This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, June 12, 2006.

Johnson Estate Winery
French-hybrid wine grapes grow at Johnson Estate Winery in far Western New York's Lake Erie wine region.

Grape jelly to fine wine

Here's a surprise about the rolling farmland and forests around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y., where Lake Erie's waters roar over Niagara Falls on their way down to Lake Ontario: Drive through the highways of this region and along the lakeshore through a bit of Pennsylvania and on into Ohio, and you'll see mile after mile of healthy vineyards.

So many vines grow in Chautauqua County, N.Y., I'm told, that it ranks among the nation's leading grape-producing regions. Erie County, Pa., and the grape-growing counties of Northeastern Ohio aren't far behind.

So why don't you hear much about the region's wine? Most of these grapes aren't destined for wine. Commercial farms growing Concord, Catawba and other American native grape varieties supply much of the world's thirst for grape juice and grape jelly; most of these farms produce fruit for major food corporations.

Indeed, it's possible to make a sort of wine from native grapes. Some producers have done so for generations, including traditional kosher-wine makers like Manischewitz and Mogen David, as well as quite a few small-farm wineries. But the flavor that made Welch's famous draws grimaces and expressions of disgust from many wine lovers, who describe such wines with the tasting term "foxy" and do not mean it as a compliment.

For many years, the conventional wisdom was that this region wasn't suited for growing fine wines because it's too cold. Unlike the winter-hardy native grapes, traditional European wine grapes (vitis vinifera) don't thrive in harsh winters and deep freezes. Over time, some wineries made "country-style" wines with native grapes, grape-jelly aromas notwithstanding; and some people learned to enjoy them.

Later, like their counterparts throughout much of the Eastern U.S. and Canada, more serious growers began experimenting with "French hybrid" grapes, unfamiliar varieties created in nurseries by crossing vinifera grapes like Riesling or Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon with native varieties. They hoped to achieve an offspring that combines native hardiness with European flavor (and hoping that they wouldn't get the reverse). Hybrids, too, achieved a following as some people became accustomed to them, but frankly, many wine lovers find their unfamiliar flavors difficult to enjoy.

More recently still, winery pioneers have continued pursuing the grail of quality vinifera in the East. Along the southern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (and on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan), the moderating temperature influence of large bodies of water and "lake effect" snows give some vineyards near the coast a critical edge over neighbors in colder microclimates. This seems to work best with varieties from colder European regions: Riesling from Germany, and Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, and Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Champagne. The lure of great but winter-tender red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah continues its $iren $ong, but the combination of winter kill and the "green," herbaceous character of wine from underripe grapes makes this a challenging venture.

We visited two of Western New York's top wineries over the weekend and found good wines but very different approaches at each. In Chautauqua County in New York's far Western tip, wine maker Jeff Murphy came on board at the 45-year-old Johnson Estate Winery four years ago, and he is making exceptionally clean and varietally correct wines from hybrid and native grapes, primarily, although he's planted some Riesling with an eye to the future. He also buys vinifera grapes to make wines under an alternate label, Freelings Creek.

In Niagara County, just a few miles off Lake Ontario's southern shore in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment just to the east of Ontario's Niagara Peninsula, Warm Lake Estate is drawing attention for wine maker wine maker Michael VonHeckler's decision to plant Pinot Noir, only Pinot Noir and nothing but Pinot Noir on his attractive, sloping property. He argues that warm air circulating between Lake Ontario and the escarpment endow on his property a consistent microclimate that makes it a "banana belt," suitable for growing tender fruit. He likens the weather and the minerally soil to Burgundy and declares that he intends to make a Burgundy-style Pinot. What's more, he's sufficiently cheeky (or maybe just sufficiently proud of his wines) to charge startling prices for them, demanding - and getting - up to $40 for his top bottling and, remarkably, selling out "futures" of coming vintages for prices in the $20s.

As soon as I have all my notes and photos assembled, I'll publish a more comprehensive report on these and other wines of the region. For today, here's a quick look at many of the wines our small group tasted during visits to the two wineries. The short summary is simple: These producers, at least, are making excellent wines that amply defend the assertion that Western New York isn't just about grape juice and grape jelly any more.

