I’d like to report on a day trip Allen and I took on 10/10/18 to this quaint town in North “Western” PA.
It was that time of the year when wine making regions exhibit a flurry of activity. The work in the vineyards throughout a year is ready to yield its fruits. And soon the fermenters will get filled up with the precious grape juice to produce that miracle of nature and civilization that we call wine.
I could not resist the temptation and took one day of vacation to visit the obvious choice for a Pittsburgher: North East, PA, past Erie in the south shore of the lake.
For planning your trip and the wineries to visit I used the following brochure: http://www.lakeeriewinecountry.org/LEWC_brochure2018.pdf
I was also able to tempt my friend Allen who kindly decided to join me in the day-long adventure. The first thing Allen asked when he got into the car was: So, what appointments do we have, and which vintners we are going to visit? Well, I said, I just drew this map that I copied from the screen of my computer. We'll see when we get there. Allen seemed sufficiently satisfied with the answer and entertained me with his interesting conversation the rest of the trip as we headed north towards, ... Welch's country.
This was the past, and still the present and future, of this town. Who has not fed on Welch’s jelly in a peanut butter sandwich at school at break time? Or, for people like me that did not have that privilege, with a spoon directly from the jar?
As we proceeded through the main square we headed East. Very intense Concord grape aroma invaded everything. It was cloying, filling, saturating - delicious and at the same time intoxicating. I felt like a bee!
And this is what we bumped into:
And there we went!
Trolley Lane Vineyards
In a single lane dirt trail surrounded by vineyards a car came and we pulled off. She passed us and smiled. I went to the vineyards to inspect them.
Clay and sandy soils. North West oriented and slightly sloped, facing the lake which looked like a mirror. This orientation would not make sense in this latitude, but the reflection of the light in the water contributes to grape ripening, and the lake temperature moderating effect helps keep the vines alive during winter.
The scenery was so beautiful and peaceful. Bucolic. I wished I could be there for hours reading a book under the tree.
Then she showed up walking. She was the owner. Debbie was her name and she told us this story:
After a trip in the labyrinth of dirt trails, some of them dangerously muddy, we found route 20 across the street from Arundel.
Owned by father, brother, brother’s wife’s parents and another relative I can’t remember. They also craft beer. They grow Catawba, Niagara and Concord and buy the rest.
Riesling 2016: Perfumes of daisies, chamomile tea, green apple and green pear. In mouth it was aqueous and semi-sweet (they said semi-dry) with more pear revealing itself above other flavors.
Traminette 2016: Honeysuckly, membrillo (quince paste), apple compote. Needles of sweetness hit my tongue and palate as the wine traveled through the mouth. It tasted to me very much like Gewurstraminer.
Vignoles 2016: Citrusy, kiwi and a smell of humidity. Semi-sweet.
Vidal 2016: Generic white wine. Correct but could not get much out of it. Some herbal notes. Reminded me, saving the distance, of some vin de table Grenache blanc.
Alpha Omega 2012: Aromas of cider, melon, moist countryside, apple, mint and clover. Buttery. Only wine we found made with Viognier. Delicious. The best wine we had from Arundel. We wanted to buy a bottle but they do not sell it. See Allen explaining why:
Allen had tried wine from this area only once about 30 years ago (Johnson Estates in NY). I had done it in a couple of occasions 9 and 10 years ago while helping Sally take Spanish kids to Niagara Falls in a program she ran with Europa Plus. Allen and I were greatly surprised by the improvement. And here we went to the next one:
Dave was very informative and seemed to look for the region as a whole, not just their business. He told us that there are 23 wineries in the 45 mile stretch encompassing 30,000 acres of planted vineyards. The largest in the US outside of California. We later inferred that Arrowhead sells juice and ferments it for some others in the area. They grew some of their grapes but also bought from Trolley and others. They agree with the growers the time to pick the grapes. If the growers want to pick them and the purchaser tells them to wait, and some hale or rain destruct the harvest, the grower will come back after them. Interesting balance between achieving the greatest potential and risk management. A complex network or commercial relationships where lines between cooperation and competition get blurry. And all benefit if the region’s reputation improves.
Noiret: Really GR3. Yes, you read well: GR3!!! Cornell’s and Penn State’s departments of agriculture are creating hybrids. They combine American vitis labrusca (not suitable for fine wine) with French hybrids (created by growers in this region for the last couple of centuries), with vitis vinifera varietals (Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.) in search for the vines that will survive in the cold weather and short ripening season with the characteristics of fine classic wines. Out of all those, Noiret was my favorite.
