Now that I have managed the art of visiting European vineyards I thought it time to take it up a step and try my luck across the ocean. In the New World, I was told by a Californian friend, wine tastings are about wine drinking – and drinking a lot. Having a European taste himself but feeling obliged to give Californian wine a fair chance, he once embarked on a tasting trip. He started off fine, talking to the vintners, being genuinely interested, asking questions, tasting, spitting, commenting, in short ‘the works’. But the wines were not to his liking, nor was he encouraged in his professional style by the bus loads of wine tourists who inundated the tasting rooms. In the end, having spit less and less, somehow trying to wash off the taste by drinking more, he found himself crawling AbFab style out of his wife’s car to join a flock of sheep.
Pennsylvania isn’t California in many ways. Wine making started early but had to deal with major setbacks of which it is still recovering. William Penn himself was one of the first who gave it a try (around 1682), but as he concentrated on vinifera vines he had little success and was forced to furnish the cellar of his Philadelphia house with European wines instead (A History of Wine in America, p. 33). Still, he stood at the cradle of American wine making: it was near his very premises, almost a century later, that a spontaneous hybrid between a vinifera and a labrusco was found: the Alexander grape (named after the gardener of Penn’s son), with which the first commercial wines were made (p. 85).
But even the combined forces of statesmen like William Penn and Benjamin Franklin and the many inquisitive Rhinelanders and Moravians who missed their homeland drink couldn’t hold out against the backdrops history (Revolution, Civil War, Prohibition) and nature (phylloxera, mildew, black rot) was providing them with. As a result Pennsylvania became famous for its unfermented grape juice, made from grapes unsuitable for wine making. Only as late as 1968 Pennsylvania’s Farm Winery Act allowed grape growers to make, and sell, wine.
Pennsylvania’s 140+ wineries are thus all relatively young. That may be the reason that for some of them wine seems to be something on the side, musical events or running a bar being the core business. Not so for Buckingham Valley Vineyards and Winery. This family-owned winery of over 40 acres makes affordable dry and sweet wines from vinifera, native American and hybrid grapes and several sweet fruit wines. In their own words: ‘We consider wine to be a food item, to be enjoyed with meals or without, to be consumed without ceremony or snobbery, to be affordable on an every-day basis.’ That their wines are low in alcohol (11%vol) is a bonus too.
When I asked for a spittoon, I learned that here too tasting means drinking. Did I think I wasn’t going to like their wines? But after a few minutes they came up with something I could use as such.
Though I didn’t like all the wines I tasted (e.g., I thought the Merlot unremarkable, the Niagara to be avoided) I did have a liking for their Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin.
Seyval Blanc (no year, 11%vol., $11): Sweet apples, floral notes. Bit sweet. Easy. Drink well chilled as aperitif or with salad.
Chambourcin (no year, 11%vol., $11): Best of their reds. Dark-red in colour. Full-bodied, oak-barrelled. Herbs, black currant leafs. Benefits from a little chilling.
Stargazers Vineyard & Winery has a little shop and tasting room (with spittoon, though I got the impression the shop manager was a little shocked when I spat into it) in the charming town of Lititz. I didn’t visit their home base, but I was told the wines there are sweeter than in the shop. Having said that, there was only one dry red wine available. Still, this nearly 20 year old winery is a serious one, taking into account terroir and sustainability, and resisting too much filtering.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Reserve (13,5%vol., $18): The scent of black currants really comes out. Dry (without the ubiquitous American sweetness), fruity, some dark tones, smooth.
Arneis 2013 (12,5%vol., $20): This Piedmontese grape is doing a great job here. Pear, melon, juicy, lots of taste. Paired well with pan-fried fluke and grilled asparagus.
I came across Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars, situated in the Lehigh Valley AVA, in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square farmer’s market (see also under Famous Caffs). They started with French hybrid grapes but planted European varieties too as they found out soil and climate are similar to the Loire and Burgundy regions (and who wouldn’t want that?). With 100 acres and serveral selling points in Pennsylvania Blue Mountain is a big player.
Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (12,6%vol., $15,50): Sauvignon Blanc? You could have fooled me. Too sweet to my taste, lacking freshness. Not too bad though if well-chilled accompanying a beetroot salad with goat’s cheese.
Cabernet Franc 2010 (13%vol., $18): ‘For the adventurous wine drinker’, said my vendor who knows how to chat-up his customers. There is some truth in it. Light-bodied, fruity (red berries) with a green touch and an earthy finish. Soft tannines. I would pair it with porc, not with beef and chocolate as the label says.