Summer Wine Touring: Pennsylvania Pinot Noir – Straight & Blended!!

not in Kansas…or California

Lots of folks travel in the Summer and if you are reading this blog then you probably coordinate your travel with wine touring. No matter where you go. tBoW team taster The Field Mouse recently found himself in Pennsylvania “wine country” where he came across a decent Pinot Noir. Earlier this Spring the Krisses reported on a handful of Canadian Pinot Noir wines they tasted in St Lawrence. Of course, tBoW has covered the top Pinot Noir in Malibu several times. What is going on with Pinot Noir? This is supposedly a fickle grape that could not be grown south of Monterey in California. Richard Sanford proved that wrong! Now we are learning of decent examples from…Pennsylvania and Canada? Do not look for Blair Vineyards anytime soon at your favorite LA area wine store!

2008 Blair Vineyards Pinot Noir $18: The Field Mouse provides the report.

Do you know how wine always tastes good at the winery? Then when we buy it, bring it home, open a week or so later, it just isn’t as special as we thought? Well, this was the case for the Pinnacle Ridge Winery in Berks County, Pennsylvania, whose Riesling didn’t taste the same when I opened it a day later in the Crowne Plaza in Towson, Maryland. But, another Quaker State wine hit a home run when we popped a week later.

Blair Vineyards 2008 Pinot Noir, $18 at the tasting bar in Kutztown. The vintner’s wife poured me a Gewurztraminer that was decent, and then the 2008 Reserve Pinot. She said she liked the regular bottling better ($2 less) and uttered the magic cliche – Burgundian, a word almost as overused as Super Tuscan. Well, the wine rocked then – and later. And, it did have the woodsy, ‘shroomy, earthy taste of a nice Beaune. If I lived in Berks County, we’d be well stocked. And a word about the winery, as I’m sure many of you will be in the vicinity. We saw a sign off the main road, and then 3 miles of twisty, turning, hilly roads. Then up to the vineyard, which includes a solid corn field. I mean, we’ve been to many vineyards in several countries, but this tops them them all. Gorgeous. Funny postscript. The winemaker heard me say something about Chambertin. He mentioned a recent wonderful sample of a 1992 Bonnes Mares. I asked which producer made the wine that was still shining despite the off vintage. “I can’t remember. I’m afraid I was under the influence.” Cool place. Great pinot. Two solid mice.

The Field Mouse report hardly slaked our thirst. We needed more so we called Richard Blair and asked him a bunch of questions about his wines and his approach to making wine, including his Three Sisters blend composed of Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

tBoW: Richard Blair releases 5,000 to 6,000 cases annually of which 1800 are Pinot Noir. He describes his winery as mid-level in terms of production of the Lehigh Valley. Richard planted the 30 acres on his own, his background in construction certainly proving useful. Berks County is in the Pennsylvania wine growing region of Lehigh Valley [ed. 150 miles NNW of Philadelphia]. Like so many regional wine growing areas other than California there are grapes grown here that are not vinifera. In Virginia they grow Norton. In the Lehigh Valley the local varietal is Chambourcin. Both are native varietals. Neither is vinifera. We are interested in how the more widely known vinifera varietals are doing in the Lehigh Valley.

tBoW: You said you planted the Pinot Noir in 1998. How did you select clone(s) and where did you get them?

RB: Our original plantings were Dijon clones obtained from Dr. Frank’s in NY. We made mistakes with rootstocks and spacing. Additional plantings came in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2007 with Dijon clones 113, 114, 115, 667 and 777, and Clones 02, 04A and 91 from Vintage and Sunridge nurseries in California.

tBoW: Is Berks County a known winegrowing region in PA? Are there others?

RB: Berks County, and the Lehigh Valley AVA, are high quality growing areas. As with any other area, site selection is important. Topographical features range from 150 to 100 feet above sea level, so there is wide range of climates. Chester and York [ed. lowlands cities to the South and SE] enjoy a warmer season, and make some well-structured wines.

tBoW: My reviewer who tasted your 2008 Pinot Noir said you enjoy Burgundy wines. Your website says one of your wines is “west-coast-style.” Do you have a preference?

RB: I am a Burgundian, or “Berk-gundian”, whichever works! I like the structure and the focus of Burgundy. Although every now and then, the big upfront fruit and the high alcohol of the West Coast is appealing.

tBoW: What are the growing conditions in Berks County that favor Pinot Noir?

RB: We grow Pinot Noir at two locations 10 miles apart at elevations of 750 and 1050 feet, which produce different structure in wines. Just like in every growing area, site selection is important, the soils, slopes, aspect and elevation makes for good wine. Growing Degree Days tend to be 2300 to 2700 at the higher elevations. Rain can be a problem, just like in Oregon, except there is no “timing” to East Coast rains.

tBoW: What kinds of problems does rain create?

RB: We get rain all the time. We have had 8 days already in August. Hurricanes can be the worst. More moisture means we have to spray for powdery mildew using sulfur.

tBoW: Would you say it is harder to be organic on the East Coast?

RB: I would say it is impossible.

tBoW: You have blended Pinot with Cabs! Why? What are the percentages?

RB: We have 8 different clones and make over 60 barrels of Pinot Noir. Most times when we blend the Pinot barrels the press fractions never get added back to Pinot Noir wines. But, they have the structure to work with Cabs and Merlot. It makes an interesting blend at 5% to 10% of the blend.

The proliferation of Pinot Noir is unexpected and fascinating. We have now reported on Pinot Noir producers in Ontario, Pennsylvania and Malibu. We have read recently that decent Pinot Noir is being produced in Idaho and New Mexico. It is hard to say which of these Pinot Noir regions is more surprising. Richard’s statement that organic vineyards are simply not possible given the need to spray for moisture-born threats places the whole organic approach under a different light; even privileged. Wine making in California is certainly glamorous…where practically anything CAN AND WILL BE glamorized. Richard Blair helps us remember that. I can already hear Dotore and IGTY complaining nobody cares about Pennsylvania Pinot Noir since nobody will ever see the wines here or visit there…for any reason. To them I reply your kids are out of college however readers who someday will be looking for the right college for their young ‘uns should consider Kutztown U just because Blair Vineyards and the Lehigh Valley are right there.

In the meantime…who wants to split a case?

Long as we are on the subject of Pinot Noir wines…we have recently tasted several Pinot Noir wines that are new to us from Santa Barbara. The great majority of vintners – as Richard Blair points out – favor a big and lush fruity style. These wines sometimes taste more like Syrah than what we consider to be Pinot Noir. A smaller group of producers are at the opposite pole, favoring lighter weight, lighter color, and subdued fruit. Jim Clendenen evokes the barnyard experience that, domestically, we only get from the Anderson Valley. Expect more coverage on this compelling distinction shortly.

1 Comment

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    mouse says:

    Great interview!

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