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Winning Wines In Chautauqua

“Wine is bottled poetry,” writes Erin Morgenstern in the novel The Night Circus. The crew at New York States of Mind couldn’t agree more, and endeavored to find the best wines, and perhaps a little magic, too.

It may come as a surprise, in light of the prominence enjoyed by counties in the Finger Lakes and on Long Island, to learn that “Chautauqua County is the largest grape growing county outside of California, with approximately 20,000 acres devoted to vineyards,” according to the Town of Westfield’s website. In other words, miles and miles of vines take their place across the land, and the smell of grapes saturates the air. During the ice age, glaciers stretched down from the north, and when they melted they created the Great Lakes and left ridges of fertile soil. These ridges create the perfect conditions for growing many varieties of grapes and fruit trees. The New York Farm Winery Act of 1976 gave individual grape farms the right to establish wineries. The limitation on small winery production — an annual maximum of 50,000 gallons — resulted in the appearance of boutique wineries throughout the state. In 1975, there were 19 wineries in New York State, according to Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. Today that number is in the hundreds — and growing.

The Lake Erie Wine Country, which is located 35 miles South of Buffalo, is a consortium of local wineries that stretches from the village of Silver Creek to just over the state line in northeast Pennsylvania. The trail covers roughly 45 miles, and is probably best to have a vehicle; however, sections of the trail can easily be explored by bike. What started small — four wineries in Chautauqua County — quickly grew, due in part to the opening of more wineries, which in turn established a region for wine-enthusiasts. Many wineries from Chautauqua County have competed against some of the world’s toughest competition and returned with Gold and Double Gold medals. For example, this past March, Liberty Vineyards & Winery, located in the town of Sheridan, won four gold medals in the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition. This past April, Woodbury Vineyards took home a gold medal in the 13th Annual Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, one of the biggest wine competitions in the United States. In addition, visitors can eye winning bottles on display at many locations.

Lake Erie Wine Country is a nonprofit that acts like a chamber of commerce; the wineries pay dues for benefits. Lake Erie Wine Country brings in millions in local economic impact per year. The wineries associated with the wine trail are included in a Lake Erie Wine Country brochure, along with advertisements from local restaurants, hotels and businesses. The brochure showcases wine-related events across the region throughout the seasons. This autumn, come prepared for Harvest Wine Weekends on Nov. 1, 2 and 3, and Nov. 8, 9 and 10. The event ($39 per ticket, to be purchased in advance through the website), allows visitors to taste a sampling of food and wine at each winery.

The Chautauqua County wineries in the Lake Erie Wine Country, from North to South along the trail, include: Willow Creek Winery, Merritt Estate Winery, Liberty Vineyards, Woodbury Vineyards, 21 Brix Winery, Vetter Vineyards, Johnson Estate Winery, Noble Winery, Mazza Chautauqua Cellars, Sparkling Ponds Winery, Quincy Cellars Winery, Sensory Winery and Blueberry Sky Farm Winery. Wines produced from these wineries can be found in local wine retailers and, in some cases, around the country. Further directions for purchasing and shipping the wines of each winery can be found on the individual websites.

Although it would be difficult to determine the best wineries in the area, we want to give you a sense for at least two of them. Johnson Estate Winery was established in 1961 in the village of Westfield, and it is the oldest estate winery in New York State. An estate winery uses the “chateau” winemaking traditions of France and Germany. The entire winemaking process occurs on site, from grape growing to bottling. Johnson Estate Winery’s theory, according to their website, is that “Wines can be no better than the grapes from which they are made.” 21 Brix Winery in the town of Portland is one of the newer wineries: its doors opened in September 2011. 21 Brix Winery co-owner Kris Kane uses his biology and chemistry background and his passion for growing grapes to create award-winning wines using their own and other local grapes. You can’t miss 21 Brix — all you have to do is look for the giant pink elephant statue that welcomes customers!

Chautauqua County is known for concord grapes: in 1897, Dr. Charles Welch built the world’s first large grape juice plant in Westfield, which quickly became known as “The Grape Juice Capital of the World.” The majority of grapes produced in Chautauqua County are of the native Labrusca variety (Concord, Niagara, Delaware). But the wineries across the region produce a vast variety of different grapes and wines, including French-Hybrid Varietal wines (Seyval, Vidal, Marechal Foch) and European Vinifera Wines (riesling, chardonnay, merlot). Take our word: the dessert wines along Lake Erie are fabulous. In particular, we love ice wine, which is made from grapes that are left on the vine long enough to freeze before they ferment. In addition to wine, visitors can find all sorts of wine-related trinkets, from wineglasses to wall decorations.

The region's beautiful scenery is itself well worth the trip, but having a glass of wine in hand makes it even better.

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