Grapes can be fickle when it comes to wines. Any vintner worth his or her salt will tell you that what you need to grow great grapes is the proper vine in the right terroir. Wineries in Pennsylvania are making great vintages from the ground up, by learning about the land they’re growing on and planting accordingly.
Pennsylvania’s growing conditions vary greatly across the state, and have a big influence on the wines from each area. Eastern Pennsylvania has low elevations near the Delaware River and the Eastern Coastline. The western part of the state touches the Ohio River Valley and the southern tip of Lake Erie. In the middle are the Appalachian Mountains. And with so many climates across the state, it’s easy to see why many different wine grapes flourish in Pennsylvania.
So which grapes grow well in the Keystone State? In general, white grape varietals enjoy great success. Watch for wines made with Gewürztraminer and Riesling. These vitis vinifera, or European varieties, do well in the southeast’s loamy slopes that offer good sun exposure, drainage and airflow. Hearty and disease-resistant hybrid Vidal Blanc flourishes across all Pennsylvania’s terroir. The same goes for red grape varietals that prefer a shorter growing season, such as vitis vinifera Cabernet Franc and Merlot. French-American hybrids like Dechaunac and Traminette are also becoming popular because of how well they grow in southeastern exposures. Getting out on the wine trail and chatting with local vintners about what they’re growing is the quickest way to find out which local wines you need to taste. Your next favorite could be a sip away!
Beyond elevation and weather, soil also plays a crucial role in grape growing. Drainage, the type of soil and the topography must all be assessed. Pennsylvania’s mix of silt, loam and clay type soils make it diverse. Pennsylvania soils tend to have a higher acidity as well, presenting specific challenges.
When wineries have assessed the land and soil, and picked out the best grape varietals for their area, they still have to plant the vines—and this goes way past “plant in full sun.” Vineyards like Penns Woods Winery in Chadds Ford plant their vines in a north-south orientation with a 10-degree angle. These kinds of exacting specifications create optimal growing conditions for great grapes and superb wine.
It’s this kind of attention to detail that has garnered national and international acclaim at wine competitions. With success comes growth—Pennsylvania now boasts over 200 wineries, with more opening all the time.
Still, it’s important for more wine drinkers to begin to understand the charms of Pennsylvania wines. Gino Razzi, winemaker at Penns Woods Winery, notes, “As an industry, we must classify Pennsylvania wines within their categories like the French do—sort the profiles for the consumer and educate them on the wine that they are tasting—to distinguish the sweet from the dry and everything in between.” As Razzi proposes, classifying Pennsylvania wines will help set expectations for what style is meant to be appreciated, allowing for the true quality of the grapes to shine through.
In addition to highlighting wine profiles for the public, sometimes winemakers have to push past their own palate preferences to coax the best wine from the grapes. As Bonnie Pysher of Franklin Hill Vineyards says, “For every wine I make, there’s somebody who likes it. So I have to do the best job I can to make that the best wine. I think it’s really hard for somebody who really likes dry, robust red wines to make a sweet, fruity Concord that the public likes.” Just as the best restaurants must focus on every plate, wineries must focus on every bottle in their portfolio.
The Pennsylvania Winery Association is a trade association representing more than 100 member wineries and an advocate on behalf of the state’s growing multibillion-dollar wine industry. With some of the most fertile grape-growing land on the East Coast, Pennsylvania ranks fifth nationally in the amount of grapes grown, seventh in wine production, and seventh in the number of licensed wineries. To learn more about Pennsylvania wine or to plan a trip, visit PennsylvaniaWine.com.