A regal entrance into one of Ohio’s oldest and most successful wineries.
Markko Vineyards isn’t the easiest place to find. There is no big sign indicating “Winery Here” – in fact, there are no signs at all. I got a bit turned around on the back roads off of I-90 because of some bridge work (now completed) – but if you follow the directions from the Markko website, you’ll get there fine. And you should. You should make an appointment for a tasting, and go out and try these wines in Conneaut, Ohio. Arnie Esterer, owner and winemaker, has a theory. “Our wines are good. If they like good wine, they’ll find us,” so he’s not worried about drawing a crowd. He’s been at this for over 40 years, and he knows what he’s talking about – his wines are divine.
This is not a “destination winery” and not one to appear on the cover of a tourist magazine, but the wines are worthy of The Beard House and the New York Times. There is a small tasting room with a table for 12, and old growth tree shaded deck. Perfect for one of their Perch and Riesling lunches.
I chatted with Arnie and his son, opening bottles here and there, while we talked about this incredible adventure they’ve been on. The goal when Arnie Esterer and Tim Hubbard started was to show the potential of Vinifera in the Lake Erie region – it wasn’t an AVA yet in 1968. They were looking for the terroir, and by george, I think they found it.
Markko has 16 acres under vine, and every bottle produced comes from estate grapes, producing about 2100 cases annually. When Markko got started they planted Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir under the guidance of Dr. Konstantin Frank (a New York winemaker). Later Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, and Merlot were added to the plantings. Over the last 44 years, Arnie has become known as pioneer in Ohio winemaking.
Once Arnie came back from testing the wines they intended to bottle that day, we started the tasting with his Chardonnay.
2007 Chardonnay Select Reserve, bottled in ’09 (I tasted in 2011, so it’d been aging in the bottle 2 years) This spent 2 years on oak, but the flavor of the chardonnay grape shines through. Apple and pear on the palate, buttery on the finish. I am in no way an oaky chardonnay fan – much prefer them stainless steel, but WOW. Beautiful. ($33) – This one was paired at a MissWineOH event with chicken salad toast points and fresh garden salsa crostinis.
2004 Chardonnay Reserve This spent 7 years sur lee on American oak. Yes, you read that right – 7 years. This one had less of the fruit on the palate, but the butter was certainly present. I’d call this a perfectly oaked Chardonnay. (2005 is $30, I don’t think the 2004 is available)
2007 Chardonnay Lot 0703 Three years on oak, and fined with egg whites. Pleasant fruit, crisp and aromatic. Slightly more obvious oak here. ($24)
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve A beautiful field blended Cab, smooth tannins and well balanced. Blending consists of 5% each of merlot, cab franc and chambourcin. Gorgeous. ($33)
2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Having tasted the 07, I grasped just how Markko wines are meant to be aged. The 08 had more prominent alcohol, and was slightly more tannic. It is also a drier red, but has the same full mouthfeel as the 07. Similar field blend.
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve The smoothest of the Cabs. Very fruit forward, the complexity of the field blending shows with fun layers of the chambourcin and cab franc peeking through. This wine, while aged similarly to the others in its oak barrels, did not have the oak intensity – beautiful wine, and any of the Cabs could lay down for many years. ($36)
2008 Johannesburg Riesling Grassy and slightly floral on the nose stone fruit on the palate, slight effervescence that makes this a great wine to pair with spicy dishes. (currently not available)
2007 Riesling Reserve More grassy and slightly petrol on the nose, with honey on the finish. This one also has that effervescence. ($30) I paired this at a special event with a pumpkin cupcake. Beautiful wine.
Arnie did not stop being an innovator when he planted vinifera in Ohio in 1968. He also devised a trellis system for organic grapegrowers and planted American, French and Hungarian oak trees on his 100 acre property. The intent was to be able to harvest these (now 40 year old) trees to be sent to a cooperage to become Markko barrels. That harvesting begins this year. Winemaking innovation and excellence is a hallmark at Markko.
I arrived with the intention of doing a bit of a tasting and picking up a bottle for an event I was doing. I stayed about 2.5 hours, and had I been dressed differently, I might have been conscripted to help cork their wines. They were bottling that day, a fun thing to watch, an incredibly labor intensive process to complete. They use a pump system and hand run equipment to bottle and seal.
Arnie’s son told me during our conversation that they opened a 1973 Chardonnay a week before I’d been there, and that it had aged beautifully. I just wish I’d been around for THAT tasting. These Ohio wines, while not exactly budget friendly, are priced extremely well for the quality and pricing of comparable wines. Don’t let the Ohio AVA fool you. There are serious vintages being made in Conneaut.
Markko’s first vintage was in 1972, and their system works, so they aren’t fixing what’s not broken. Markko wines are available in wine shops throughout Northeast Ohio. I have spotted them in Heinen’s and in Constantino’s. They do have a few budget friendly wines ($9-$20) – and while I haven’t tasted them, I can’t imagine Arnie and Linda would put out a wine they wouldn’t drink. These folks make cellar worthy wines.