East Seneca Lake is an exciting place in the Finger Lakes, especially the southeast corner, known locally as the “banana belt” due to the heat it accumulates during the growing season where the lake is deepest and the hillsides catch the reflected sun. Fine riesling and cabernet sauvignon can grow in the same vineyard, and many of the region’s best red wines are sourced from local vineyards. For example, Dr. Frank Vineyards includes petit verdot in its meritage blend that is grown here.

Balcony at Silver Thread Vineyards, Caywood, on southeast Seneca Lake.

Boundary Breaks Vineyard

Boundary Breaks Vineyard was named for the streams cutting through the soft shale soils to form steep “boundary breaks” that are a typical feature for property lines adjoining the lakes. Co-owner Bruce Murray, who is from Central New York, spent 30 years in publishing and decided to settle in the region of his roots. Like many, he started a Finger Lakes winery, but his passion is for the star grape of the region, riesling. “For red wine drinkers seeking complexity in a white wine, Riesling should be their first choice. Within any style of Riesling–and there are many–there will be complexities that can stun any palate,” says the website.

Located west of Lodi with stunning views of Seneca Lake, Boundary Breaks not only focuses on riesling, but unique to the area so far, labels and markets its rieslings based on clonal identity. The German clones they use include #239, the most widely planted in the Finger Lakes which is very fruity and aromatic; #198, also developed at the Geisenheim Research Station in Germany in the 1920s but rare in the Finger Lakes; which has lower yields with wines of “elegant fruitfulness and pronounced flavor, but with all components in good balance.” The #N90 clone (N for Neustadt, a research station in the Rheinpfalz), which is more subtle in fruit notes such as apple and pear, and fine aromatics as well as cold tolerance and disease resistance. Boundary Breaks has mono-clonal rieslings with the numbers prominently featured on the labels, and some that are blends. With rieslings from sparkling to dessert wines, there’s something (and maybe several) for every riesling lover.

Seneca Lake from Boundary Breaks Vineyard, Lodi (east side)

Tasting Highlights: 

*Clone #90 Extra Dry Riesling 2016: Nose of white flowers, fresh apricot, and yellow apple. Palate: round but good firm acid, white peach and fresh apricot flavors, well-integrated fruit and acid, stylish and not too intense. $18l95

*Clone #239 Dry Riesling 2017: Nose: bright, fresh and tart, flavors of ripe red apple and peach. Palate: broad and smooth but lively, fresh, ripe apple and peach, poised. (A Wine Enthusiast Best 100 Wines). $22.95

Ovid Old Line North 2017 medium dry (a four-clone blend): Nose is rich and complex, with white flowers, fresh apricot, white peach and apple. Palate: juicy and ripe, lots of flavors well-knit with balanced acidity. $18.95

*Clone #198 Reserve Riesling 2017: a classic German sweet style; alcohol 9%, residual sweetness 6%. Nose: loaded with peach and apricot but also balanced. Palate: juicy, with flavors of apple, fresh apricot, and yellow peach. Delicious. $22.95

If you had to go to one place in the entire Finger Lakes region to samples wines from as many top wineries as possible in as short a time as possible, Hector would be the place on southeast Seneca Lake. Here the lake is deep and vineyards slope down to catch the reflected heat and light as the sun sinks in long summer afternoons.

Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, in the heart of Hector, is part of a family property that has been farmed by the Hazlitt family since 1852. In 1985 Jerry and Elaine Hazlitt founded the current vineyard and winery. In one of the best sites in the Finger Lakes, they have made top vinifera wines, thanks to talented vineyard management and winemaking.

While they are most well-known for their Red Cat line of labrusca-based blends, which winery visitors taste while learning a naughty little jingle, this has left their high-end vinifera line a bit in the shadows, but they stand up with any of the other vinifera wines of the Finger Lakes.

Michael Reidy is the winemaker at Hazlitt, while Tim Benedict oversees winemaking at the company’s East Coast Crush for custom winemaking at their Naples facility.

Tasting Highlights:

*Homestead Reserve Riesling 2016: estate fruit. Nose: racy apple. Palate: Wow! Bright and intense ripe apple and peach, great fruit/acid balance, classic. $23

Pinot Gris 2016: estate fruit. Nose: gentle spicy pineapple. Palate: round at first, then spicy, great balance of fruit and acidity, the fruit had 24 hours of skin contact and some lees contact which could be an ideal formula for the “gris” style vs. the “grigio” in the Finger Lakes. $13

*Sauvignon Blanc 2016: estate fruit. Nose: bright citrus and passion fruit with grassy hints. Palate: round mid-palate, grassy citrus balanced with some mellowness from lees stirring. An elegant Loire Valley style. $15 Tim Benedict poured and discussed this wine at the 2018 Eastern Winery Exposition.

