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Chautauqua, world’s biggest Concord grape region, harvests its bounty

Grapes are a big deal just south of Buffalo.

And grape growers are busy harvesting their crops.

[Gallery: A Closer Look: Growers Cooperative grape harvest]

Down along the Lake Erie shoreline in Chautauqua County and stretching into Pennsylvania is a region that goes by a number of names: Lake Erie Wine Country, America’s Grape Country and the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt.

So pour yourself a glass of juice and get to know what grapes mean in Western New York.

What’s the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt? It’s the oldest and largest Concord grape growing region in the world, stretching along the Lake Erie shoreline between Silver Creek in Chautauqua County and Harborcreek, Pa.

How big is the Grape Belt? About 30,000 acres of grape vineyards sit along the belt.

Row of concord grapes wait to be harvested off of Rte 20 in Westfield Tuesday, October 4, 2016. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Rows of Concord grapes wait to be harvested off of Route 20 in Westfield, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Why there? The Allegheny Plateau rises more than 700 feet along the Lake Erie shore, creating a narrow band of land between the plateau and the lake’s water that moderates temperatures and makes it ideal for agricultural fruit production. The soil is also loamy, meaning it contains relatively equal amounts of silt, sand and clay.

What’s grown there? A number of fruits, including apples, cherries, peaches and blueberries, but mostly grapes, most of which are Concord grapes.

What’s a Concord grape? Concord grapes are mostly used in making juice, jellies and jams. It’s named after Concord, Mass., where the first vines were cultivated. The grape was created by Ephraim Wales Bull of Boston who experimented with native seeds.

How many types of Concord grapes are there? More than 50 varieties of the grape have been bred for uses in juice and wine making, as well as table grapes.

How long have grapes been grown in this area? The first grape seedlings came to the area in 1818, brought by Elijah Fay. The Concord grape was developed in 1849 and in 1897 the first grape juice production facility was founded by Dr. Thomas Welch and his son, Charles. Today, Welch’s plant in Westfield is used for processing, juice storage and service for bulk concentrate customers.

Concord grapes raise to pour into a collection bin from a grape harvester at Knight Vineyards in Ripley Tuesday, October 4, 2016. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Concord grapes pour into a collection bin from a grape harvester at Knight Vineyards in Ripley on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

What about wine? The Lake Erie region, which bills itself as Lake Erie Wine Country, has more than two dozen commercial and estate wineries. It is one of five distinct growing regions in the state; the others are Long Island, the Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Lake Champlain.

What’s the Grape Discovery Center? On Route 20, just west of Westfield, there’s an official visitor’s center for the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt. It opened in 2013. Admission is free.

How can I find out more about grapes in the area? grapediscoverycenter.com, concordgrapejuice.com, pickyourown.org/nywest.htm, americasgrapecountry.com, lakeeriewinecountry.org

Sources: Grape Discovery Center, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, Growers’ Cooperative Grape Juice Co., Welch’s

email: abesecker@buffnews.com

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