enjoyed it with a Chocolate-Chipotle chili, and the big fruit of this vintage paired beautifully with an earthy, savory, and spicy dish.”
This wine is 100% estate grown, fermented in 1 ton-batches on the skins and aged for 2 years in Hungarian oak barrels. This wine is delicious and well balanced, showcasing a great wine made from a difficult-to-grow grape in an ideal year. At $22 per bottle, you can find this wine in the Leidenfrost tasting room on the east side of Seneca Lake or shop online.
If nothing more, we hope this post has at least stirred your curiosity regarding the red wines being produced here in the Seneca Lake AVA, and these are only a handful. All of the wineries on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail produce at least one dry red, and the vast majority are making several (and some even more than that!). When you’re ready to plan your visit, we’ll be here with a glass, waiting for you!