by Gary Twining
Wine-savvy readers will recognize the word “terroir,” the natural environment in which grapes are grown. Soil, climate and other aspects of terroir reflect strongly in the wine’s development—its flavors and character—and when the terroir of a region produces unique and specific characteristics in the grapes grown there, an American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) is often designated. The region along Lake Erie’s shore illustrates such uniqueness; it was recognized as an AVA in 1983, the first multi-state AVA in America.
(Of more than 200 AVAs in the US, five are in Ohio: Grand River Valley AVA, located in parts of Geauga, Lake and Ashtabula Counties; Isle St. George AVA on North Bass Island; Lake Erie AVA, stretching along the shoreline of Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania; Loramie Creek AVA in western Ohio, north of Dayton; and Ohio River Valley AVA with vineyard land in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.)
Spanning 40,000 acres, the Lake Erie Viticultural Region boasts a 150-year tradition of fruit production and wine making, made possible—in such a cool climate region—by the lake itself.
Expanses of water moderate the climate. The lake offers cooling breezes in the height of the summer and gathers heat in the fall to extend the growing season. Until the lake freezes, its moisture creates snow to insulate the vines from the terribly cold temperatures of the north shore. The ice and cold water in the spring prevent early bud break from capricious temperature changes, saving the crop from disaster. Lake Erie is truly the reason fine wine grapes can be grown in our region, and they produce some exceptional wines. But even with the lake’s influence, not every year is safe from devastatingly cold weather—as we experienced in Ohio this winter—and our extreme temperatures are sure to affect the coming harvest.
Famous wine merchant and winemaker Peter Sichel stated, “Wine achieves its character by terroir, personality by weather and quality by man.” Part of the terroir includes the grape variety, as it makes up a large portion of the flavor profile of any wine. Thanks to the pioneering work of the late Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Vinifera (quality wine grape) expert from Russia’s Ukraine, the Lake Erie Region has built a tradition on fine table wine production since the 1950s.
Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris have all done extremely well in the Lake Erie AVA. For reds, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir have made some excellent wines, along with Merlot and some examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, though the earlier-maturing grapes tend to make the best wines in our short growing season.
While the lake provides character that can be identified in the glass, the wines do differ by vintage due to weather variations, part of the intrigue of cool climate wines. Vintage differences also make wine a reflection of its environment and heredity, and encourage consumers to follow the wines and find examples that suit their tastes. You won’t find these interesting differences in mass-produced wines that are blended to taste the same year after year.
Lake Erie wines do share one characteristic; they are marked with acidity. The goal, especially in cool climates, is to ripen the fruit to balance the wine and tame acidity. Winemakers are learning to balance acid levels but Arnie Esterer of Conneaut’s Markko Vineyard states, “these wines ripen in the bottle,” meaning they gain better balance and richness, mellowing with some bottle age.
The last element of the terroir equation is the grape grower/winemaker. Our region’s success is based on visionaries like Dr. Frank and winemakers with dreams of producing fine wines to compete on a global standard. While there are still many fine examples of Labrusca and French/American Hybrid wines being made (these vines withstand the cold much better than Vinifera), the current buzz is about medal-winning Vinifera wines that are challenging other cool regions across the world. As our knowledge about grape varieties, clones, rootstock, growing techniques and winemaking ability increases, the region will gain more notoriety for its quality.
Living in Ohio we have access to the many fine wineries on the north coast. We can stay at bed and breakfasts throughout the region, sample wines and tour nearby wineries. Some wineries also have on-site restaurants where we can pair their wines with gourmet food.
As a native Ohioan, I am proud of the progress in quality and status our local growers and producers have made. We can be proud of the believers who constantly fight the elements and experiment in the field and cellar to make exceptional products in the Lake Erie Appellation that have earned the right to say “Made in Ohio.”