Bianca: Blend of Riesling, Traminer and Vignole. Only 0.05% of residual sugar. They seemed very proud of this wine at Arrowhead.
Naked Chardonnay: Unoaked. Herbal aromas, mint, green apples. In mouth it was the second driest white I had in the trip. Salty, crisp and acidic.
Chardonnay: Oaked, Burgundy style. Lots of legs in the glass. Little aroma. Vanilla and cake tastes.
Niagara: White wine with strong Concord grapes aroma. Taste of green jelly beans (never tasted it before in a wine!), pepper and bitterness. Sweet! Sort of a disconcerting mix. But we are open to expanding our horizons. It cannot be always our favorite Pinot.
Cabernet Franc: Raspberry, red plum, pepper. Typical. Good. Apparently a French visitor commented ironically that in France this varietal was only used as a minority component in some blends. That did not sit well with them and they keep telling the story with certain disdain.
Concord: Expected Concord grape aromas and flavor. I thought it was well crafted. Could improve with some barrel aging in my opinion.
And we decided to go to lunch to recover some strength. Debbie had recommended Freeport Tavern, or the more sophisticated Skunk & Goat Tavern. We sat at Freeport but it looked like a very plain place with hamburgers and sandwiches and we left before ordering. The Skunk & Goat Tavern is in the town’s square, nicely decorated, with finely-crafted modern American fare, in the place of a former bank.
Allen had a plate of unconvincing mussels with a local Grüner Vetliner that was fine, dry but nothing special. I had a good Reuben sandwich with unsweetened ice tea since I had to drive and leave room for other tastings.
In the afternoon we chatted with a couple that had been impressed with the home-smoked ham and homemade sausage at the Freeport Tavern. Well, … maybe next time.
Lakeview Wine Cellars
Uphill from Arrowhead. Trail amongst vines in all directions. Higher elevation than the rest. I was hoping to see the differences between these wines and the ones from lower fields. However, they only grow Concord, and it had a blight. The grapes had fallen to the ground. They tasted great! Becky told us that they were in good condition, but impossible to pick.
Lakeview purchases the grapes for its wines. The fermenting and aging room is minimal. Basically a producer of “garage wines”. Becky’s husband, Sam, was a former postman who invested his savings and some bank loans in this place. Against all odds they are surviving as a little guy. When we tasted their wines we understood why. There is some passion, art and dedication in here. And I loved the very long counter with samples of earth from places around the World, including a lot of beaches, each with their tag, and all made possible by their friends and customers. Something I loved was that Lakeview’s tasting sheet showed the vintage. We did not see that in most other places. And that confirmed what we suspected.
Noiret 2015: Aged for 20 months in oak. 0% residual sugar. Dense and bold. Black pepper. It reminded me of a Tempanillo from Ribera del Duero. AWARDS: Ricardo’s favorite for the entire tour.
Traminette: 1.5% residual sugar. Honeysuckle, lemon and orange rind, Cointreau, apple and white melon. Complex and elegant. AWARDS: Best white Ricardo had in the tour.
Riesling 2017: I was not impressed by this one. But I am not a Riesling fan.
Sherry: Allen loved this one. Debbie explained us how a wine got inadvertedly oxidized and, instead of disposing it, Sam decided to make Sherry out of it. It appeared and tasted to me as a Oloroso. Amber color and nutty.
South Shore Wine Cellars
What a beautiful place! Cellar built in 1860 underground. The tasting room is also “tastefully” done. It invites interesting conversations. And there is some mysterious atmosphere about it. Would the very fine lady behind the counter be a vampire?
They belong to the same company as Mazza, one of the biggest vintners.
Traminette: Clearly a typical Gewurstraminer but Allen said too sweet, so that, definitively too sweet for me.
Noiret: The aroma was the same as the Lakeview’s, but the color, the body and also the taste were thinner. I think the one that Lakeview got was more extracted during the pressing process and contained more tannins.
Carmine: Blend of Carignan and Cab from Susquehanna. Peppery, red fruits (possibly raspberry). The tannins were like in no other wine I have had, some polished, some dusty and even grainy. I felt like drinking suspended powder. A possible explanation of this duality could be the strange bend of varietals.
Several things I could say as trip report conclusions:
· Wines here have improved a lot, although they have serious “terrain” constraints (specially the cold temperature and short maturing season) in order to play at the same level as California.
· If you are bored of the omnipresent Cab, Merlot, Pinot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot and want to expand your tasting horizons, come here. Be open minded, though. And be ready for some sweetness.
· Other than Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, is there a better thing to do on a Fall day 2 hours away from Pittsburgh.