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The Wine Cellar: Not far away, New York’s Johnson Estate Winery offers great wines | TribLIVE.com
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The Wine Cellar: Not far away, New York’s Johnson Estate Winery offers great wines

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When wine drinkers daydream of fall harvest, colorful leaves and fermenting grape aromas naturally spring to mind. The reveries might transport us to Northern California, France, Italy and Spain, but, typically, nearby vineyards and winemaking play second fiddle.

Cold winters and damp springs and falls present terrific challenges for Eastern and Midwestern grape growers. Yet, the conditions do not deter those with the know-how to adapt.

Not far from Pittsburgh, for example, the Lake Erie region’s Johnson Estate Winery grows grapes for a marvelous variety of wines. Just seven miles from Pennsylvania’s border in Westfield, N.Y., the winery offers delicious white wines made from European grapes, tasty reds from weather-resistant French hybrid grapes and easy-drinking wines from native American varieties.

“We have a great microclimate on Lake Erie’s south shore,” says Fred Johnson, the estate’s proprietor and vineyard manager.

Johnson’s grandfather purchased the property in 1911. It featured dairy cattle and fruit — apples, peaches, cherries and grapes. Johnson converted to a fruit-only farm by concentrating grapes on higher terrain and tree fruits on lower slopes.

“As an English immigrant, my grandfather did not abide Prohibition, although my grandmother did,” Johnson says with a laugh. Despite the differing opinions, the elder Johnson made farm-basement wines to share with friends.

The founder’s son, the late Frederick Spencer Johnson, served in World War II as a pilot before managing South American ranches. He returned to Johnson Estate in 1960 to replant the fruit orchards with vineyards. While primarily selling bulk wines for Finger Lakes wineries, in 1961, he founded Johnson Estate Winery, making it New York’s oldest estate winery.

“My father was a real student of international agriculture,” Johnson says. “He realized Lake Erie’s terroir is very similar to Germany’s Mosel and Rhine valleys.”

Johnson’s father pursued the goal of producing world-class wines until he died in 1988. As a farmer’s son, Johnson played a role by working in the winery after school. He then worked as a corporate executive in agriculture and food products. After retiring several years ago at age 60, the home vineyards beckoned.

“We’ve planted more European vinifera grape varieties, just about doubled the winery’s square footage, and upgraded the tasting room,” Johnson says. “It’s a full-time retirement.”

For Johnson, Lake Erie’s winter snows and freezing temperatures do not present insurmountable obstacles so long as the winery uses appropriate vines. These include riesling, a variety famous in Germany’s Mosel and Rhine regions.

As in Germany, Lake Erie’s south shore features shale and slate subsoils.

“Glaciers also chewed up our slopes long ago, so we have gravel top soils that drain well,” Johnson says. “Grapevines don’t like wet roots.”

In winter, Johnson’s team mounds dirt around the roots to insulate vine grafts from freezing temperatures. In spring, the lake’s cold weather prevents early bud breaks to help mitigate the dangers of late frosts. In fall, the lake’s lingering warmth extends the growing season by about three weeks to enable full ripening.

It adds u p to outstanding fruit, the sine qua non of well-made wine. Try the following:

Johnson Estate Concord, N.Y. (7678; 1.5 liters for $9.49) embodies the classic “American Heirloom” variety with intense aromas of grape jam. Fresh acidity balances the off-dry finish. Recommended.

2012 Johnson Estate Freelings Creek Reserve Semi-Dry Riesling, Lake Erie, N.Y. (Luxury 80276; $12.99) delivers on the promise of world-class wine. Similar to German Mosel late-harvest whites, the light golden color offers apple and peach aromas and flavors balanced with zesty acidity. A kiss of honeyed sweetness carries the crisp finish. Highly recommended.

2013 Johnson Estate Winery Freelings Creek Reserve Founders’ Red, N.Y. (Available at the winery and johnsonwinery.com; $13.49) blends the French hybrid Chancellor with a splash of Merlot. The purple color offers spicy dark-fruit and black-cherry flavors. Fresh acidity balances a lively, dry finish. Highly recommended.

2 013 Johnson Estate Ice Wine of Vidal Blanc, Lake Erie, N.Y. (Available at the winery and online; $34.99 for 375 milliliters) offers a rich and complex world-class dessert wine. Pineapple, honey and citrus aromas and luscious flavors create ethereal pleasure. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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