Monday, August 11, 2008

Winemaking Along the Niagara Escarpment

At Wine Day Michael VonHeckler, owner and winemaker at Warm Lake Estate, gave a very interesting lecture on the characteristics of the Niagara Escarpment that make it suitable for producing excellent wines. The Niagara Escarpment is basically a 400-600 ft. cliff that extends for more than 650 miles from New York through Ontario to Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. It is the cliff over which the Niagara River plunges to form Niagara Falls and was formed by the unequal erosion of rocks of varying hardness.

Like the region of Burgundy, the soil along the Niagara Escarpment is clay over limestone, has a pH of 7.5, has excellent air and water drainage, and contains illitic soil components. In spite of Buffalo's reputation for being too cold and for receiving too much snowfall, it turns out that the unique shape of the escarpment creates a convection flow that results in the highest and steepest portion of the escarpment receiving just the right amount of heat for growing wine grapes. There is also the right amount of soil along that portion of the escarpment as well.

According to J. S. Gladstone (Viticulture and the Environment, 1992), Pinot Noir grapes must be grown in a region with at least 2102 degrees days Fahrenheit per year. (One degree day = daily high temperature minus daily low temperature minus 15.) The portion of the Niagara Escarpment in Niagara County, NY, has an average of 2098 degree days F/year, giving it the potential to produce very good Pinot Noirs. Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine, has noted that the land along the escarpment is very similar to Volnay in Burgundy and suggests that in the right places similar quality wine could be made.

In spite of the Niagara Escarpment's apparent suitability for growing excellent wine grapes, as of 1996 there were very few wine grapes being grown in Niagara County. By contrast, on the Canadian side of the escarpment, there were 100 wineries with 18,000 acres of wine grapes, employing 7,000 workers and making a $3.5 billion impact on the economy.

Michael VonHeckler saw a golden opportunity and in 2002 opened his winery, focusing on Pinot Noir. Michael was also instrumental in getting the Niagara Escarpment labeled as an American Viticultural Area in 2005. There are now 12 wineries along the Niagara Wine Trail, with 12 more in planning or development. It will be interesting to see what kind of wines the area produces as it continues to grow and develop.

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