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National successes put Pennsylvania, N.J. wines on the map

Wine competition showcases region's rising success with cold-weather grapes.

An anonymous flight of rieslings, including a winner from Pennsylvania, awaited Craig LaBan at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
An anonymous flight of rieslings, including a winner from Pennsylvania, awaited Craig LaBan at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.Read moreCraig LaBan / File Photograph

CLOVERDALE, Calif. — Inside the dark-curtained booth at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds, 10 anonymous glasses of wine glowed golden at my seat. Could it be? Yes — Rieslings!

It was the first wave of glasses on Day One of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest such event in North America, which gathers 65 expert judges from across the country each January in Sonoma County. We’d be sipping and grading a marathon 400-plus wines over four days — from black-fruited petite sirahs that stain your teeth purple to a tidal wave of cheap chards that make you question the fundamental meaning of wine. A round of sweet-tart Rieslings was a lovely place to start.

With more then 6,800 entrants from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico, these wines, marked only by a coded number tag, could come from anywhere. It’s a truly blind tasting, and, inevitably, there are surprises. What were the chances that my panel’s first sips at the competition still dominated by California wine would bring a little bit of Pennsylvania pride?

“Gold!” “Gold!” my fellow judges and I chimed in agreement as we praised #1277 for the virtues of its floral aroma, its sweet kiss of peach, its golden mineral beam of lemony acidity, and pithy grapefruit finish. Just 10 percent of the wines we tasted earned that rare “double gold” distinction of unanimous approval. It wasn’t until four days later at the competition’s close that I learned this beautiful bottle of Riesling was the 2017 vintage from Presque Isle Wine Cellars in northwest Pennsylvania, near the shore of Lake Erie. It’s a well-distributed wine in the Pennsylvania State Store system ($14.99; PLCB Item #9342).

“I’m kind of a minimalist when it comes to wine-making," Presque Isle winemaker Bob Green said by phone shortly after the competition. "We don’t want to fuss much and simply just let the fruit express itself. But the 2017 vintage was a particularly good one for us because the grapes got very ripe.”

The win for Presque Isle, Pennsylvania’s second-oldest winery, was one of several for local winemakers. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of the half-dozen or so wineries from Pennsylvania and New Jersey that regularly enter the Chronicle competition, a handful have been consistent winners. Two of those players continued their hot streak this year: Fort Washington’s Karamoor, which won gold for its 2016 chardonnay in the competitive $29-$31.99 category, and Sharrott Winery from Blue Anchor in South Jersey’s Outer Coastal Plain, which struck an impressive double gold for its 2016 reserve chardonnay in the $24-26.99 tier and gold for its unoaked 2017 chardonnay in the $16-17.99 category. Sharrott also scored gold with its own nonvintage Riesling in the medium-sweet category. The 2015 vintage of a cabernet franc red blend called Trio from Sharrott also took gold.

Those strong chardonnay performances prove this region can compete on a national level when it comes to a key grape that is familiar to consumers. That’s important to get buyers in the door.

But local winemakers know they must also continue crafting a more distinctive wine identity for this region. And some clues about a potential direction can be drawn from other local winners in the Chronicle competition, which put an emphasis on northern-climate grapes with umlauts and Germanic names. Dornfelder, anyone? Presque Isle’s rendition, another impressive double-gold medal entry, might just open some eyes.

“A lot of places do chardonnay well,” said Scott Quarella of Bellview Winery in Atlantic County’s Landisville, which had the best grüner veltliner in the competition. “Let’s try out something new, because New Jersey really hasn’t found one particular grape variety to hang its hat on yet.”

It’s unlikely any one grape will become the signature in the Mid-Atlantic, because its microclimates vary far too widely: chilly Lake Erie and Lehigh Valley; warmer pockets in Lancaster and the Brandywine Valley; South Jersey’s Outer Coastal Plain, whose maritime conditions have been likened to Bordeaux.

“The right grape is going to be several grapes,” said Dave Williams of the Pennsylvania Wine Society.

But aromatic cold-weather whites like Riesling and grüner veltliner are clearly on the rise. The 2017 grüner from Bellview Winery won a coveted “best in class” designation against a field of Chronicle competitors from Oregon, California, New York’s Finger Lakes, and Chester County’s Galer Estate, whose 2017 took a silver.

“Suffice it to say we’re thrilled,” said Bellview co-owner Quarella, whose parents, Jim and Nancy Quarella, converted the family’s century-old produce farm to grapevines in 2000. “An award of this type against those kind of contenders is really important to us, because it shows New Jersey has the potential to make world-class wine.”

