Crisp and complex, light and flavorful, Ohio’s Lake Erie wines captivate residents and visitors alike. Protected from the harshest weather by the lake’s summer breezes and insulating winter warmth, the narrow strip known as the Northeast Ohio “Wine and Vine” Trail produces excellent cool weather wines, such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris as well as award-winning Icewines. This area features nineteen wineries, scenic water views, covered bridges, and much more to delight visitors.
Ohio Wine History
Ohio has a long history of wine production. As early as the 1800s, settlers were exploring winemaking in Ohio, mostly along the Ohio River, near present-day Cincinnati. They planted Catawba grapes and produced a light semi-sweet wine, distinctly different from the European-style wines, popular during that time. The fledgling Ohio wine industry thrived, and by 1845 Ohio was producing over 300,000 gallons annually. Shortly before the Civil War, Ohio was the largest wine producing state in the union. All that changed during the Civil War, however. Manpower was scarce and neglect allowed disease and mildew to destroy most of the region’s grape vines.
At the same time the southern Ohio wine district was floundering, a new wine area emerged – along the Lake Erie shore, in northern Ohio. German immigrants, who were flocking to that area in the late 1800s, brought German winemaking techniques with them, and that, combined with the unique lake climate, produced some excellent wines. Wineries popped up from the Lake Erie Islands, near Sandusky, all the way east to the Pennsylvania border. This narrow strip became known as the “Lake Erie Grape belt.”
The Lake Effect
The nearness of Lake Erie creates a narrow temperate climate, well suited to producing grapes. During the heat of the Ohio summer, the breezes off of the lake cool the vineyards. In the late fall and early winter, the warmer lake helps to keep the coldest temperatures at bay. Lake Erie also acts as a vigorous snow machine during these months before the lake freezes completely. This phenomenon, known locally as the “lake effect,” drops a blanket of insulating snow over the Lake and Ashtabula County wine districts every year.
Ohio Wine Varietals
The Lake Erie coastal climate is well suited to varietals commonly associated with German wines, such as Riesling, Gewurtzmeiner, and Pinot Gris. These grapes thrive in cool spring and fall temperatures. A few wineries have also begun to produce a very good Pinot Noir, another grape that thrives in cool temperatures. Also popular here is the regional favorite, somewhat sweet wines, produced from the native Catawba grapes.
Less well known and more affordable than their Canadian cousins, Ohio produces excellent Icewines. Original crafted in Germany in 1794 by accident after an early frost, Icewine is made by allowing the grapes, usually hybrid Vidal Blanc grapes, to remain on the vines until after the first frost. This freezing concentrates the flavors and produces a sweet, somewhat complex wine with slight apricot and melon overtones. Creating Icewine is a labor-intensive process, as the fragile, frozen grapes must be handpicked and yield less grape juice than grapes picked in the fall. Icewine is an ideal accompaniment to desserts, such as crème brulee or chocolate mousse, or a cheese course. Delicate Icewine also makes an excellent aperitif or after-dinner drink. An excellent example of Ohio Icewine is the Vidal Blanc Grand River Valley Icewine produced by Chalet Debonne, a 2003 Wine Spectator award winner, which retails for about $30 per 375 ml bottle. Chalet Debonne also makes a red Icewine, crafted from Cabernet Franc grapes, which retails for about $40 per 375 ml bottle.
(last updated 10-4-12)