***Merlot 2014 estate fruit. Dark purple color. Nose: graphite and black fruits. Palate: juicy, then intense spice pepper and and explosion of black fruits! (Alc. 14.4%) Despite the ripeness, this wine carries smooth tannins, fresh acidity and vibrant dark fruits in a triumphant way. It would be hard to find a varietal merlot elsewhere in the state (and maybe the country) that could top this for intensity without clumsiness. $24

**Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 estate. Dark purple color. Nose: smoky black currants. Much like the merlot, except more ripe tannins per varietal character. 14.8% alc. but ripe, vivid fruit and acid, crunchy ripe tannins, with a sensual mocha finish. $24

Hector Wine Company

A short walk from Hazlitt and next to the town post office is Hector Wine Company, showcasing thoughtful and highly talented winemaking with a focus on the fruit from the nearby Sawmill Creek Vineyard which has produced many top vinifera wines for Finger Lakes wineries. Jason Hazlitt (whose family owns Sawmill Creek Vineyard) and Justin Boyette are co-owners; Jason is vineyard manager and Justin is winemaker, assisted by Alexandra Bond. Their website explains “A sustainable focus in the vineyard and an approach to winemaking with minimal intervention is part of our mission. It helps us to allow the wines to show minerality, balance of acidity, aromatic fruit and intense varietal character.”

Tasting Highlights: 

Gewurztraminer 2015 :A 48-hour cold soak was done to bring out all the fun skin phenolics. Nose: classic lychee aromas. Palate: soft at first, then HUGE spice, bright acidity and elegant finish despite the high alcohol (13.9%). $20

*Pinot Gris 2016: A hint of color from skin contact, also partial oak (neutral) fermented. Nose: fascinating, fresh honey aroma as from mead, then caramelized pear. Palate: slightly sweet fresh honey, then spicy phenols, lasting on the finish. Intriguing and original. $18

*Luminescence 2016: A brilliant idea, and brilliantly executed: 25% each of pinot gris, pinot blanc, riesling and gewurztraminer, making a fine Alsatian blend in a Finger Lakes style. Nose: spice and white pepper, lemon/citrus, and bosc pear. Palate: broad, rich, and spicy; finishes with bright, high-volume acidity, but the whole is harmonious. $22

Soul Red (NV) A fun, fruit-forward and original blend of chelois, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, lemberger and merlot. Nose: forward, juicy, black and boysenberry notes. Palate: round, juicy, smooth, up-front black fruits, moderatee tannins, fresh finish. A fun but stylish blend. $16

*Cabernet Franc 2015 Nose: classic markers of red cherry, smoke and pepper. Palate: juicy ripe cherry, broad on the palate, then zesty and ripe tannins with chocolate/raspberry notes on the finish. Sexy. $22

**Merlot Glen Eldridge Vineyard 2016 I remember the terroir single vineyard character of this vineyard from when its merlot was made by Standing Stone Vineyard nearly 20 years ago. Located near the waterfall on Rt. 414 shortly before it merges with Rt. 79 going south to Watkins Glen, this vineyard has shallow slate soils and makes very racy, bright red cherry merlot. This wine has dark ruby color. Nose has taut cherry notes with a suggestion of high acidity in the wine. On the palate, the wine is rich with HUGE black fruits, ripe tannins and full dimension.

**Essence 2015: a meritage-style blend, mostly cabernet sauvignon, with merlot and cabernet franc. Dark ruby color, nose of rich, ripe black fruits, concentrated and smoky. Palate: Wow! all of the above in flavors, with ripe black fruits, huge volume, long ripe tannins. Mature enough to drink this fall but could benefit from a couple more years of age, and will keep well. $27

**Syrah 2016: Impressive dark violet color (often an issue with Eastern syrah). Nose: ripe black plum and spice! Zesty, fresh. Palate: loads of ripe plum, ripe tannins and white pepper. Outstanding example of this classic grape in the Finger Lakes.

**Merlot 2016: Dark purple color. Nose: blueberries! Palate: ripe, juicy, dry, full-bodied like a dry blueberry wine but with HUGE ripe tannins and length, all with zesty/fresh Finger Lakes acidity. Classy and impressive.

