Macro, Meso, and Micro: Finger Lakes Climate

Climate is what you expect and plan for; weather is what you get.

Climate is what you expect and plan for; weather is what you get.

Successful grape growing depends on knowing your climate. Our Finger Lakes climate is a critical concern in the vineyard, and so it is a serious course of study on Sheldrake Point. We know that vine survival, productivity, and fruit quality may be limited by temperature extremes in winter, or springtime cold episodes.

For once, I’m not actually talking about the weather. Climate differs from weather in that climate refers to long-term averages or summations of weather. A way to make the distinction, and a common reference, is:

“Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.”


Macroclimate refers to the climate at the scale of a large geographic region. Each of New York’s three major macro-climates show distinct patterns in temperature, solar radiation, and rainfall, and knowing these patterns is critical to grape growing:

  • Mid-Atlantic Region, encompassing New York City, Long Island, and the Lower Hudson Valley. Strongly moderated by the Atlantic Ocean, with less severe winter cold temperatures than experienced in Upstate NY.
  • New England Region, in the mid-to-upper Hudson River Valley and the Lake Champlain Valley. Less influenced by the Great Lakes or the Atlantic Ocean, and more like continental climates in the Midwest. Cloud cover is less frequent than in Western NY, but the lack of major bodies of water to buffer temperatures leads to more extreme and sudden temperature fluctuations.
  • The Great Lakes Region, in Western and Central New York. The Great Lakes Region is an important differentiation within states bordering one of these, the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth. In the case of New York, we tip our caps to Erie and Ontario.

Great Lakes + Finger Lakes AVA

The Great Lakes region, which includes the Finger Lakes AVA, tends to be less rainy than the rest of the Mid-Atlantic Region, but still cloudy, with high and low temperatures moderated by the Great Lakes. In localized areas near lake shores, the general regional cloudiness and direct lake moderation of temperatures reduces the number of radiation freezes in the spring, and gives cooler maximum temperatures in the summer.

In other words, a massive body of water of consistent temperature comparatively cools the surrounding land in summer, and warms it in winter.

Mesoclimate is Finger Lakes Climate

Mesoclimate is the relatively consistent climate at a local area on a scale of a few to several miles. At the meso scale, topography, elevation, or proximity to water of an area are all important in terms of superimposing local effects on the general macroclimate. Wine growing mesoclimate examples in New York include the narrow grape belt along Lake Erie, the steep slopes above the southern end of Seneca Lake, and the narrow North Fork of Long Island.

The range of elevations, slope, and distance of vineyards from one of the lakes are all factors in differentiating Finger Lakes mesoclimates. The largest lakes (Seneca and Cayuga) do not freeze over in the winter, providing local temperature moderation on slopes immediately surrounding the lakes. The lakes also vary in elevation (see table) with the lowest elevation lakes generally offering relatively warmer mesoclimates.

Finger Lakes climate is effected by the eleven lakes.

The Finger Lakes vary in elevation with the lowest elevation lakes generally offering relatively warmer mesoclimates.

The deepest lake depths of Cayuga are just offshore of Sheldrake Point, and our moderately ascending east-facing slopes warm quickly in the morning sun. Our vineyards rise no more than 200 feet from the low lake elevation, and close proximity to The Point moderates the cold northerly winds moving along the length of Cayuga Lake. Deep gorges frame our site, which draws cold air from the vineyard to sink into the gorges.

Our Finger Lakes climate is defined by these mesoclimate factors, which also find their way into frequent descriptions of a local “micro-climate,” which we call The Sheldrake Effect. (Read more about that here and here).

Microclimate within Finger Lakes Climate

Among growers, Microclimate is technically much more specific, referring to the climate at the scale of a few yards or even inches—a portion of a vineyard or vine, or even within-vine!

Many growers even refer to microclimate as primarily being at the individual vine, leaf, or cluster level, as there may be significant variations in temperature, for example, across a small distance within a vineyard. In some of our more rolling blocks of vines, we experience differences in fruit quality due mostly to variations in slope and sun angle. We are able to anticipate these variations because of our study of Finger Lakes climate and our years of experience with each row of grapes.

Remember this meticulous grape growing when you marvel at your next glass of Sheldrake Point wine!

Fine Climate for Finger Lakes Wine

Here at Sheldrake Point, we are blessed with a unique and beneficial mesoclimate. Though that term is accurate, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so the local lexicon has taken to referring to our unique Finger Lakes climate on Sheldrake Point as a microclimate.

When you’re visiting the Tasting Room, it’s okay to ask about the weather and marvel at our ‘microclimate,’ even though you now know better.

Sheldrake Point's geography is part of our unique Finger Lakes climate.

Painting of Sheldrake Point by local Artist Christopher Wolff.

David’s background includes four years of grapevine management at Cornell’s Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station and two years of honeybee research in Ithaca. Since 1999, his love of our vineyard is second only to that for his own farm across the lake. Dave and his vineyard crew take great pride tending the 44 acres of vines at Sheldrake Point Vineyard, maintaining the equipment, and planning and preparing for new acreage.