Johnson Estate Winery

Freelings Creek Chardonnay $11.99
Not exactly a "second label" since pricing is competitive with the estate bottlings, Freelings Creek is Johnson's alternate label for wines made from purchased fruit, including most of its vitis vinifera varieties. This one is appley and fresh, with good, crisp green-apple flavors and a tart finish. No vintage is shown on the label, but Murphy said it's made from 2004 fruit.

Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2004 Seyval Blanc $9.99
One of the most vinifera-like of hybrid grapes, this Seyval could pass for a Muscadet and might serve just as well with shellfish. It's a pale straw color, with perfumed, floral aromas and a crisp, mouth-wateringly tart flavor that carries an attractive chalky minerality.

Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2003 Vldal Blanc $9.99
Another French-hybrid white, this one's made in a sweeter style. Pale straw in color, it's distinctly peachy on the nose and palate; off-dry but with good acidity to keep the sweetness in balance.

Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2005 Chambourcin $9.99
I'm less enthusiastic about red French-hybrid grapes, but to Murphy's credit, his red hybrids are about as good as it gets. Perfumed and floral, roses and red fruit, with a very tart acidic profile.

Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2004 Chancellor $9.99
Dark purple color. Appealing sour-cherry nose and palate, good body and structure. A relatively vinifera-like hybrid, somewhat like an Italian red in style.

Freelings Creek 2004 New York Merlot $13.99
The grapes for this vinifera item come from a friend's vineyard in Long Island, where the climate moderated by the ocean makes more sense for Merlot than the wintry Lake Erie short. The aroma and flavor is focused on plums, with a touch of smoke, over a good, balanced structure.

Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2005 Vidal Ice Wine $34.99/375 ml.
The hybrid Vidal is a major player in ice wines in both New York and nearby Ontario, and it works well here, with luscious honey-apricot aromas and flavors; it's intensely sweet, with fine acidity to provide balance.

Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2005 Chambourcin Ice Wine $34.99/375 ml.
A red ice wine is an unusual thing, and a red French-hybrid ice wine even more so. It's a clear light bronze-pink in color, with a distinct aroma of spiced raisins. Unctuous on the palate, berries and brown sugar and sufficient acldity for balance.

We also sampled a couple of Johnson Estate's native-grape wines. Although made at a mass-market price point, these are well-crafted wines, balanced and fresh, vinified so as to accept their native flavors while keeping them in balance.

Johnson Estate 2004 Lake Erie Delaware $7.99
One of the least "foxy" of the white native varieties. Pale brass color. Floral and jammy. Citric, softly sweet, nicely balanced with fresh-fruit acidity.

Johnson Estate 2005 House Red $9.99/1.5 liters
Made from Concord, perhaps the most well-known of all the native red grapes, it's a light garnet color, with a bright, fresh-fruit flavor that's distinctly akin to grape jelly but that, happily, avoids the grapey excesses of the full-throttle kosher-style Concord wines. It's even more palatable in the flavor, attractive red-berry fruit made off-dry but with crisp acidity for balance. I could get used to drinking Concord if it always tasted like this. Maybe.

Warm Lake Estate

Mountain Road 2004 Niagara Escarpment Pinot Noir $24.99
Made from selected purchased grapes and finished with barrel aging at Warm Lake, this second label is a fine Pinot by any region's standard. Pale ruby in color, virtually a rosé (not unusual for Pinot), it's classic Pinot Noir on the nose and palate, cranberries and strawberries and spice, intriguing Pinot aromas and velvety red-fruit flavors well-balanced by mouth-watering acidity.

Warm Lake Estate 2004 Niagara Escarpment Pinot Noir $39.99
Rosy bronze color, beautiful. Red fruit and spice and chalky minerality, beautiful structure, fairly described as "Burgundian." VonHeckler talks about what a poor vintage the 2004 was, but he could have fooled me. (On the other hand, a small barrel sample of the 2005 is certainly more intense and deeply fruity ... it should be quite a wine ... but it's already sold out.)

2004 Niagara Escarpment Glacé Noir $19.99/375
A strong, sweet, dessert-style Pinot Noir made by adding sugar before fermenting fruit not chosen for use in the estate Pinot, this is an odd, offbeat sweet wine that attracts a lot of attention, but I have a hard time warming up to it. Pale bronze in color, it's strong, sweet and nicely structured, but I find its aromas on the funky side of earthy, reminiscent of musky, overripe melons.

For information about the wines, including availability and distribution, see the winery Websites. The following link will take you to the Johnson Estate Website:

For the Warm Lake Website, click this link: