Rochester Science

Wine Science: the legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank and Finger Lakes wines

RIT Journalism student Melody Flammger explores the deeper science of wine-making in the Finger Lakes as Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinyards celebrates their 5th anniversary.

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars is celebrating its 50th anniversary on July 1st of this year. Not only is this a landmark milestone for the winery, but also for New York Wines as a whole. It was Dr. Konstantin Frank who perfected the grafting of vinifera grapes onto native rootstock in order for European grapes to be grown in New York State.

Prior to the perfection of these grafting techniques (where the root-stock of native grapes are fused to the vines of traditional European wine grapes), New York wineries primarily used the native grape types in their wines. While many of the wineries still use these native grape types today, they did not have the reputation of their European comrades. By growing grape types which Europeans and other wine regions were familiar with, New York was finally able to compete on a level playing field and build the reputation they have today.

European wine grapes (vinifera) are susceptible to a parasite which is native to the United States called phylloxera. This small green insect devours the leaves and roots and ultimately kills the vines. The native grapes are resistant to the pest and were thus easier to cultivate. The first way to circumvent the phylloxera was to make French/American hybrids. Wines made from these hybrids won awards but these vines were not as popular as the ones made from vinifera, and in the Finger Lakes the need was to also create more winter-hardy roots to tolerate the cold temperatures common in this area.

By perfecting the grafting technique in the 1950s, Dr. Frank was able to improve the quality of the grapes and thus the wine. One of the keys to his success was the hilling of the dirt around the graft to protect the vine where the European grape vine and resistant root-stock came together at the graft. As a result of this technique, it is possible to grow vinifera grape types in the Finger Lakes. One of these types is Riesling, for which the Finger Lakes have developed their reputation for award-winning wines.

Dr. Frank was a scientist and ran his winery almost as an experiment station of his own. He planted every type of grape he could find because he wanted to know what worked and what didn’t. This led to an amazing collection. Dr. Frank even brought the rkatsiteli (ar-kat-si-TEL-lee) grape to New York. The grape is rarely planted anywhere other than Russia.

Even with Dr. Frank’s work, it has been an interesting Spring already, and the weather could make for some challenges in the wine industry. Most of the effect is going to be seen in the orchards, where the fruit yields have already been hit badly. This may not be the greatest year for fruit wines. In the vineyards, however, at most 10% of the grapes are gone. The most important thing is the fruit set. If the buds were not frozen, then there wouldn’t be any damage to the crops. However, if they did freeze we may see uneven ripening and some decreased yields. There’s no way to know for sure at the moment because the vines are still in the budding process. What a year for a 50th anniversary!