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The Science Behind The Finger Lake's Viticulture

Grafted vine (from brucethegrafter.com)

If you've ever been to the Finger Lakes region and driven through vineyard after vineyard, you've maybe wondered how the vines can survive in such a cold climate. Not to mention, the Finger Lakes doesn't have the sunshine and longer growing season of California. So how is it that the region's wineries can compete on a world stage? 

While there's various varieties of native American grape vines that can weather the cold and ripen in time for harvest, they don't contribute the same sought-after flavor of European wine grapes. American winemakers needed a vine that was hardy enough to withstand cold, ripened within the shorter growing season, and still maintained a desirable taste. 

The solution, for some time, was to use hybrid varieties. Traditionally French varieties, like Vinis vinifera,were bred together with the hardier American natives to produce plants that were resistant to American native pests, like phylloxera (an aphid-like insect). The hybrids offered, and still offer to this day, a benefit to American winemakers because they coincidentally were suited to New York growing conditions. 

However, due to the inferior taste of the French-American hybrids, these types of vines were actually outlawed in the European Union in 1979. Now, the practice of grafting is the standard solution. 

So what is grafting? 

via Flickr

Grafting is done when the fruiting variety of one plant but the roots and lower trunk of another plant are both desired. In the case of grapevines and phylloxera, the roots and trunk of native American varieties were phylloxera-resistant, but the winemakers desired the fruiting qualities of the French Vinis vinifera vines. In this case, the top of the American variety was chopped off, and so was the top of the Vinis vinifera plant. The top of the Vinis vinifera plant is then literally taped to the lower trunk of the American variety (referred to as the rootstock) and the two plants grow together as the cuts heal. 

The result? A vine with the desirable fruiting characteristics of a French vine with disease-resistance and cold-tolerance of the rootstock. A champion of using this technique is place of the French hybrids in the States was Dr. Konstantin Frank himself (read more about that here). 

Interestingly, due to the blight that phylloxera caused when it was accidentally introduced to European vineyards, all French vineyards have American rootstocks. 

That's the story of how grafting provided an invaluable solution to the phylloxera problem and simultaneously solved American winemakers struggle with a colder climate and short growing season. 

My favorite part of all of this is that the finest of French wines could not be produced without the help of the once-undesirable American varieties. 

Image 1: Grafted vine (from brucethegrafter.com) 

Image 2: Grafted vine (from Flickr.com)