Actually, let’s take those in reverse order.
Here’s the deal – I have a love/hate affair with organic wines. I love the fact that they’re organic and environmentally-friendly; I hate many of the wines because they’re not any good.
And I’m convinced that enough wine consumers have reached a similar conclusion that they actually avoid buying wines labeled as Organic, which is why many good wines that could be labeled as officially organic don’t bother to mention this on their labels (see Alder Yarrow’s take on the subject of Organic wine labeling).
It’s not all organic wines that suck, and there are many excellent, premium wines that farm organically or biodynamically. But the extreme cases have a loooooong way to go before they will appeal to the average consumer.
Take Stellar Organics for example. Amazing things they’re doing for the environment and their community. BUT… they make a line of ‘No Sulfites Added’ wines (essentially, the only sulfites in the wines are those produced naturally in the winemaking process), and the samples I tried of those wines just aren’t very good. To the mini-review tape:…
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A very quick blurb to let you know that the latest edition of Chester County Cuisine & Nightlife has hit the stands. This month’s issue (August 2009) includes a piece that I wrote in late 2008 on Penns Woods winemaker Gino Razzi.
CCC, masterminded by WCDish.com co-founder and irrepressible Philly-area foodie Mary Bingham, continues to improve with every issue and seems like it’s really starting to hit its stride. And best of all, it’s FREE.
So if you happen to find yourself in visiting, living in, or mysteriously waking up somewhere in Chester County, PA, be sure to grab yourself a copy or two, or hit the PDF after the jump for a tree-friendly version!
To understand how profoundly good the 2007 reds will be for Chaddsford Winery – and we will get to that, because the `07s are that good – you first need to understand a bit about winemaking in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
And to understand winemaking in Southeastern Pennsylvania, you first need to understand a bit about Eric Miller, the co-founder and winemaker at Chaddsford.
Eric is not just the wily, driving force behind the 25,000 case production of Chaddsford. In many ways, he is the driving force behind wine in Southeastern PA, period. While some of his childhood was spent in the shadow of famous vineyards in Europe, his roots in Pennsylvania winemaking now run deeper than those of the vines that make up his prized Estate Vineyard in Chester County’s French Creek conservation area (the same ones that are giving birth to some of that profound red wine that’s slowly integrating in barreled slumber… more on those in a minute.. or two…).
“For the first 10 years, I didn’t know how to pick grapes,” Eric told me as we sampled some of his bright, cherry-forward 2005 Cab. “I used to pick based on pH, then it was sugar… now, I just pick based on flavor.”
Picking based on flavor is not something that comes easily. It takes practice – a luxury that most winemakers don’t have.
“You only get one vintage a year to get it right,” according to Eric, which is a more difficult proposition in the rough and rugged growing conditions of PA than it might be in the arid climes of California, for example. “We have a short growing season that’s margined by death.” In other words, get it right, and you just might get rewarded with unique wines that taste closer to the terroirs of Europe than CA. But get it wrong, and you might get it very, very wrong.
“You only get one vintage a year to get it right.”
Eric and Chaddsford have gotten it right enough times that they’re virtually synonymous with PA winemaking. “I see similar parallels to Pennsylvania now and Abruzzi 30 years ago,” Gino Razzi, winemaker of Penns Woods and one of Eric’s local contemporaries, told me last year. “It’s a rougher industry. It was done by people with a lot of heart; their enthusiasm was bigger then the available knowledge. They didn’t know what grapes to plant, or how to best make the wines. They did the most they could to learn. Eric was the pioneer – there were no experts or viticulturists around to learn from.”
The only way to learn, was to do. And, of course, taste.
“I’m someone with an average palate, who happens to taste a lot of wine,” says Eric.
Which brings us back to tasting those `07s.
Considering that there probably haven’t been any vintages of Southeastern PA wine that Eric hasn’t tasted, he is in a unique position to pass judgment on the 2007 vintage as the reds mature in the small barrel room underneath the tasting area and wine shop at Chaddsford.
Eric had rated previous recent vintages as some of the best among his many years of winemaking in PA, but “after tasting the 07s,” he said, as he drew a sample from a barrel of the Cab (which has a bit of Merlot and Petit Verdot to round out the blend, “I had to re-evaluate.”
With good reason. Simply put, the `07 reds are among the best Cabernet-based wines ever made in PA – if not the best. They’re certainly among the most concentrated, rewarding, and nuanced regional reds I’ve ever sampled.
The `07 Cabernet, sourced mostly from other PA vineyards, is already well-integrated with smoky oak, concentrated dark cherry and a pleasing sweet spice character that hits your nose immediately from the glass.
The `07 Merican (Chaddsford’s Meritage-style blend) is even better. The Merican is sourced mostly from Chadssford’s Estate vineyard, with a higher proportion of Merlot to the blend. Out of the barrel, it’s got Christmas spices to start, and even darker concentrated fruit than the Cab, with a roasted coffee finish that seems to last for days – easily one of the longest finishes I’ve ever experienced in a wine from PA.
Near-perfect growing conditions in `07 are responsible for the mojo. “The effect of the weather [in PA] is profound, and painfully unpredictable,” said Eric. “`07 Conditions were dry really up until flowering… creating really small, concentrated berries with clusters flapping in the breeze,” he added, squinting, and pinching the air to demonstrate the actual life-size of the tiny berries. While the weather was primarily “warm, sunny, dry, and almost frost free,” the vines received “a bit of rain just as they were getting tired.”
Eric let out a heaving sigh, mimicking the relief of the grapes.
Try those `07s once they hit the bottle, and you just might be sighing yourself. Especially since the situation isn’t likely to repeat anytime soon, unless mother nature is feeling particularly generous.
On Friday, March 6, the vintners of the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail quietly, and humbly, showed what it was made of. What we have is a very special group of people making wine here in Chester County.
At an intimate gathering in the Penns Woods Winery tasting room, the members of the BVWT presented nearly $7000 in auction proceeds to The Little Rock foundation, which provides resources to help children who are blind or visually impaired. On hand to present the donation to Little Rock were BVWT members Carole Kirkpatrick of Kruetz Creek Vineyards & Winery, Lance Castle of Black Walnut Winery, Sarah Malone of Penns Woods, and Karen Cline (BVWT Administrator).
While the gathering was small, it belied two very striking and important things about the BVWT:
- They could hardly have picked a worthier cause to support. The Little Rock Foundation’s mission is to improve the lives of blind and visually impaired children. This means that that provide early intervention education to parents of those children, and stick with those kids through childhood to early adulthood. As they grow up, the LRF helps those children to build a community, showing them that they are not alone in dealing with their impairments. In other words, the LRF helps to do something miraculous – it helps to give those children back their humanity.
- The members of the BVWT are a real community. In Chester County, PA, you wouldn’t expect a group of wineries to be in cut-throat competition. And – blessedly – they’re not. This is a group of people who are actually looking out for one another, and treating each other as neighbors on a common mission to continually improve the wine that Southeastern PA is capable of producing. Take a trip to wineries in the Napa Valley, and you may find that any mention of their neighboring winemakers elicits an awkward silence and a roll of the eyes. This simply doesn’t happen in the BVWT – hopefully they can keep this Southern PA mojo, as it’s a serious competitive (not to mention karmic) advantage.
To donate or volunteer for the Little Rock Foundation, visit www.tlrf.org.
If you want to visit the wineries on the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail, now is the perfect time – their Barrels on the Brandywine festival (which spans all of the participating wineries) runs throughout the month of March `09.