Lake Erie effect creates ideal grape growing conditions

October 31, 2018 GMT

Winegrower Randy Graham stands atop a knoll looking over a majestic sea of vines. Behind him over his shoulder, a beautiful expanse of water unfurls with little white caps rolling into the shore.

“This is my favorite place in the vineyards,” Graham says picking up a handful of sandy soils. “My house is just on the edge of the vineyards, and I love having a cup of coffee in the morning and looking out the kitchen window and seeing nothing but vines.”

We must be on the Pacific coast, right? Think again.

We’re in Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie wine region, where Graham’s family has grown grapes for several generations.

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Located a two-hour drive north of Pittsburgh, the area creates ideal grape growing conditions, according to Graham. A five-hundred-foot escarpment just to the east of Lake Erie provides the key.

“It’s all about the lake effect, which the escarpment captures by creating a kind of bowl,” notes Graham, an electrical engineer by training. “In the spring, the cold lake temperatures minimize the risks of frost by preventing early budding of the grapevines. In the fall, the warm lake extends the growing season. And in the summer, cool evening breezes from the lake allow even grape ripening.”

Lake Erie’s vineyards encompass nearly 12,000 acres of Pennsylvania’s 14,000 acres of grape vines.

Concord, an American-native variety that Grahams calls a “juice grape,” accounts for around 80 percent of Lake Erie’s annual production.

“Concord grapes are an economic commodity where we try to maximize production,” Graham notes. “These grapes go to Welch’s processing facility right in our backyard. They make fresh juice and related products.”

Selling Concord grapes creates cash flow, while also creating economies of scale that permit growers to focus on producing high quality wine grapes.

“With wine grapes we aim to optimize concentration, flavors and acidity. It’s a whole different ballgame from Concord juice grapes,” Graham notes.

The real game changer came in 1968 when local grape growers Doug Morehead and Bob Mazza led efforts to pass the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act. Growers gained the right to create commercial wineries producing up to 250,000 gallons annually.

Graham founded Courtyard Vineyards to uses his estate grown wine grapes. The main winery holds a prominent location near the lake on Route 20 in the town of North East

Meanwhile Bob Mazza’s son, Mario, leads the winemaking teams at Mazza Vineyards and its sister wineries, South Shore Wine Co. and Mazza Chautauqua Cellars, which is just over the state line in New York.

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Mario Mazza buys wine grapes from Lake Erie grower Mike Morehead.

“Mike’s team does a great job of gently harvesting grapes and delivering only ripe, clean fruit,” says Mazza, who spent several years making wine in Australia’s Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills.

“The beauty is that within minutes of harvest, Mike has the grapes on the way to our winery for processing. It makes a big different in maximizing quality with wine grapes like Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner,” he says.

Global warming has, according to Mazza, compressed the Lake Erie region’s growing season while accelerating ripening. But cold winters and a generally cool, damp climate still create plentiful challenges including mildew.

Close collaboration between growers and wine producers remains essential to success.

“Mike Morehead drinks wine and cares about the quality. He willingly comes to the winery to understand what we need to produce quality wines,” Mazza says. “He also takes the time to show us what’s going on in his vineyards, so we understand what it takes to grow grapes successfully.”

For an opportunity to discover Lake Erie’s vineyards and wines up close, make the drive to North East, Pa. (just north of the city of Erie), and enjoy a “Harvest Celebration Weekend” either Nov. 2 through 4 or Nov. 9 through 11. (For more information and tickets, visit lakeeriewinecountry.org/events/5).

Meanwhile try the following tasty wines:

Courtyard Winery, Twisted Red, Pennsylvania (Available at many PLCB stores as code 9652 for$10.99; also available at the winery’s stores in Pittsburgh Strip District and Ross Park Mall ). This is the winery’s best-selling wine, an unabashedly sweet red blend with a fresh, fruity finish. Serve as a crowd-pleaser over the holidays. Recommended.

2016 South Shore Wine Co., Grüner Veltliner, Lake Erie, Pennsylvania (PLCB code 9684; On sale: $11.99): Mario Mazza and Mike Morehead have enjoyed great early success in collaborating on growing Grüner Veltliner, a European variety famous for producing crisp, dry Austrian white wines. South Shore’s Grüner Veltliner offers delicious grapefruit, ripe peach and white pepper flavors with crisp acidity and a fresh, dry finish. Highly Recommended.

2016 Courtyard Winery, Chardonel, “Shill Road Overlook Vineyard,” Lake Erie, Pennsylvania (Available online or at the winery’s stores in Pittsburgh’s Strip District and Ross Park Mall; $15.99): This tasty white comes from the La Courette’s Chardonel, a winter hearty hybrid variety developed at Cornell University. The wine’s pleasing floral and apple aromas open to ripe apple and citrus flavors. Fresh acidity balances a fruity, but dry finish. Highly Recommended.

2016 Mazza Vineyards, Chambourcin, Pennsylvania (Available at the winery or order by calling 814-725-8695 ; $14.95): This classy dry red comes from Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid variety, blended with dollops of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. For added complexity, the wine is aged in a combination of François Frères French oak barrels and Hungarian oak barrels. Aromas of raspberries and subtle smoky notes lead to ripe red fruit flavors. Fine freshness and elegant silky tannins add structure for the fruity, dry finish. Highly Recommended.