Johnson Estate Vineyard Walk & Brunch
Neil’s mom, Linda, works at a vineyard in New York, so while we were planning our trip to the Erie, PA area we made reservations to attend the brunch at Johnson Estate. Although we’ve visited the Lake Erie Wine Trail a handful of times, we’ve never done an official vineyard tour there. I was so excited to learn about some of the grapes local to the area and what a bonus to have brunch and a wine tasting included!
As the day approached, we heard there was rain in the forecast. That Sunday, we were given a few options, attend the vineyard tour while dodging rain drops, come an hour later for the brunch and then take the tour after the meal or get a refund. Since I was so interested in learning all about the vineyard, we chose the second option: to go for the tour after the meal. Apparently we were the only ones who chose to do the tour later because when we arrived, everyone was in the field. We were greeted by Jennifer, one of the owners, who guided us to the area where we could meet up with the tour group. We ended up hearing the tail end of the tour with Fred Johnson. He’s the third generation of the Johnson family and is currently the farm manager.
Fred was wrapping up his speech about the vineyard when we learned that they use mechanical shakers to pick the grapes. We’ve heard of these machines in vineyards before and I guess it only makes sense that you’d need equipment like that in order to handle 118 acres of grapes. We were standing next to the huge stainless steel tanks where the wine was stored. He mentioned that long oak sticks hang in these tanks in order to give the wine their oak flavor.
Then we all made our way into the winery in order to enjoy our brunch. They had one long table that we all shared together. Cheryl & Anne were there to serve the food that they had prepared the day before. It all looked wonderful! There was quiche, a frittata, fruits, meats, bread, cheese, and dessert. I wasn’t shy to get a little bit of everything and make my way back to my seat.
Our meal began with the Ruby Dry Rosé, their new wine made from Marechal Foch grapes, using the saignée method. It was light, had strawberry aromas and citrus flavors. Then we tried the Liebeströpfchen, a white wine made from Delaware grapes, that had sweet and floral aromas and the flavor of sweet candy. Linda told us this wine is always a favorite in their tasting room. We were kind of bouncing around from sweet to dry and then red since there were so many wines on the table to try.
The Chardonnay was the next wine we tasted. Neil and I both liked its delicious aroma of butterscotch, flavors that were oak and crisp and it’s buttery finish. We had tried the Seyval Blanc a few days before at Linda’s house, and it reminded me of a Chardonnay so I was excited to taste the two side by side. The Seyval Blanc smelled more toasted than the Chardonnay. Although I thought it was like the Chardonnay, Neil described it as a slightly sweet Sauvignon Blanc. Jennifer let us know that we were both right and those are the two flavors that it typically bounces between. We also paired the Seyval Blanc with the sharp cheddar and pear cardamom butter. The wine stood up well to this pairing since none of the flavor was lost.
Their Pinot Noir was dry with cranberry aromas, graphite flavors and a nice berry finish. It was one of my favorite wines that I tried that day. When I paired it with the pesto toast, the wine lost it’s berry finish. And if you’re wondering about the other foods served with all this wine, the quiche was delicious! Toward the end of our meal, dessert was paired with the May wine. This wine is a blend of Vidal and Sweet Woodruff grapes that had peach aromas, tiny bubbles and a nice dry flavor. I found the wine flavors to stay the same when it was paired with the almond cookie and peach jam but to me the better pairing was when we tasted a slice of peach with the wine.
After all these wine tasting notes, you might be wondering if there were other cheeses. Yes, we tried a smoky cheddar that was yummy and good. Before we wrapped up all the tasting, we tried one more wine. The Riesling smelled like minerals and had a crisp flavor. I had been making a point to taste Riesling at all the places we visited this trip and this was the best by far. The ones at the other wineries all had a musty element to them. We told Jennifer about this tasting experiment and she said they have noticed variations in the quality of this grape across the region too.
As we wrapped brunch, everyone was getting ready to leave, but we still had our vineyard tour to attend. It ended up being a private tour with only Fred, Linda, Neil and I. What a treat! Fred began by telling us about the history of this massive 330 acre property. As we mentioned earlier 118 acres of it is grapes, but there are also other fruit trees, corn, soybeans, alfalfa and a few buildings. We started our tour at the farmhouse where Fred and Jennifer currently live. William Peacock, a big landowner in the area, had lived in the house originally, but a long time before that the area had many Native American tribes including the Seneca, Iroquois and Erie peoples. This area was such a prime piece of real estate because it was on a high hill, near the water. Also the current route 20 was once the beachfront for Lake Erie and then later was used as a train route.
Fred’s grandpa moved to the property in 1911 where he used the farm for apples and other types of agriculture but no grapes. Fred’s dad planted the grapes but only stuck to the local labrusca varietals. It wasn’t until Fred and his brother took over the business that they began planting hybrid vinifera varietals and other experimental grapes, of which there are now 13 different varietals planted.
Neil and I were so curious about the grapes that grow in the vineyard so we were asking all types of viticulture questions.
Neil: How do you prepare the vineyard for winter since it is part of the snow belt and can get up to 200 inches of snow per winter?
Fred: We need to cover up the part of the stem where the graft union is to protect it from frost. As long as this area is covered with a mound of dirt, the plant can survive. Also if the buds are under the snow, they will survive.
Maria: What type of soil do you have in this area?
