Vintage of a Lifetime: Tales from the `07 Barrels at Chaddsford Winery

Vinted on March 16, 2009 binned in Penns Woods, pennsylvania

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.

Ahhhhhhh, indeed.





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