As I was struggling to condense my thoughts into one cohesive subject, I took a break from writing to watch Wine Library TV’s Monday episode. To my surprise and inspirational luck, it just happened to be about Pennsylvania wine! Gary Vaynerchuck’s guest was Jason Malumud, an employee at Penn’s Woods Winery, whose online posts I had been following for a while because our stories are so similar: “Hmm, I just graduated from college and the economy is terrible. Maybe I’ll pursue my passion for wine instead of trying to get a sensible job.” In fact I must admit I was a little jealous that Jason got to Gary first, but he seemed much more adept at the publicity aspect than I probably would have been anyway. I am a cellar rat at heart.
The specific topic I’d like to respond to is that of choosing which varietals to grow. In the WLTV episode, they refer to Merlot as the key grape with the potential to make a name for our area as a quality appellation. Gary gave Penn’s Woods Merlot 90 points, and though I don’t always agree with Gary’s ratings, I do respect his opinion. However, Gary notoriously steers away from the oaky fruit bombs that many Merlot drinkers intentionally seek out; and with the price at $38 when you can find Provenance and Clos Pegase around $25, I feel justified in questioning the assertion of Merlot as PA’s prodigious salvation. I’m sure it was a very nice wine, but with the overreaching goal of transforming Pennsylvania’s wine reputation in mind, I would like to suggest an alternative perspective.
This Merlot affinity is particularly relevant for me because I was recently lucky enough to attend a Merlot barrel tasting with five of the best winemakers in the state (including Eric Miller of Chaddsford Winery, which probably takes the cake for largest and most successful). I was definitely out of my league in many ways, but learned an incredible amount from hearing how different winemakers handle the same grape to achieve varying results. (For example, one guy uses triple the Scott Minimum of tannin additions resulting in a firm and forward wine with little finish and complexity, while another uses no tannin addition at all for a wine with great length and finesse but not much color or body – fascinating wine geek stuff! I’d go into more detail, but I probably shouldn’t give away any secrets without the winemakers’ permission.) While most of the Merlots I tried were very good, some even exceptional in flavor and elegance, they often seemed to lack a certain “oomph”.
Many Merlot/Cab-centric winemakers here like to point out that the Philly metro area shares a latitude with Bordeaux. Our climate, however, is undoubtedly different. Bordeaux varietals need long, consistent days of sunshine to develop their characteristically firm tannins and bold dark fruit flavors; this just does not happen in Pennsylvania. My personal opinion: if you want to make a consistent Merlot with the “bigness” to rival Duckhorn or Saint-Émilion, move to the west coast. At Blair Vineyards, we believe that, despite the latitudinal parallel, the cooler continental climate in this state is truly more suited for a Burgundian vineyard. Although we also grow Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer (which is turning out extremely well), our true passion revolves around Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Pinot Noir, however, is not easy to grow. It’s skins are not as tough and resilient as those of the Bordeaux grapes making it more prone to disease and rot, and it’s vines require an obnoxiously finicky balance of warm days and cool nights. The key is in location; our primary 22-acre vineyard site is almost completely south-facing slopes, giving the maximum exposure to any sunshine that happens to peak through the clouds. Additionally, Pinot Noir berries ripen larger than Merlot or Cab berries and therefore can better withstand the extra moisture they will undoubtedly get in our rainy autumns. Here in the Lehigh Valley, we also benefit from an amount of limestone deposit, a key component of the soil in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. We’ve planted several different clones, and often do seperate bottlings to showcase how the terroir develops differently in Dijon clones (667, 777) and Oregonian clones (02, 04). The former often picks up more earth and subtle dark fruit while the latter retains more bright, fruit forward qualities.
Because the vines have only been in the soil about nine years, and we’ve only been a commercial winery for seven, there is still a lot to learn and a lot to experiment with. However, every year you can sense the maturation of the vines in the progressing complexity of the wines they produce, which leaves us impatient and excited for the future of Pennsylvania’s Pinot Noir potential! Pinnacle Ridge Winery and a couple other operations are also making some very good Pinots, so our hope is that eventually our area might be seen as a pivotal Pinot-producing region. Our Chardonnay may be even better than our Pinot at this point (and I could talk about Chardonnay for days), but it recently gave me a particularly hard time during fermentation, so I’m still a little bitter. Maybe next week.
WINE OF THE WEEK: …is not a wine. The Cremant de Bourgogne I had planned was pretty disappointing and possibly corked, so I decided to review a phenomenal beer I had instead.
Brasserie Des Geants “Goliath” Belgian Tripel
9.0% ABV, 12oz. bottle, about $6, awesome label
Beautiful golden color, substantial head of foam. Smooth and medium-bodied on the palate, flavors of candied orange and lemon, hops add a balanced amount of bitterness and spice. There is a little minerality on the finish that I enjoyed, but might be off-putting to some people. A very flavorful, nicely structured beer. My only real complaint was that the alcohol came through a tad hot at the end.
Rating: 4.25/5 (That’s how they do it on BeerAdvocate.com)