A Taste of Pennsylvania

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.

BuckinghamValleyVineyards-5Pennsylvania’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.

20141206_185026Stargazers 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.

bluemountainI 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.


Foreign Affairs

While visiting the Ardèche, René van Heusden of Perswijn, a Dutch wine journal, is asked if he’d like to taste something special. Wine journalists usually answer that with an eager ‘Well, yes, of course’, hoping for, if not downright expecting a rare vintage or a wine of exceptional quality. His verdict on the Clinton he was then presented with: ‘Wine of a very peculiar taste. Or rather: weird. Interesting, we say,’ thereby crushing some vintners’ hope of finding a supporter of releasing the French government’s prohibition of American hybrids.
An American Grape, from Husmann's book

An American Grape, from Husmann’s book

And that is what the Clinton is: an American hybrid, ‘vigorous, hardy and productive; free from disease (…) juicy; somewhat acid; (…) brisk vinous flavor, but somewhat of the aroma of the frost grape; makes a dark red wine, of good body, and much resembling claret (…). Although safe and reliable, I think it has lately been over praised as a wine grape (…)’, as George Husmann writes in his The Cultivation of the Native Grape, and Manufacture of American Wines of 1866.

Husmann (1847-1902), a pioneer grape-grower and winemaker of Hermann, Missouri, dedicated this standard work ‘To the grape growers of “our country, one and indivisible,” as their friend and fellow-laborer’. In his book he not only went into great (technical) detail on the various grapes, the winemaking process, the costs and benefits, he also shared his missionary vision of America as a true ‘Wineland’ where men and women of all social classes will be able to enjoy a glass of native wine. For the southern states to accomplish that, they would need to free themselves from the demon of slavery.
It was not only Americans he granted a glass of wine. After the destruction of France’s vineyards by the phylloxera, it was Husmann and two fellow Missourians, who shipped American vines to the old continent. A few of them exist until today.

Unfettered Freedom

Indian authorities probably don’t drink Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir, or else they hadn’t banned cycles from Calcutta’s main roads. They would have known that ‘[t]he advent of affordable transportation for men and women provided them [i.e., these men and women] with an independence and autonomy heretofore unknown.’ They would also have learned that Susan B. Anthony thought bicycles to ‘have done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’ There is so much wisdom to be found on wine labels.

Anthony, a prominent American civil and women’s rights activist who was arrested in 1872 for voting in the presidential elections, has done a thing or two for women’s emancipation herself. I do hope though she had other means of transportation whilst travelling through the US and Europe and delivering 75-100 speeches a year.

10-Cycles-Gladiator-wine-label-VSSI wonder if she, born a Quaker’s daughter but turning agnostic in later life (or so Wikipedia tells me), would have disapproved of Massias’ 1895 poster to promote a new bicycle for Cycles Gladiator. Alabama did. Its civil servants reviewing wine labels for anything obscene or indecent, deemed the poster-turned-wine-label pornographic and forbade its distribution in 2009. Much to the delight of the company’s sales department.

How did this ‘tribute to that spirit of unfettered freedom’ taste?

Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir 2011, California, 13,9% alc., ca. £ 9
Brightly coloured, fruity wine with a little sweetness that I didn’t think of as disturbing. Served slightly chilled it will do as an agreeable summer wine.

The name of the UK distributor, you ask? Patriarche Wine Agencies.


S’mores, Gorp and Nova Scotian Wine

Having dinner with perfect strangers in a Scottish B&B, what do you talk about after having discussed the weather conditions? The stomach content of a certain snail variety that is to be found only on Skye is a subject that has come up in quite some detail, as is faith. “Do you believe in the resurrection of the Christ?” I was once asked over a delicious pan-fried halibut. I am always grateful if we can stick to non-gastric food issues.

Being Dutch, the most popular question in this kind of situation, “What would you say is your national dish?,” is easier asked than answered, though I am more confident since I’ve learned the Canadian answer: s’mores and gorp. There is not much wrong with gorp (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), but to call it a dish is slightly exaggerated. S’mores (some more) are probably something one must have grown up with to appreciate. This girl-scouting bonfire treat is made of roasted (or microwaved if you’re not outdoors) marshmallows dipped in milk chocolate and mashed between sweet biscuits.

So when I read about wine from Nova Scotia I had to get rid of (a) bias and (b) blatant geographical ignorance. Can a country that considers s’mores as their gift to world cuisine be trusted when it comes to wine making? Bias was quickly put aside as I remembered I had tasted a few Canadian wines from Pelee Island Winery at a small distributors’ wine fair in April last year. The island in Lake Erie itself I had seen before from air on my way to Cleveland via Detroit, not knowing what kind of agriculture the green fields represented. Some of the grape varieties (Riesling, Zweigelt) and the owner’s diction give away its Austrian background. I tasted a fresh blend of Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer with tones of exotic fruit and spices (2010) and a Pinot Noir of the same year that could compete with some of its Burgundian nephews.

Npeleeow, Lake Erie is on the same latitude as Rome and has a microclimate similar to Burgundy, though with more heat units. But Nova Scotia is arctic. It’s the nearly uninhabitable place where poor Scots—driven by circumstances or their landlords—were shipped in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only to find themselves in even worse climatological and economic conditions. ‘Cool climate’ is a euphemism. Here I must admit I thought Nova Scotia to be in the same league as Newfoundland. And indeed the first settlers had a hard time, as winters over there are quite cold. But Nova Scotia is a few miles south of Newfoundland. The summers must have been a revelation to the Scottish settlers. The climate is ‘continental’, the temperature extremes moderated by the Atlantic Ocean. Still, the winter is a force to be reckoned with. As a result wine making is heavily dependent on non-vinifera vines: hybrids as New York Muscat, Vidal and Nova Scotia’s own L’Acadie Blanc. But there is some real vitis vinifera too. The wines of the only appellation, Tidal Bay, are low in alcohol, but not so low in price. They are said to be crisp and pair well with the local sea food. If those first settlers just had known.

For Dutch readers: The wines of Pelee Island Winery are for sale here. For the wines of Nova Scotia one has to go to, well, Nova Scotia.


(Previously published on my blogspot site, March 2013.)