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Wine On Ice: How Glaciers Formed New York Great Wine Regions

by Dean Morretta

You are sipping dry Riesling in the summer sun, perched high on the inclined shore of Seneca Lake, on a winery porch cooled by lake breezes. Hard to imagine 22,000 years ago you’d be covered by a mile of glacier ice!New York State is home to the only prominent American wine regions to be gripped by glacial tentacles in the last major ice age. The Finger Lakes and Long Island American Viticultural Areas can forever thank the large ice sheet that once covered North America. What was 'left behind’ makes for a magic formula: unique geologies plus ideal climates equal world class wines.The Final Icy AdvanceWith 70 degree days this winter it’s difficult to picture a New York ice age. Yet, a massive swath called the Laurentine Ice Sheet covered millions of North American square miles starting around 95,000 years ago. It advanced and retreated over the continent multiple times. Its grand finale was 22,000 years ago with its final push, the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. This episode covered most of Canada, New England, and all of New York with New York City marking the southernmost boundary. At least one mile of ice overwhelmed all topography! Eventually, the climate warmed and ice cover disappeared entirely from New York around 11,000 years ago.Left behind is a forever modified landscape! Even in Central Park, rocky outcroppings bear grooves left by the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. In our vineyards, a glacial hand can easily be seen… a hand that deposits and a hand that carves.Carving the Finger LakesToday, the Finger Lakes AVA is the largest producing wine region in New York State. Long before Riesling and Seyval blanc covered the land, small stream valleys ran through this area. When the ice age came along, glaciers more than two miles thick flowed parallel to these old stream valleys, carving deep trenches. This formed the Finger Lakes, eleven long, narrow, parallel lakes resembling outstretched fingers. And deeply carved they are! Cayuga Lake is 38.1 miles long and amongst the deepest lakes in North America. Of its 435 feet, 53 are below sea level!Those old deep carvings are the key to today's world class terroir. The vast majority of the Finger Lakes AVA's 11,000 acres surround Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes, and the lake effect is vital. Central New York weather can be extreme, but the lakes’ depth make an otherwise inhospitable region bearable, and even ideal, for grape growing. Stored heat prevents frost and damage in the winter and cooling in the summer. Additionally, most vineyards are planted on steep hillsides overlooking the lakes, which provide great sun exposure and good drainage. The southeast shore of Seneca Lake, which turns out numerous award winning wines, has even been nicknamed “Banana Belt”.When Wine Spectator selected its first Finger Lakes wine, Ravines Wine Cellars, for its Top 100 List, it was clear to the global wine world that something magical is happening in Central New York. In carving the Finger Lakes 22,000 years ago, glaciers guaranteed the region’s bright future in wine.Depositing Long IslandLong Island was born yesterday, geologically speaking. While the Finger Lakes were being scraped and carved for hundreds of thousands of years, it wasn’t until the final Wisconsin Glacial Episode that Long Island was formed. As it retreated, the Wisconsin Glacial Episode left terminal moraines. A terminal moraine is the snout or end point of a glacier, where debris that has been accumulated in the ice sheet essentially gets dumped in a mound. With this glacial deposit, Long Island was born.This land that makes skyscrapers near to impossible is a ripe for wine growing. However, it took wine producers some time to figure out what to do on this oversized sandbar… the Long Island AVA was established just recently in 2001. The unique glacial soils are a key component to the terroir. The three main soil types are the Haven Loam and Riverhead Sandy Loam on the North Fork and the Bridgehampton Silt Loam on the South Fork. All the soils have in common modest fertility, excellent drainage and good water-holding capacity. Despite Long Islands humid climate and frequent growing season rains, these soils control vine growth and promote ripening prior to harvest.These unique soils combined with a favorable maritime climate allow a number of grapes to ripen well. Everything from Chardonnay to Albarino, from Cabernet Franc to Blaufrankisch are produced in the AVA. Long Island also takes the prize as the largest producer of European grapes in the Northeast! Although Long Island is brand new by the time scale of history, glacier ‘leftovers' have made for a rapidly growing major player in the wine world.No other state can claim a glacial past like New York can. Thanks to the carving, depositing hand of massive ice sheets, New York has emerged as the third largest wine producer in the country. It’s bright future is owed to a very old, and chilly, past.

About the Author

Dean Morretta - Owner of Vintology Wine & Spirits with over 25 years of fine wine experience. I've been involved in all aspects of the industry, from retail to import and distribution. As store shelves are becoming increasingly overwhelmed with mass-produced wines and marketer-created brands, Vintology offers an alternative. We spend countless hours each week searching for the best producers, tasting numerous wines, and have immersed ourselves in our passion for discovering wines that will exceed expectations.

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