It’s natural to follow an entry on the Hector Wine Co. with one on Forge Cellars, south and then a half mile up Matthews Rd. from Hector Wine Co. Like the former, Forge is a partnership with Justin Boyette, the two others being fellow Finger Lakes wine industry member Richard Rainey and French winemaker-grower, Louis Barruol of Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas.

Unlike Hector Wine Co., you can’t just walk in the door and taste, you have to make a reservation on the winery’s website (http://www.forgecellars.com/tastings) for one of two tastings on Saturday and just one on Friday at 5pm.

The winery’s website explains that Forge “specializes in bone dry riesling and cool climate pinot noir from the Finger Lakes of New York.” Their process is very “old school”, vineyard-focused, and features hand labor, indigenous yeasts with long fermentations lasting until the following summer, and hundreds of small batch lots.

For both rieslings and pinot noir wines, Forge has a “classique” blend that aims to showcase the vintage character and Finger Lakes character, a “Les Allies” (the allies), a reference to the long-standing alliance of France and the United States, which is a blend of the best lots of the vintage, and then vineyard-designated wines.

The rieslings are unusual, with fermentation taking place mostly in neutral French barriques. As a result, the intense acidity of the grape is blunted, but so is the bright fruit, resulting in more subtle and a less obviously riesling style. They are quality wines, but may need some age for riesling character to emerge more clearly.

Tasting Highlights: 

*Riesling “Les Allies” 2016: The top cuvee of rieslings from a fine vintage, this was my favorite of the four rieslings I tried. Nose: tasting sheet lists descriptors of orange blossom, slate and honey which I found; in addition yellow apple. On the palate, the wine is juicy and fresh, though the natural acidity is a bit blunted. $26

*Pinot Noir Classique 2016 (blend of three sites). Nose: starts closed but then spicy, concentrated black cherry. Palate: clean, concentrated, spicy black cherry, young and promising.

*Pinot Noir Leidenfrost 2016: Nose: broad red/black cherry and spice, clean forest floor, still young. Palate: broad but deep, rich, dense, spicy, huge dimension and potential.

**Pinot Noir Les Allies 2015: Nose shows a nice evolution; black cherry and loads of spice. Palate: broad, loads of ripe red and black fruits, firm supporting tannin and long finish. Young but unlike 95% of pinots, will age a few years and improve.

Atwater Vineyards is about a mile south of Hector Wine Co. and right next to Chateau Lafayette Reneau, now part of the Glenora Wine Group. Atwater and Chateau’s vineyards are adjacent, and it’s one of the best sites in the Finger Lakes, near the deepest part of Seneca Lake for maximum heat radiation during the fall.

Ted Marks is the owner, and the talented Vinny Aliperti (who also owns Billsboro Winery on the upper west side of the lake) is the winemaker, one of the trailblazers for Finger Lakes lemberger/blaufrankisch.

Tasting Highlights

Atwater Vineyards, Seneca Lake in the distance

Dry Riesling “East/West” 2014: A nose reminiscent of a Mosel/Ruwer riesling, with smoky slate, and ripe apple. Palate: white peach and ripe, starting to (naturally) fade so drink soon. $16

*Cabernet-Merlot 2015: Nose is impressive: mature but lively with cassis, black cherry and exotic spice notes. Palate: plump, solid black fruits and pepper, elegant and balanced, very classy. $28

*Pinot Bubble NV: artificially carbonated dry pinot noir rose, finished with a screw cap to keep the bubbles in once open. Nose: lovely strawberry and red cherry aromas. Palate: zesty acid, red cherry flavors, long fresh finish. $16

*Blaufrankisch 2014: Also known as lemberger, this grape is like the Austrian version of sangiovese, with boysenberry and spice flavors. this fine example has a spicy nose of smoky berries. The palate is bright with plum and berry flavors balanced by lively acidity. $19

*The Big Blend 2014: “This racy blend is dubbed ‘Super Senecan’, that is, a non-traditional blend of vinifera grapes grown on Seneca Lake,” reads the tasting sheet. This original and fun blend is 40% cabernet sauvignon, 27% blaufrankisch, 20% syrah and 13% cabernet franc. Nose: lots of red and black fruits, spice a bit like a Tuscan sangiovese. Palate: bright red fruits, smooth and ready to drink soon.

Next: West Seneca Lake

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