By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Correspondent
Last month, a giant step toward catapulting Niagara USA's Wine Trail into the future was taken by James Baker of Lockport, NY, when more than a year's worth of hard work and research finally came together in an official AVA (American Viticultural Area) proposal submitted to New York State's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Regulations Division.
Baker is calling it the Ontario Lake Plain AVA, and it's an area that includes the northern parts of three western New York counties just south of Lake Ontario and north of the Niagara Escarpment. The boundaries include the Niagara River to the west, the Genesee River to the east, and includes the area from Ridge Road (Rt. 104) north to the southern shore of Lake Ontario (see map). This area lies on a glacial geological feature called the Lake Iroquois shoreline, a prehistoric lake formed 13,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age by melting glacial ice in the Lake Ontario basin. The AVA is still pending, as the official approval has yet to be granted, but this is big news for our area indeed.
Niagara County's first AVA was granted to the Niagara Escarpment in 2005 after Michael Von Heckler, winemaker and managing partner of Warm Lake Estate, submitted and gained approval. The Escarpment area is about 30 miles long and half a mile wide with a total of 400 acres planted, only a small fraction of which are vinifera vines. With soils of clay over limestone, this area has been compared to Burgundy, with a similar growing season to boot. While there are just five wineries technically in this AVA, the Niagara Wine Trail now boasts 12 wineries, leaving the majority of wineries on the trail actually outside boundaries of the Niagara Escarpment AVA.
The rapid growth of the wine trail in this area can be attributed to many factors. Simply put, soil, climate and grape growing conditions here come together with affordable land cost and generous federal/state agriculture funding to meet -- and take advantage of -- the increasing demand for wine across the country. And anyone who reads Wine Spectator, especially in the last few months, has no doubt seen the ads and editorials featuring Ontario's Niagara Wine Trail. With similar soils, climate and strategic location, that area is a good indicator of where we can be in ten to twenty years from now. The area within the proposed AVA is large and virtually untapped in terms of vinifera production although it seems I hear about a new planting once a week as more and more people take advantage of its ideal conditions.
So what is the big deal about the new Ontario Lake Plain AVA application? For one, marketing. The wineries in this region have been limited to only mentioning Niagara County as their origin. Two, branding. Everything a winery puts on its label has to be meticulously reviewed and approved by federal and state authorities. For example, Schulze Vineyards and Winery has been growing vinifera in the proposed AVA for close to ten years. While they produce wines that are all grown, produced and bottled on their farm, they legally cannot include the word "estate bottled" on labels because they are not within an official AVA. Three, identity. While the Niagara Escarpment AVA and the proposed Ontario Lake Plain AVA share identical advantages (in terms of grape growing) generated by the moderating effects of Lake Ontario and the escarpment itself, the soil content differs greatly between the two regions. The clay over limestone soils of the Niagara Escarpment AVA boast good drainage and poor soils (clay heavy) which can produce wines with a lively minerality. An early bud break almost guarantees a ripening of grapes before a rainy fall season.
On the other hand, the flat to gently sloping soils of the Ontario
Lake Plain AVA consist of calcareous rich glacial-lacustrine sediments
and high lime glacial till deposits in well drained to moderately
drained soils with the ability to produce full bodied wines with
character. The soils are primarily a mix of clay, sand, gravel and
boulders with rock fragments of limestone, shale and sandstone. A later
bud break helps with late spring frost protection and the proximity to
the lake extends the growing season into fall with annual degree days
falling in between that of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Thanks to the climate
moderating influence of Lake Ontario, the less cold hardy vines find a
home closer to the lake. Opinions vary greatly on what varietals do
better on these soils depending on whom you ask, but you need just go
over the border into Ontario to see who's planting what where to help
you from your own opinion, and that's a hot topic for another day.
More importantly, each AVA of the Niagara Wine Trail has its own unique terroir and future vintages will ultimately reveal the potential of the entire region.