Fred: We have a few different zones of soil amongst their property. One zone has lots of organic matter and shale. Another zone, where the Concord grapes are planted, has more of a clay soil. I do help contribute to the organic matter by adding the lees back into the soil for compost.
Maria: How far apart are the plants in each row?
Fred: 4-9 feet depending on the varietal.
Maria: When does your harvest begin?
Fred: The first grapes are ready right around Labor Day.
Maria: What level of brix are you looking for to declare that it’s time for harvest?
Fred: 18-19 brix.
Maria: How do you tell the Vinifera grapes from the Labrusca grapes by quick glance?
Fred: As the vines blow in the wind, the underside of the Labrusca leaves are white but the Vinifera leaves are green.
This was a big help as we drove through this wine region the rest of the trip. A majority of the grapes in the area are Labrusca varietals, specifically Concord grapes used by the Welch’s brand, and now we could confirm that by seeing the white undersides.
Fred: Why are these vines different?
We three all looked pretty intensely to get the right answer, and then I said “there’s no grapes!”
Fred: Ding, ding, correct answer. For some of the pinot noir vines, we removed all the grapes in order to help the plant establish itself and not use all its energy feeding the grapes.
Maria: How do you choose which grapes to plant in the vineyard?
Fred: We use the knowledge that we are close to the same latitude as Germany.
How cool, I didn’t realize that! Another connection they have to Germany is the closures they used on their bottles are glass stoppers, not corks. These stoppers are made in Germany and have incredibly specific bottle measurements to make such a tight seal.
Since the vineyard has many types of grapes, there are a few differences in how the vines are cared for. The vinifera grapes have grafted vines and they are a bit more work. The labrusca grapes are not grafted because they are adapted to living in the colder climates of New York.
Maria: Why do these vines over here look bushy and the other ones are mounted on wires?
Fred: The grafted vines grow on wires by using the vertical leaf positioning method. These vines are mechanically trimmed by using machines called leaf strippers to remove the outer layers of leaves to uncover the grapes for them to ripen in the summer. The labrusca grapes are a little less maintenance because they are grown by the 4 arm method of vine growth and can be a bit on the bushy side.
Here was another way to tell the type of vines when looking around the vineyard. And if you need one more, the labrusca grapes tend to have larger berries.
Fred told us he is one of the few vineyards in the area that irrigates his grapes. From my previous vineyard tour knowledge, I asked if it was because they want their vines to struggle and achieve a better flavor. He said it’s because the other farmers just don’t feel it’s worth the equipment required or the time and money involved. It was clear that Fred was approaching his grapes more from a wine making perspective than the “I’m just growing grapes for Welch’s” view. These are certainly different ends of the spectrum. He did tell us the water for irrigation comes from a retention pond though so it wasn’t as if he had to pay to water the grapes. Also he said it’s more of a back up plan for those rare parts of the summer when there is no rain at all.
Fred: Have you ever heard of a “dipper” in a vineyard?
Maria: No, what is that? That’s a new term for me.
Fred: It means a shoot that gets buried to start a new plant.
I knew some people used clippings for new plants but this was pretty interesting that you could just bury something that was still attached to the vine.
There were so many amazing facts to learn, we didn’t think the tour could get any better until we found out we were going to walk through the woods and over a creek! The creek is called Freelings Creek, and you can find that name on their reserve line of wines. And better still was the view overlooking the retention pond and grand landscape of the vineyard.
This part of the vineyard had the Delaware grapes, a red grape used to make the infamous NY champagnes. Although many vineyards don’t make this type of wine anymore, it is a good grape to eat and they use it as a part of the Liebstropfchen wine here.
As we were wrapping up our time in the outskirts of the vineyard we came across an example of phylloxera. Those of you winelovers know that this is like the four letter word of vineyards, but it was only on the wild grapes growing off to the side. Grapes that are grown in today’s vineyards have a natural protection to this devastating grape disease that produces galls on the leaves and then a bug that feeds on the rootlets of the plant. Having only heard of this affliction, it was pretty cool to see it in person.
Our tour ended next to those huge stainless steel tanks we had seen at the beginning of our time here and we found out that they each hold 8000 gallons of wine. Wow! We thanked Fred for all the wonderful information he had shared and I hoped that I had taken enough notes to remember it all. We made our way into the tasting room so we could pick out a few goodies to take home.
Once we came into the tasting room, we were met by Jennifer again, who asked if there were any wines we didn’t have a chance to try yet. I had heard people talking about the White Ipocras at the breakfast so I asked for a sample. You can smell and taste the spice of this mulled wine made with ginger. I tasted the ginger flavor in the finish of the wine. But wait, there’s ice wine too, “Wouldn’t you like a sample of that?” Ok, so we tried the Vidal Blanc Ice wine that smelled like peaches and had a smooth honey flavor. And then the Sparkling Rosé ice wine made from Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin. There were bubbles, peaches and a flavor that reminded Neil of raisin bread.
We tasted so many wines that day and Johnson Estate has even more that the we didn’t get to try. Oh and they also offer New York Spirits, which we decided to save for another day. We couldn’t have asked for a better visit. The vineyard had dried from the early rain by the time we did our tour, breakfast was delicious and my #winenerd desires were fulfilled with all that learning about the local grapes. Thanks so much to everyone at Johnson Estate and to Linda for starting her job there and introducing us to another part of the Lake Erie Wine Trail!