An Exploration of Pennsylvania #Wine

As readers of this blog you know by now wine is produced in all fifty of our wonderful states. I have been blessed to have tried wine from about 18 of the states, which means I have many more to go. Recently, I had the opportunity to try a collection of wineries from the great state of Pennsylvania. Have you had Pennsylvania wine? Come explore with me.

The first vineyard was planted by William Penn in 1683 in an area near Philadelphia known today as Fairmont Park. Today, there are approximately 200 wineries in Pennsylvania, comprising about 14,000 acres of vineyards producing 1.6 million gallons of wine annually. More than two dozen grape varieties flourish in Pennsylvania. These consist of native grapes such as Catawaba, Concord, Delaware, and Niagara; a host of hybrid grapes including Chambourcin, Noiret, Traminette, and Vidal Blanc; and a wide selection of familiar European grapes including Riesling, Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.

I received close to fifty wines from eight different producers, all located in the Southcentral and Southeastern wine producing regions of the state. It is my understanding many of the state’s highest quality producers are located in these regions. The Southcentral region has a longer growing season and is filled with apples and peaches. Here, wineries focus on red and white Bordeaux style varietals. The Southeast region has a hilly terrain, offering vineyards a southern facing slope to aid in drainage and airflow while increasing sun exposure. Here you will find aromatic white European varietals and an abundance of bold red Meritage style wines.

In my search for understanding of the PAwine industry I was put in touch with Denise Gardner with the Penn State Enology Extension. She provided some depth of insight into the Southcentral and Southeastern wine regions. Here is some of what she shared:

“Unlike many regions in CA and several European, one of the key climatic factors of southeastern PA is that we don’t have that large diurnal temperature shift between morning and nighttime temperatures.  This means that during the growing season, the nighttime temperatures can remain rather warm.  Additionally, there is a fair amount of humidity.  Both of these elements may make for a challenging growing season due to the physiology of how grapes ripen and the regularity of disease pressure. Despite the climatic challenges, it’s hard to argue that the location isn’t good for growing wine grapes when you taste what is in the glass.  In climates like southeastern PA’s, many unique and interesting wines have emerged over the years.  There’s nothing like the delicacy and interest developed by a 10 – 20 year old Allegro Cadenza, or the vibrancy associated with Galen Glen Winery’s Gruner Veltliner and Riesling or the juiciness associated with Penns Woods Chardonnay.  The best part about wines from this area is that you can’t find wines like these anywhere else in the world.” ~ Denise Gardner, Penn State Enology Extension

The Pennsylvania Wines web site offers information about the numerous wine trails contained within the state. If you visit Pennsylvania please check out the site for a map of the region.

A few observations that are important to consider before reading my overall tasting reflections. Pennsylvania wineries sell out of their annual productions each year, largely to local consumers through their tasting rooms or local wine stores. Like the majority of American wine consumers, the PA wine consumer largely likes a sweeter wine. At times I was taken by surprise with the initial sweetness of many of the wines we tasted. Please understand, these are not wines crafted to be sweet like a late harvest dessert wine, these are traditional wines with just a hint of unexpected residual sugar, a hint the consumer largely embraces. This point was further made by Denise Gardner:

“Sweet wines are popular, and while native varieties like Concord and Niagara are generally disregarded by wine enthusiasts, there is a strong connection with those varieties and their flavors towards the local consumers. There’s a lot of nostalgia for those varieties and it is not uncommon to hear consumers say, ‘This is what my grandfather’s homemade wine used to taste like,’ or ‘This wine takes me back to the days I used to can jam with my grandmother.’  In many ways, PA’s industry is historically oriented and this is just one example. Additionally, for those that make them well, the sweeter formula wines or fruit wines can be quite yummy and appealing to a consumer that is not interested in drier wines.  Nationally, more wine consumers prefer sweeter wines, and PA’s market can definitely cater to that preference.” ~ Denise Gardner, Penn State Enology Extension

Another observation was the lower amounts of acidity in the white wines. Perhaps I am unusual in the amount of acid I prefer in my wines, especially white wines, but we definitely noticed the wines did not have the acidity we were expecting. For the most part many were well balanced, just containing acid levels of medium- to low, rather than medium+ to high.

