Cayuga Lake features Cornell University in the city of Ithaca, “high above Cayuga’s waters”, and also the first wine trail in the U.S., organized in 1983. Now there are dozens of wineries around Cayuga Lake, most on the west side between Interlaken and Seneca Falls.

Sunset on the solstice near Cayuga Lake

The oldest Cayuga Lake winery is Lucas Vineyards in Interlaken. Winery founder and matriarch Ruth moved her family to a 60-acre farm from the Bronx in 1974. They planted grapes, harvested a crop in 1978, and started the first winery on Cayuga Lake in 1980. Ruth’s daughters Ruthie and Stephanie had complementary talents in hospitality, marketing and management, their brother Billy did much of the work building the winery. Stephanie’s husband Jeff Houck is the talented winemaker. Today Lucas Vineyards makes 25,000 cases of more than 25 labels, and has not only made outstanding cabernet franc, riesling and sparkling wine, but has one of the most reasonably priced line of wines in the region. The house specialty grape is cayuga white, which Jeff makes in a yummy, refreshing way from bone dry to sweet wines, with flavors of apple and melon.

Recalling Ruth’s husband Bill’s work as a tug boat captain in New York Harbor, they have an easy-drinking line called Tug Boat, and a line of clever pun “Nautie” wines, each featuring a favorite wine of mother Ruth, and daughters Ruthie and Stephanie, with winking figures of them on the labels.

Tasting Highlights:

The wines here were all of consistent high quality and great value for the price.

Dry Riesling 2016: Nose: delicate fresh green/yellow apple and mineral notes, typical of Cayuga Lake. Palate: bright, almost searing acid, still young. Citrus, green apple and white grapefruit flavors, ripe fruit core beneath the vibrant acid, needs time but a classy start.

Reserve Riesling 2016 Skillet Road Vineyard: Fermented in neutral oak (more than four years old), 5 months in the barrel, from vines planted in 1980. Nose: green apple and mineral, with a hint of smoke. Palate: lively green apple, green plum, the acidity blunted a bit by the mellowing of the oak vessel (no oak flavor), but still grippy; firm, elegant but linear with a long finish. $16.99

*Reserve Riesling 2017 Skillet Road Vineyard (barrel sample). This was even more impressive than the 2016, with nose of bright yellow and red apple like the Rheingau. On the palate, solid fleshy fruit of ripe apple and white peach, balanced with firm acidity. Will be great when bottled, or aged.

*Extra Dry Sparkling Cayuga NV (methode champenoise) About 15 years ago, Jeff won the Best Sparkling in the New World International tasting with a sparkling Cayuga, only then it was forced-carbonated. This version is both more complex and impressive. Nose: green apple with complex yeasty notes and a hint of toast. Palate: great use of the cayuga grape; the mid-palate weight and toastiness of yeast gives it depth, reminiscent of a blanc de noirs. On the lees for less than a year. $23.99

*Cayuga white 2017 (2.75% R.S.) Although this looks like a sweet wine on paper, the high acidity and fresh fruit make this a very balanced white wine that is a great summer quaffer. Nose: very assertive ripe apple, from green to red, then pink grapefruit and passion fruit. Lively acidity but well-balanced; drinks like it’s near one percent residual sugar. If you’re not a snob about white wines having to have no residual sugar, get some of this and rock on. It would sell for $12, but I’ve just learned the 2017 is sold out; make note when the 2018 comes out early next summer.

*Cabernet Franc 2015 Limited Reserve: The limited reserve label for Lucas reds is for all estate fruit. Nose: perfumed ripe red cherry and exotic spices. Palate: brilliant fruit/acid balance, elegant, no obvious oak flavors, classic East Coast to Loire Valley style. Dry but elegant and pure. ($19.99)

**Cabernet Franc 2016: from the great, hot 2016 vintage, I liked this wine even more than the 2015, but it was “de-classified” from the reserve label since it contained non-estate fruit, to meet sales demand. Nose: classic ripe year style with ripe red and black cherry, black pepper and some spice. On the palate, solid, rich, ripe and spicy! Flavors like aroma descriptors plus vanilla hint and mocha chocolate on the finish.

*Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Ltd. Reserve 2016 Nose: concentrated, with black tea, black cherries and cassis aromas. Palate: juicy, forward and ripe red and black fruits, fine zesty acidity and ripe smooth tannins on finish. Young but poised and elegant.

*Debut red blend, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc 2016 (barrel sample). Lucas has not yet produced a high-end red blend, until this barrel sample from 2016, with a Finger Lakes riff on a Bordeaux blend that a few other wineries are also doing, including syrah. Nose: vintage character of dried/ripe concentrated red and black fruits. Palate: spicy, lively, medium-bodied, fruit-driven, almost intensely vibrant, a well-integrated and original style. A versatile, classy warmer weather red wine, that could go well with Thanksgiving fare.

On the east side of the lake is Treleaven Wines in King Ferry. In 1984 following a visit to California wine country, owners Peter and Tacie Staltonstall planted chardonnay, gewurztraminer and riesling on seven acres, harvesting their first crop in 1988. Since then, they have been noted for elegant vinifera wines, and have consistently made a fine range of four chardonnays from steel-fermented to oak reserve, that point to Burgundy more than to the West Coast. Their dry riesling is a benchmark for Cayuga Lake riesling, and their meritage (which includes some Long Island fruit) is especially fine this year.

Treleavan Wines have implemented many eco-friendly practices from solar panels to an eco-friendly bottle (made specifically from re-cycled glass).

Tasting Highlights: 

Tacie’s Chardonnay 2016: This is an elegantly down-the-middle style of chardonnay, with bright, zesty lemony fruit and acid on the one hand, and hints of oak and lees with a bit of spice (Hungarian oak) to create an elegant balance, with fine integration on the finish. $15.99

*Reserve Chardonnay 2016: The nose is elegantly balanced between hazelnut and lemon curd/creme brulee. On the palate, rich but balanced with a fresh lemony finish. A complex, multi-layered chardonnay which still has acidity and Finger Lakes freshness. $18.99

Dry Riesling 2016: This is probably the most well-known label Treleaven produces, and is now being served in Japan. Nose: typical white flowers, white peach, ripe apple. Palate: white peach, juicy yellow and red apple, zesty acidity. Stylish, more fruit-forward than many 2016 Finger Lakes dry rieslings. $16.99

*Meritage 2014:  a Finger Lakes & Long Island blend, with 41% Merlot and 29% Malbec coming from Long Island and 30% Cabernet Franc from the estate vineyard. Nose: spicy red fruits, good integration of fruit and oak. Palate: solid ripe red fruits, huge length on the palate, fresh stylish finish. Elegant, the best vintage of their meritage I’ve had. Will drink well by the fall or could age another few years. $25.99

Next: Cayuga Lake continued

Rating Scale: * = very good. ** = exceptional. *** = outstanding