So many folks affiliated with the regional wine industry credit Mark L. Chien, the state-wide viticulture extension educator, with helping them develop better practices in the vineyards and cellars and, consequently, make better wine that is receiving more and more acclaim across the country.
Chien's name was mentioned again a few weeks ago when Carl Helrich of Allegro Vineyards in The Brogue, Pa., moved to the subject of what he feels will become this region's signature wine. In his view, Merlot is that grape, and while following that line of thinking Helrich also referenced last month's newsletter that Chien sent out to subscribers expressing the opinion that Cabernet Sauvignon might never develop in this region except at certain spots in York and Adams counties.
In the interest of putting that thought into its full context, here's a copy of the newsletter that I'd like to share. Chien has just returned from the Pennsylvania Farm Show wine competition hosted by colleagues at Rutgers and University of Maryland at the Rutgers Fruit Research and Extension Center in Cream Ridge, N.J. I'll let his newsletter take it from there.
"Before I talk about wines I would like to ask the Pennsylvania wine industry to offer a collective THANK YOU to Dr. Gary Pavlis from Rutgers and his amazing staff for the outstanding job they do in planning, organizing and hosting this event and to Dr. Joe Fiola from U Md for his continued participation. It is no small job to receive, organize, prepare and deliver over 250 wines to 20 judges in less than six hours. They do a superb job of keeping the process moving forward with nary a spilled drop or a broken glass. We also need to thank the 20 or so wine judges who arrive faithfully each November to help Joe and Gary make this competition possible. All of them do it on a Saturday, on their own time, and always with good cheer, professionalism and grace. This is a wonderful gift from NJ to PA.
"Now, to the wines …
"After the relative debacle of the ’03 and ’04 vintages Pennsylvania has strung together three very good to excellent vintages with 2007 perhaps among the best ever, so the opportunity to taste these wines was something to look forward to and for the most part they did not disappoint. I was able to taste 40-50 of the wines myself and all but one was at minimum clean and technically correct. That’s always a good starting point! It is my estimate that only half of our wineries submitted wines to the competition. I would like to see more but this is a decision for each winery. As always, there were new names that I didn’t recognize.
"Those who know me know that I have become a glass snob. Let’s face it, the quality of wine glass you use affects the perception of any wine. If you want the wines you drink to smell and taste better, use a good glass. It doesn’t have to be Riedel but it should be of the proper size and shape. While the INAO glass is still the standard for tasting, it is not satisfactory for a full sensory experience. I brought my own glass to the competition and tasting side by side with the standard glasses I could easily tell the difference. If you want your customers and peers to appreciate your wines more, give them proper glassware. Of course, if the wine has flaws, it will accentuate those, too, so beware.
"The wine competition offers a wide range of wine types including native, hybrid and vinifera, from bone dry to ultra-sweet, ports and those with bubbles. It’s definitely not a place that a wine drinker would get bored. But I always look to the vinifera wines as a bell weather of the progress we are making in wine quality. That said, the hybrids can often outperform the vinifera and the quality of the semi-sweet to sweet hybrids and natives are very good and still represent the majority of wines we produce and what the consumer of Pennsylvania wines prefers.
"The vinifera wines represent the greater viticulture and enological challenge and the wines that the reputation of the state’s wine industry will rest upon with the most critical consumers and wine critics so they necessarily need our undivided attention. In this competition, as in years past, the whites appear to outperform the red, maybe because white wine viticulture and style are more flexible and cut across a wider range of flavors and styles. For example, most whites will make nice wines over a range of 2-3 or even 4-5 brix in some cases, such as Riesling or Vidal, they simply produce different but acceptable flavors at different ripeness levels. However, Merlot or Cabernet Franc has a much narrower range of ripeness that will express the true and best character of the grape. There were standout whites include a couple of Traminettes that had different styles, one classic fruit-forward with spice and lemon and another in an Alsatian-style with more exotic, almost tropical, some might say non-Traminetter, flavors. The Chardonnay flight was clean but a bit dull to my palate. Most were rather simple, unoaked versions of the wine that had nice fruit but lacked complexity or depth. I think Chardonnay can be an excellent wine for Pennsylvania, from the cooler to warmer regions and is something we should focus on producing well. I am not a big fan of Pinot Gris (Grigio) and this flight demonstrated why Pinot Grigio is the largest imported white wine to the U.S. in their relative blandness. On the other hand, a short flight of hybrid blends showed some luscious high accent fruit with pineapple, melon, apple flavors and good concentration. A Seyval/Vidal/Cayuga blend was a particularly intriguing mix of flavors with something completely unexpected coming out in the end. Some of you know about my suspicions of native/grapey flavor infiltration into white wines, especially drier styles of hybrid and/or vinifera. I tasted this in a few wines and it continues to confound me. All I can say is wine makers should not follow natives with delicate, aromatic whites. If you are intentionally blending for these flavors, that’s a different matter altogether.