Bellview’s grüner is quite different from the classic Austrian style, not to mention those coming out of the Lehigh Valley, where established grüner producers like Galen Glen show the wine’s typically lean body and stony minerality. Bellview’s rendition, grown at essentially zero elevation in the sandy soil of a former vegetable farm, has an appealing character of its own, with a lusher golden hue and aromas of ripe peach that indicate a slightly balmier climate before drying out nicely on the palate to more familiar grüner form with crunchy green apple acidity, white pepper spice, and a Meyer lemon finish.

For a relatively still young but rapidly growing wine-making community, the early success is as much a learning experience as it is a building block.

“Is it our terroir? The weather that year? A different wine-making style? We just planted these vines in 2013, so the flavors are going to get more complex, and it may take us decades to really nail it down,” Quarella said.

The growing grüner trend has been playing out in state-level contests, too, like the Pennsylvania Wine Society’s annual competition, whose winners were announced in January. A 2017 grüner veltliner from Stony Run in the Lehigh Valley took second place to another aromatic white, Delicioso Sol, made from vidal blanc by Benigna’s Creek just north of Harrisburg.

“We see improvement year after year,” Williams said, adding that there are now around 270 wineries in Pennsylvania. “I see the maturity of the vines they’re working with starting to show.”

Larry Shrawder, who owns Stony Run, says a will to experiment is the key: “Our plan is to basically plant everything and see what does well. And we’ve planted all sorts of grapes. It turns out that albariño [from Galicia in northwest Spain] also does really well. It’s tough in the vineyard, with small little compact clusters and low yield, but it’s one of the most disease-resistant grapes we grow and holds its acidity really well.” Galer’s 2017 albariño earned a solid silver in the Chronicle competition.

Finding red grapes that can thrive consistently in this region’s un-California-like weather is another continuing quest.

“Cabernet sauvignon is so popular, and you can get a high dollar for it," Quarella said. "But it’s not always sustainable here, because it’s a late-harvesting grape. And so we pulled all our cab vines out of the ground in 2014, and we now have over two dozen kinds of grapes in our vineyard.”

Plush and spicy petit verdot has been popular across the region of late; one from Karamoor won gold at the Chronicle competition in 2017. The hybrid chambourcin remains a respectable regional workhorse. Earthy cabernet franc has proved to be the region’s most consistent quality red success, with the same Trio vintage that earned Sharrott a gold in the Chronicle competition also scoring 91 points in the fall from, run by the former Wine Spectator editor.

But the experimentation continues. There’s a version of the historic Georgian grape Saperavi being grown at Fero Vineyards in Lewisburg, which also makes a decent grüner. Bellview also has been making a very nice, dusky rendition of Blaufränkisch, a medium-bodied garnet red from Austria that in Pennsylvania is made more commonly — and quite successfully — under its German name, Lemberger. Quarella is also excited about Bellview’s experiments with reds from northern Italy, taking inspiration, perhaps, from Va La in Chester County, whose unconventional “Avondale Field Blends” from Italian varietals are consistently among the best wines in the region.

As always, though, the Chronicle’s massive blind tasting offered the surprise of new possibilities — like the 2016 Dornfelder that won Presque Isle another unanimous double gold, this one in the “other red” category against a fascinating field of 60 wines ranging from California Charbono and Touriga to several gamay noirs from the Pacific Northwest. This relatively new German variety was created in 1955 as a richer modern antidote to Germany’s reputation for pale, light-bodied reds, intended to be easier to grow than pinot noir (spätburgunder to Germans) and ripen earlier than Blaufränkisch. Since its vineyard introduction in 1979, it has become the second-most commonly grown red-wine grape in Germany.

Presque Isle makes the case that more Dornfelder should be grown here, too, with a beautiful ruby-colored wine that combined the flavors of vibrant cherry fruit and oak-aged notes of sandalwood spice with a bright acidity, medium body, and tannins that makes it a flexible food wine. The same vintage won “best dry red” in the Pennsylvania Winery Association’s 2018 competition.

“It’s like pinot noir without all the fuss of pinot and tends to be bigger and bolder in flavor,” said winemaker Bob Green, who says it ripens early for harvest in September.

The biggest challenge, it seems, is spreading the word about an unfamiliar dry red grape from a pioneer in a state once primarily known (and not in a good way) as a producer of sweet wines.

“Yeah, it’s hard, but we’re kind of used to it,” Green said. “Our grüner was the same way. But now it’s taking off.”

I found convincing proof of that this year in Cloverdale, behind the black curtain in those anonymous rows of numbered glasses.