The two-mile-wide strip of land that hugs the Grand River between Painesville and Route 45 is known as the Grand River Valley AVA, an American Viticultural Area that many agree is the best place in Ohio to grow wine grapes.
"It is the largest AVA in the state, the most well known, and the one that tends to produce the most quality wines because of the proximity to the lake, which extends the growing season," explains Gene Sigel of Chalet Debonne Vineyards.
Barring calamities, what determines a good year versus a bad year usually comes down to something called growing degree days, an objective measure of heat accumulation that dictates if and when a crop will achieve peak maturity. Based on that indicator, says Sigel, 2016 is shaping up to be the best vintage in decades.
"What makes a great year in any wine growing vintage is primarily growing degree days," he says. "The years that really stick out when we come to the table and taste wine are the years where we've had hot, dry weather over a long stretch of time. This is one of the best seasons we've had growing red wine grapes that I can remember, and I've been farming grapes in the Grand River Valley for 23 years."
Sigel and his colleagues at nearby vineyards like Grand River Cellars, Laurello, Laurentia, M Cellars, South River Vineyards and others all are benefiting from the second-warmest September on record. That prolonged heat allows grapes to achieve peak ripeness levels, develop complexity, reduce acid and add sugars.
While it's red wine grapes like pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc that benefit the most from a long, hot and dry summer, white wine grapes get a big boost too, says Larry Laurello of Laurello Vineyards. He's been farming 15 acres in the Grand River Valley for 14 years and this one is shaping up to be the best.
"In previous years you're always watching for the next front to see when to pull the grapes, which isn't always the optimum time," he explains. "This year everything came in before we had to concern ourselves with that. When you are picking grapes based on their quality and not on the fronts, you know you're going to end up having a really good year."
All of Laurello's white wine grapes have been harvested except for the vidal blanc that will be used to make ice wine. Those will hang on the vine until our first hard freeze. Looking at the pinot grigio, riesling and vidal blanc that already has been harvested, Laurello can tell that this current vintage is the best he's experienced in ages.
"What really tells us we're going to have a good year is the pH and acidity levels of the wines," he notes. "In Northeast Ohio we're proud of our acid, but we always have a hard time getting rid of acid. This year, all of our whites came in with phenomenal acid levels."
Whether or not you're into Ohio wine, you can deduce that 2014 was a brutal year for local growers and vintners. The prolonged and exceptionally cold temperatures ushered in by the polar vortex wiped out 97 percent of that year's crop. And while it was the worst year in decades, winemakers do have some tools at their disposal to lessen the blow.
"It's part of farming; not every year produces a good vintage," says Sigel. "We have deep cellars that can hold two or three vintages and sometimes grapes go into making blushes and blended wines rather than varietals or top-notch reds."
It might surprise readers to learn that much of the 2016 crop of red wine grapes in the Grand River Valley are still hanging on the vines. Matt Meineke's Bordeaux-style varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc are plump, ripe and ready to be harvested, which he will do in the coming days and weeks. And when this year's wines start hitting the shelves in the next year or so, they will be stunners.
"We had a nice hot, dry summer, no frost and a moderate winter," he says. "Everything kind of aligned this year so the wines should be great. One of our best years for sure."
While the 2016s won't be out for some time, there is no reason to put off a visit to the Grand River Valley — or any of our wine-growing regions. Fall might just be the best time of year to visit, with grape harvesting taking place across a picturesque backdrop of colorful foliage.
"There's a good chance of seeing a lot of winemaking," says Meineke. "We'll be working like crazy in the cellar, getting the vineyards all tidied up, and getting ready for winter. It doesn't really slow down here until the New Year."