“Some people call Pinot Noir the ‘especially’ grape,” says Susan. “It’s especially tight-clustered, it’s especially thin-skinned, it struggles with humidity… any trend or challenge you have with any grape in the Finger Lakes is doubly so with Pinot Noir. But it’s delicious, and that’s why we grow it.”
In other words, Susan and Tom have dedicated their lives to making wine from a famously delicate grape, in one of the most challenging agricultural regions in the United States, in an increasingly unpredictable climate, in an area that few other winemakers have pioneered. Some people would definitely consider that crazy.
Nevertheless, the team at Heart & Hands are producing some amazing wines—wines which could only be made in the Finger Lakes—not just in spite of the challenging conditions, but because of them.
The old aphorism that “adversity builds character” is particularly true in winemaking.
Regions like Napa Valley, with their breezy Mediterranean climates (plenty of sun, dry summers, gentle temperatures) have excellent conditions for reliably growing grapes, year in and year out. There are still challenges to overcome, but by and large, the results are fairly consistent. California winemakers have a wide range of options when it comes to choosing a grape varietal to work with; for them, the art of winemaking is more about capturing the essence of a particular grape, or creating surprising blends with familiar styles.
Not so in the Finger Lakes. Making wines in upstate New York is about adapting to challenging conditions, making something beautiful from whatever nature throws at you in a particular year. If California winemaking is like gourmet cooking in a fully-stocked kitchen with an unlimited selection of exotic ingredients, Finger Lakes winemaking is more like conjuring up a delicious meal in somebody else’s kitchen, with whatever you can find in the pantry.
“Growing grapes in the Finger Lakes, we’re truly in a place where there’s vintage variation. So every year is very different, from one year to the next, which is one of the things that makes the wines really special and unique,” says Susan. “Every time you come, even if you visit once a year, you’re going to be able to taste interesting attributes in the wines created by the growing season.”
The 2019 vintage of Heart & Hand’s Rosé is a great example. Like every other perennial plant in the Northeast, grapevines emerge from winter dormancy when temperatures start to warm in the spring. Colder temperatures later in the season means that the vines stay dormant longer, which in turn means a shorter growing season, and less margin for error when the time comes to turn grapes into wine.
For winemakers depending on a long growing season to ripen their grapes, a late bud break can spoil a vintage. Fortunately, Susan and Tom have been very careful in selecting which varietals to plant, anticipating the unpredictable climate in the Finger Lakes.
“At Heart & Hands, we really focus on just three grapes,” says Susan. “We do Pinot Noir, which is our primary focus… we also do Chardonnay and Riesling. The reason we’ve chosen to focus on those three grapes is because they’re early-ripening grapes, as compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or some of the other varietals. So, we know that even if you have a later embarkment from dormancy, and things are a little slower to develop, you’re still going to have something of exceptional quality.”
As a result of this careful planning—rather than spoiling the vintage—the late bud break and shorter growing season gave the 2019 Rosé a different character to appreciate.
“The 2019 Rosé is a little bit paler in color than other years, a little more like a Provençal Rosé,” says Susan. “This year the wine is going to be a little more elegant and delicate… it will still be very fresh and fruity, but it will probably be a little bit more restrained than other years, where you’d have more explosive fruit on the front part of the palate.”
The choice of location for Susan and Tom’s vineyard also plays a big role in allowing them to make great wines in unpredictable conditions. In addition to the limestone-rich soil that they painstakingly sought out when choosing their site, their vineyard is situated within one of Cayuga Lake’s special microclimates.