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.
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
Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2004 Seyval Blanc $9.99
Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2003 Vldal Blanc $9.99
Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2005 Chambourcin $9.99
Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2004 Chancellor $9.99
Freelings Creek 2004 New York Merlot $13.99
Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2005 Vidal Ice Wine $34.99/375 ml.
Johnson Estate Lake Erie 2005 Chambourcin Ice Wine $34.99/375 ml.
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
Johnson Estate 2005 House Red $9.99/1.5 liters
Warm Lake Estate
Mountain Road 2004 Niagara Escarpment Pinot Noir $24.99
Warm Lake Estate 2004 Niagara Escarpment Pinot Noir $39.99
2004 Niagara Escarpment Glacé Noir $19.99/375
For the Warm Lake Website, click this link:
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
More Merlot (June 9, 2006)
Disappointing book on American wine (June 7, 2006)
Merlot - Was Miles right? (June 5, 2006)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Potato fish cakes (June 8, 2006)
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Monday, June 12, 2006