Finally, we tasted many wines from 2014 and 2015. We were stumped by the wide vintage variation in these wines, preferring the 2014’s across the board. I do not have vintage information for these wines or regions but it appeared something significant took place in 2015 because the wines were dramatically different in many respects.

I could not taste all of these wines by myself so I called in reinforcements. It was an enjoyable afternoon tasting these wines with three of my fellow Dallas Wineaux. We spent three hours tasting and evaluating these wines, discussing them as a group. There were far too many wines to share my thoughts with you on all of them; therefore, here are my overall impressions on those wines I liked the best.

Waltz Vineyards (Manheim, Lancaster County): each of these three wines were lovely, they were all characteristic to their respective variety; the Sauvignon Blanc was crisp, fruity, and refreshing, the Chardonnay was rich and round with nice depth and elegance, and the Cabernet Sauvignon was a touch sweet with green vegetal notes, balanced, with grippy tannins.

Penns Woods (Brandywine Valley): each of these wines were approachable and interesting, the Chardonnay was balanced with a judicious use of oak, the Viognier was lovely, pleasantly acidic and elegant, and the Chambourcin Reserve is crafted of a hybrid grape, it is unique, on the sweeter side yet balanced with acidity and tannins.

Karamoor Estate (Fort Washington): the Chardonnay was light in body with tropical fruit notes, balanced and pleasing, the Petit Verdot offered balance and structure in a characteristic wine, and the Cabernet Franc was a juicy, fruit forward wine with structure and balance.

Galer Estate (Chester County, Brandywine Valley) whites stood out: the Reserve Chardonnay was a warm rich wine with tropical fruit notes, whereas the Chardonnay offered depth and proper oak treatment that added texture and depth to the wine, finally the Pinot Noir Rose was fresh on the nose with tart red fruit on the palate.

Allegro (Brogue)stood out with their Cadenza, a Bordeaux blend wine with depth and elegance.

Blair (Berks County) also won us over with their Cabernet Franc, a classic expression with elegant structure and balance.

Va La Vineyards (Avondale, Brandywine County) won the most unique and distinctive wines of the group. These wines were crafted of Italian grapes and blended as a winemaker’s field blend. We tasted a white, rosatto, and red. These wines are highly regarded to much critical acclaim.

If you don’t live in Pennsylvania have no fear, by contacting the wineries direct you can have some Pennsylvania wines delivered right to your door. I will conclude this fun exploration by giving Denise Gardner the final word:

“Most of the sales in the state are direct to consumer. I think PA is one of the few states that can actually claim this important sale distinction! This is largely due to the size of the winery and state’s distribution laws. However, many wineries do sell directly to consumers outside of PA. With the change in our shipping laws recently, it is fair to say that someone in Texas, California, Idaho, and Wisconsin [or any state] could call any of the wineries you are writing about and have wines shipped directly to their door to taste.  When we have our American Society of Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) – Eastern Section Conferences, one of the best activities is tasting all the wines from various states.  Each region has something unique to offer, and PA is no different.  I do appreciate the European influence on the entire Mid-Atlantic region, and it is always exciting to hear international wine experts excited about the ripeness and character of PA’s wines.” ~ Denise Gardner, Penn State Enology Extension

Get your PA wine exploration started today!

13 comments

  1. I had no idea that every state in the USA produces wine, that really is amazing given the varied climates in each state. I have heard that Pennsylvania wine is good, thanks for the tour and I am hoping to give these a try.

  2. That Pends Woods Chambourcin is the only one that I have ever tasted that was not horrible (and was actually quite good). All the rest should be ripped out and replaced with Cab Franc, if you ask me. Surprising that you got some Va La—really small production, but one of the best in the state that I tried. I am also a big fan of Galer….

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