It is now 2017, 54 years since Prohibition ended and the first Pennsylvania winery opened its doors, yet the world of Pennsylvania red wines is still virtually unknown among Pennsylvanians and the larger world. Just yesterday, I had another person exclaim to me, after tasting a Pennsylvania Cabernet Franc from Hackett Wine, “This is really from his grapes?” Yes, my friends, it is 100% Pennsylvania grown Cabernet Franc, produced, aged, and bottled in Pennsylvania. Their response: “I didn’t think Pennsylvania could produce a red wine like this!”
Unbeknownst to many wine consumers, Pennsylvania red wines are generally considered “Old World” style, while the western United States is primarily considered a “New World” producing region. New World styles tend to be higher in alcohol, fuller bodied, and have bolder fruit flavors. They also usually favor experimentation with new techniques. New World wine regions tend to be more arid in their climate and include regions like California, New Zealand, Australia, and Chile.
In contrast, Old World style wines tend to be lighter-bodied, more restrained, and lower in alcohol. They are also 100% food friendly. Winemakers tend to use methods that have been used for centuries, continuing the heritage of European wines. Old World wine regions are typically more wet, with significant amounts of rain, and often face climate hurdles such as hail, hurricanes, snow and ice. This includes regions from Europe and the Middle East such as France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Israel.
What does all this mean? The same variety (e.g. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir) can have a variety of different ways in which it can taste. For example, a Pinot Noir produced in Pennsylvania will taste different than a Pinot Noir produced in Oregon or California. Grape flavors and taste characteristics reflect where the grapes were grown. California Pinot Noir grapes grow in a more arid environment, where soils drain quickly and there is less humidity. Pinot Noir grown in Pennsylvania may endure a summer of extensive rainfalls, soils that tend not to drain quickly, and have a lot of vegetative growth. The growing conditions, often referred to as terroir, and the growing habit of the vines ultimately alter the flavor of the grapes that will be used for winemaking.
Red wines produced in Pennsylvania have different flavors than what most consumers are used to if they frequently drink California red wines. A Pinot Noir produced in California are bigger, lush, more fruit-forward, with flavors ranging from sweet black cherry to black raspberry and secondary aromas of vanilla, clove, coca-cola, and caramel. Many consumers come to recognize these flavors as Pinot Noir. However, Pennsylvania’s Pinot Noir has more pronounced red cherries, cranberry, plum, truffles, leather, cured meats, black pepper, and exotic spices. These Pinot Noir’s tend to be lean in texture, explosive flavor, and have racy acidity, a product of planting grapes in a cool climate and limestone soils. Same variety, but two very different flavor profiles that emphasize the New World versus Old World styles.
Ah, the best kept secret of Pennsylvania! There are several wineries in Pennsylvania who are making great strides in the quality of fine red wines. Although I don’t have the space to mention them all, here are a few who are making the best of impressions.
Tolino Vineyards (Bangor) – Not long after their doors opened, Tolino has won numerous awards for their Cabernet Franc. Most recently, their 2014 Cabernet Franc (dry, peppery, tea leaf aroma, cherry, blackberry, leather, oak spice) won “Best in Show” of the Pennsylvania Sommelier Judgement Day event at Nectar Restaurant in Philadelphia.
Blair Vineyard (Kutztown) – Blair is known for their Pinot Noirs, and they have the awards to prove it. This vineyard only produces dry European style wine. They currently have three Pinot Noir’s available of different vintages, all with notes of raspberries, plums, cherries, black pepper and spices. When you taste their Pinot’s, try all of them back to back. You can clearly see the differences in climate that year and where the different blocks of grapes are planted.
Vineyard at Grandview (Hershey) – Still fairly young in the wine industry, their dry reds are making huge strides. All of their dry reds have won numerous awards, with the most notable of a Double Gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition (the first for a Mid-Atlantic winery in the Bordeaux category in more than a decade) going towards their Bordeaux-style blend, Grande Rouge (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot). It has notes of rich deep black raspberries, exotic spices, and subtle premium oak.
Hackett Wine (New Tripoli) – A newcomer when it comes to having a tasting room (opened September 2016), but the winemaker has been growing vinifera grapes for 10 years, perfecting the quality before releasing the wines. Hackett focuses on dry European style wines. The experience shines in their red wines. Their primary three dry reds, all award winners, are Hillcrest (blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc), Pinot Noir, and Paganus (Cabernet Franc). They also produce a rose made of Cabernet Franc (currently sold out). All are intense, but balanced between fruit, racy acidity, and subtle oak.
Va La Vineyards (Avondale) – Va La is a unique, non-conformist little winery with a tongue-in-cheek personality. They focus on four dry wines, all Italian field blends: Prima Donna (white), Silk (Rosato), Cedar (red), and Mahogany (red). Occasionally, when the vines produce more than needed for the four wines, Vietri, the winemaker will make an additional wine. Their wine have gained national acclaim and most sell out quickly.