"Science overcomes harsh growing conditions to enable colder climates grow quality grapes." This headline describes Cayuga, a grape that was specifically designed to resist frost in the cold-climate conditions of New York’s Finger Lakes region. Developed at the Cornell University affiliated New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, Cayuga is a cross between Seyval Blanc and the native Schuyler root stock. Cayuga produces a mild and fruity wine, closely resembling a Riesling. The grape is also very versatile, capable of producing off-dry white wines, sparkling wine and, on occasion, even oak-aged table wines. The quality of the wine can be observed by the number of awards won by Cayuga in New York. In 2005, about 20 New York Cayuga wines won medals in various national competitions. Cayuga wine is successfully vinified, not only in the Finger Lakes region, but also in areas around the Great Lakes region, Canada, and even in Arkansas and Tennessee.
New York was among the first states to grow grapes and produce wine – a centuries–old tradition which serves as a foundation for today’s strong growth. Brotherhood Winery in the Hudson River Region, established in 1839, is the nation’s oldest continuously operating winery. Great Western Winery, which began in 1860 as the Hammondsport and Pleasant Valley Wine Company, became U.S. Bonded Winery No. 1 and quickly established an international reputation for sparkling wines made in the Finger Lakes. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, several wineries began operations—but the real boom in New York wineries started with the Farm Winery Act of 1976, which essentially made it more economically feasible to own and operate a winery producing fewer than 50,000 gallons per year. Today, farm wineries may produce up to 150,000 gallons per year.
The first commercial planting of the grape was completed in 1972 by Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery along Cayuga Lake. They continue to produce quality Cayuga: in 2005 their 2002 Cayuga White, NV Cayuga and NV Cayuga Cuvee won medals in various competitions.
Swedish Hill Winery is another very successful producer of Cayuga. In 2005, their 2004 Cayuga White won a Gold medal & the Chairman's Best of Class at the Long Beach Grand Cru competition and Silver medals at the San Francisco International competition and NY Wine & Food Classic competition. This follows their 2003 Cayuga White winning Best in Class at the 2004 Los Angeles Wines of the World competition. In addition, their Blanc de Blanc (sparkling wine made from 100% Cayuga) won a Silver medal at the Tasters Guild Int'l competition and at the San Francisco Intl competition, as well as Bronze medal at the Long Beach Grand Cru competition. There are several reasons why Swedish Hill is very enthusiastic about this grape. One, Cayuga is resistant to disease and possesses the ability to consistently produce quality wine. Second, the grape is extremely versatile so that Swedish Hill can manufacture several types of wine other than the usual Riesling-like flavor. Finally, Cayuga wines can be produced at a very affordable price for the average consumer. These qualities enable Swedish Hill to "sell a wine that was developed in their region – for their region – at a great value for the customer".
Another New York winery, Torrey Ridge Winery, purchases their Cayuga from other vineyards but produces award winning wine: their Cayuga White is a multi-medal winner. According to owner, Esther Earle, “Cayuga is a delightful wine which most any person will find drinkable”.
In Pennsylvania, Cayuga was one of the first grapes planted by Pinnacle Ridge Winery, primarily due to its reputation for ease of growing. Since then it has become a very dependable grape and is now the backbone of their business. From Cayuga, Pinnacle Ridge produces a medium sweet table wine and an extra dry sparkling wine. Both of these wines won numerous medals in 2005. The 2004 Cayuga White won a Silver medal at the 2005 Finger Lakes Competition and a Gold medal at the 2005 Pennsylvania Wine Competition. The Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine won a Silver medal at 2005 Pennsylvania Wine Competition and a Bronze medal at the 2005 PA Farm Show. Pinnacle Ridge has found no problems gaining popular acceptance of Cayuga wine. Most of their wine is sold through tasting, so once customers try the wine, it sells itself.
Cayuga is grown as far south as Virginia and Tennessee. In Virginia, Stonewall Vineyards & Winery produces a very good version and in Tennessee, Tri-Star Vineyards & Winery's Cayuga is a Bronze medal winner. Tri-Star Vineyards began growing Cayuga after reading a description of the grape in a wine brochure. This was a wise decision, since Cayuga is now the winery’s best selling wine and they feature it as their “wedding wine”. According to the winery, “its clean, refreshing, fruit flavor sells itself”.
Cayuga is also successful vinified by our northern neighbors. Vignoble du Marathonien, a small family owned operation in Quebec, produces semi-dry Cayuga wine because of the "excellent quality of the grape". Their Cuvée Spéciale, a blend of Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, Geisenheim, and Seyval has won several quality awards and is their best seller. The main problem they encounter is finding enough Cayuga grape to satisfy the demand.
It must be satisfying for Cayuga producers to see that Cayuga has maintained a large and faithful following in such diverse areas as Canada, the Great Lakes, and Tennessee. As an alternative to Riesling, Cayuga is a great wine to enjoy on summer afternoons or with a light dinner. We look forward to trying these wines.