By Gary Twining
Since the Lake Erie American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1983, great strides have been made in the production of wines from Vitis vinifera grapes of European heritage. This large region on the south shore of Lake Erie encompasses more than 42,000 acres of vineyards spanning the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and it has proven itself as a quality wine region. However, the region is still searching for a signature grape varietal on which to build its future reputation.
The Lake Erie AVA has been growing wine grapes for more than 185 years, but much of what is grown in the vineyards are native American Vitis labrusca varietals such as Concord, generally used to make sweeter-style wines. The future for the region will be based on quality wine-grape production. Many growers and industry leaders, however, believe the Lake Erie AVA’s reputation as a high-quality winemaking region depends on boosting the amount of vinifera grape varietals in the vineyards and making great wines from those grapes.
The winemaker who first recognized the full potential of planting Vitis vinifera vines in our cooler climate was the late pioneer Dr. Konstantin Frank. A Russian immigrant who planted vinifera vines in New York State, he gathered a group of “Cooperators,” or like-minded individuals, who believed in the potential for this region and in the dedication to the vinifera grape varietals as the path to quality.
Dr. Frank believed there were only five great wine-grape varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Gris. In Europe, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are synonymous with Burgundy, Cabernet with Bordeaux, and Riesling with the vineyards of Germany. And in 2017, when several Lake Erie growers met to discuss a signature grape for their own region, they turned their attention to the overlooked vinifera varietal with great untapped potential: Pinot Gris.
Arnie Esterer of Markko Vineyard, Dr. Frank’s Ohio Cooperator and the first to plant vinifera in the Buckeye state, says his goal is to “find the grape for wine from this climate and soil which consistently reflects its personality in the bottle.” And he believes Pinot Gris will become the “engine to pull the train” of Lake Erie wines and bring the region to prominence.
“What Europe did in 1,000 years of trial and error, the new world tries to do in one or two generations,” Esterer says, predicting that a great amount of research, experimentation and learning may take several centuries. He is hopeful that his grape experiments and wine trials will be continued and expanded as the next group of serious winemakers take over the reins and elevate the region’s wines and reputation.
But why Pinot Gris, a grape that does perform well in the French region of Alsace and, on this side of the Atlantic, in Oregon?
The varietal ripens early enough in our climate, has moderate acidity and a high sugar content, making its flavor profile a perfect match with most consumers’ taste for textured, full-bodied, forward-flavored whites. Pinot Gris wines are complex but pair well with a wide variety of dishes. Winemakers also can produce a lighter, crisper style found in Italian Pinot Grigio, or they can make a late-harvest wine from Pinot Gris when conditions permit.
With some wine drinkers moving toward an “Anything But Chardonnay” mentality, Pinot Gris combines drinkability with plenty of flavor interest, making it an ideal candidate to become the signature wine varietal of our Lake Erie region.