"As a general rule, warm and dry vintages make better wines, whites and reds, in cooler regions such as Pennsylvania. But even in a dry year quality of viticulture matters. I hate to be too reductionist in the view point but canopy and crop management are still the keys to success within any given vintage, and as mentioned earlier, it usually matters more for reds than whites. Vine size and balance should be established at planting, pruning should begin to determine vine architecture and yield, then shoot number and position should be adjusted followed by regulatory canopy management and a crop estimate before lag phase with appropriate yield adjustment if needed and all the while diseases and pests need to be under control and the vintage weather patterns analyzed. We know how, when, where and why to do all this stuff, it’s really a matter of doing it well and in a timely fashion. The wines reflect that we are doing it better and certainly gaining skills in the cellar.
"But the reds need to be fleshed out. As a group they still lack depth and concentration, especially in the mid-palate and good length. There is still a hint of eastern twang in most of them but they are on the verge of delicious ripeness and balance. The Merlots and Cabernet Franc wines were particularly expressive, with dark fruit and often spice and black pepper. The Cab F often had some herbal overtones but not to the extent that it would be considered a flaw in the wine, just something that needs to be further resolved, most probably in the vineyard. I’m not sure what to say about Cabernet Sauvignon. I suppose we just are not a Cab S region. They are leafy, herbal, generally too thin on the palate, and not in the realm of international CS standards. There are too many other good red grape choices for us to keep banging our heads against this one. It’s not the same situation as Pinot Noir in Oregon where we struggled to identify style and quality over two decades. PN was within its proper viticultural limits in Oregon. I’m not sure that Cabernet Sauvignon, except on the warmest sites and lightest soils in York or Adams counties, will ever consistently perform up to expectations other than our own. Chambourcin, another late grape, is a different story. I believe this was the largest varietal group and many showed the great potential for the grape with good depth and concentration. It’s a tough grape that can go the distance, deep into the season as many of our best growers push it way into October and some grow it on VSP with the same care as vinifera reds. It can deliver if the crop is properly regulated. Oh… and I would be remiss in not mentioning that I enjoyed two Lembergers, a variety I general do not like. These had high fruit tones with lots of berry flavors that were pleasant and captivating along with moderate acidity. They were very well crafted wines. I might need to change my position on this red (well, except for the name).
"The fruit and native wines were very good to excellent and demonstrate our overall proficiency in these categories. I acknowledge and accept the importance of these wines. They are the bread and butter of the industry and it is extremely important to do them well.
"To the winemakers, notes were taken on each wine sampled. This competition has very competent, mostly AWS trained judges and they attend and score consistently from year to year so they know the PA wine landscape well. However, they are not enologists so there may not be too much technical information. No matter if your wine got a gold or no medal you should read the notes about the wine carefully - you may find some pearls of wisdom where you least expect it. We could all use some fresh perspective on our wines, not matter where it comes from. The more you might disagree with a comment or suggestion, the closer you should examine it for something new and interesting about your wine. The notes probably contain valuable information about the wine, particularly from a consumer perspective. While I did not know whose wines I tasted, if you have any questions about the wine you can ask me. Joe and Gary taste every wine so they have the big picture. I can go back to them for their comments, if they remember. Both are among the most experienced tasters I know. If anything you learn from this competition can be translated out to the vineyard, please work on that with yourself or your grower. That really, truly is the best and fastest road to improvement. I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.
"Update: the extension enology position is still vacant. We need an extension enologist in Pennsylvania to work with all of the wineries but especially the new ones. I sincerely believe that is the area where extension help can have the biggest impact, in the cellar. Viticulture tends to take longer to make improvements in the bottle. Our 3 industry associations, the Pennsylvania Wine Association, Pennsylvania Wine Marketing and Research Program, and the Pennsylvania Association of Winegrowers, are working with Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences to fill this critical void in our extension resources. You should offer your support to the leadership of these organizations to make sure this gets done as quickly as possible. It can only help to push the quality of our wines higher and faster.
"Some comments from judges on topics other than wine… as a group, Pennsylvania wineries need to upgrade the quality of their labels including design, color schemes, freshness, cleanliness, etc. Packaging and design are WAY out of my area of expertise except as a consumer. But there is no denying the importance of design to selling wines. One person commented that he would not buy a particular wine because the label looked amateurish and gave the impression that the wine would be also. I admit, most of our wines are hand sold so maybe it isn’t quite as important here but we need to be thinking past our own tasting rooms into the realm of popular and critical wine consumerism. It was also pointed out that too many Pennsylvania wines carry proprietary names and do not indicate what grape varieties are in the wine. This goes against the trend by most wineries to include more information about the wine, not less. Finally, there is always surprise among the judges about how many sweet wines are entered in the competition. This is what it is, of course, and reflects what the marketplace we are in. There is no criticism from me other than if the Pennsylvania wine industry is to establish a regional or national identity for fine wines, we need to both increase and improve our dry wine representation.
"It is my hope that over time we can add greater technical and artistic merit to our high end or snob wines so that the state will gain more critical acclaim among wine critics and consumers. I think we are heading in the right direction. A few more dry, warm and sunny vintages will definitely help us in our journey."