By Julia Burke, Niagara Escarpment Correspondent

Though I had to get the Schloss Doepken experience off my chest, it’s only fair that I take some time to report on the other wineries I visited during my trip to the Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail last week.

Following the recommendations of winery employees, I visited Sparkling Ponds Winery, Mazza Vineyards, Noble Winery and Johnson Estate Winery.

I was pleasantly surprised with several of the wines I tried. It seems many Lake Erie wineries are making drier, more crisp and composed versions of what are traditionally mass-appeal sweet wines such as Catawba and Niagara. When I asked whether there is more of a demand for these relatively dry native grapes the general response from winery staff was that this is what they want to make, and local folks seem to like it.

Sparkling Ponds surprised me with relatively dry, well-made natives and hybrids. Their Cayuga with 1.5% RS showed a nice balance of acidity and tropical fruit, and the Catawba (white, not pink!) had a pleasant nose of peach, lemon and lime zest. Their Noiret showed a gorgeous deep blackberry color with an earthy nose, clove, allspice and a flash of black currant, and a smoky finish with impressive length. The Marechal Foch was gamey and almost bloody – a great match for seared venison. Labrusca and hybrid grapes are grown on the estate; the winemaker, Burt, who looks no older than a college freshman, expressed a hope to experiment with more dry reds as the estate vineyards expand.

Mazza has the curious position of having two locations in two different states (North East, Pennsylvania and Mayville, New York). The tasting room server explained that Mazza cannot legally sell New York wine in Pennsylvania or vice versa, so having two locations essentially allows them to maximize their selling potential with two vineyards and two tasting rooms.

Mazza’s 2008 Riesling offered a nice coconut/apple nose with bright acidity, not particularly complex but fun and fruity. They make several dry reds with grapes from the Finger Lakes and Ontario including cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, all of which showed nice fruit and light tannins despite a rather pedestrian finish. With its size, unique position in the region, and the passion and expertise of winemaker Mario Mazza, who shows a particular interest in furthering the region’s reputation for ice wine (Mazza was the first winery in Pennsylvania to produce ice wine), this winery is certainly a top candidate to produce excellent dry, sweet and specialty wines in the future.

Noble-winery-cabernet The best red of the day, with a not-too-oaky vanilla nose, luscious black cherry, and a firm tannic grip, was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon at Noble Winery – when I asked where the grapes were grown, I expected to hear North Fork, but it turned out they come from the Jordan family’s vineyard right in Chautauqua. Tasting this cab made me wonder why some of the other wineries couldn’t produce the same quality in reds.

Like the other wineries I visited, Noble keeps the residual sugar on its Labrusca fairly low for a more polished balance. Their “Old Italian Red”, an interesting packaging of Concord, was an impressive incarnation of the grape with hints of hazelnut and vanilla.

The Noiret smelled to me like a Christmas gift shop – honey-baked ham and orange-and-clove potpourri. Having little experience with Noiret, I asked our very helpful server for some background, and he whipped out a laminated family tree diagramming the heritage of the Noiret grape. I was impressed.

Finally, Noble’s Concord Port tasted exactly like how it sounds. With nice spices and a small whiff of licorice, it was quite pleasant – seems as though Noble has hit on two great ways to put a twist on the Concord grape.

174824492_94424e69e4 Johnson Estate, clearly one of the most well-known wineries on Lake Erie, did not disappoint with several tasty wines. Their Traminette showed lychee, nutmeg, whole clove, rose petal, and pumpkin, and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon showed young tannins and fruit but nice length. Finally, their Ice Wine of Vidal had a lovely crushed hazelnut flavor on the nose as well as pretty fruits and honey – a great buy at $34.99.

It seems the Chautauqua/Lake Erie wine region is worth multiple trips – I’d like to come back and explore more of this region that seems to have definite potential for ice wine, hybrids and even dry red wines. Because the region is relatively under-the-radar on the national wine scene, it’s relatively informal – many wines don’t list vintages, tasting room service varies widely, and many wineries are buying most or all of their grapes from other regions. On the other hand, I’ve visited many world-class wineries and have never been shown the entire ancestry of a grape.