By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Regional Correspondent

When I venture out to other wine regions in New York State and introduce myself as being from the Niagara region, the most common response is…”Oh pinot noir, huh…how’s Warm Lake doing?” I usually give a generic answer and then talk about the other wineries that have just opened and more importantly, the other grapes that have been planted.

Lenn_budbreakatWarmLake The reality is that Warm Lake Estate and the creation of the Niagara Escarpment AVA has intentionally branded the region for pinot noir. Given the climate, length of growing season and abundance of clay over limestone hillsides, people keep making the comparison to Burgundy again and again. My fear is that this builds an almost unachievable level of expectation for these young wineries and young vines.

I do believe that we have the clearest potential to make distinctively Burgundian pinot noir in the state, and by that I mean, pinot with racy acidity, earthiness, minerality and a concentrated elegance. But it’s just going to take more wineries, with small batches and experienced winemakers to begin to show how good pinot can really be up here.

As of today the wineries growing pinot noir are Warm Lake Estate, Freedom Run Winery, Spring Lake Winery, Leonard Oakes and the soon-to-open Victorianbourg Winery. There are a few other growers also joining in the fun, but if you came to the area today, only Warm Lake Estate and Freedom Run would have any pinot ready to drink.

My take on previously released vintages is critical. Warm Lake seems to be making a memorable wine every other year. The 2003, from what I’ve read in Wine Spectator, is great. The 2005 is easily the most interesting pinot I’ve had from the east coast. Warm Lake’s 2007 might still be too young to assess its potential. It has great color and extraction with some noticeable earthy funk, but there’s a lot of new French oak masking the fruit. It could very well balance out with time but I’m not sure the average visitor will hold it long enough to find out.

As for Freedom Run, its 2007 Estate Pinot Noir has been well received. The combination of young vines and a hot year seems to have made a once in a lifetime wine that stands up well to many California pinots, though it's definitely not Burgundian in style. Their 2008 vintage will be much more typical of a cool region pinot, revealing more of what you can expect year to year — a lighter, racier wine that may not win over those looking for big fruit-forward pinots. These might just be the same people that are buying their 2007 vintage.

While there isn’t one wine I would sneak into Paris for a blind tasting yet, I can assure you that I’ve tasted some promising pinot noir grown in the Niagara and across the river in Niagara, Ontario. There’s plenty of talk about minerals, limestone and terroir these days, and there’s no doubt that we have all of the above. We are just waiting for the growers and winemakers to figure out how to take advantage of these conditions.

I’m sold on the idea that it will happen sooner than later, and let’s just say that if I was planting my vineyard today, there would be a significant number of pinot noir vines along with my cabernet franc, chenin blanc and gruner veltliner…A man can dream right?