A Taste of the Wine Trail

By Melanie Gold

Depending on the weather, April frequently marks the time when the Lehigh Valley’s winegrape vineyards awaken from their winter slumber. Warmer, lengthening days inspire vines to “break bud,” producing leaves, then flowers, and eventually grapes. The annual harvest results in dozens of locally produced wines – many of them state, national and international award winners – making viticulture among the fastest growing forms of agriculture in the commonwealth, and the Lehigh Valley the fastest growing wine-producing region in Pennsylvania.

A Brief History

Many of the first grape vineyards in the Valley were planted in the early 1970s, after the Limited Winery Act of 1968 legalized commercial winemaking within the state. The first commercial winery, Pennsylvania Vine Company, was created by an act of legislature almost 200 years earlier and produced six barrels in its inaugural year. French-born Peter Legaux had brought vines from Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux, but despite his best efforts and financial backing from men such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Rush, his wine company failed. By the time Legaux died in 1827, his winery was defunct and his 200-plus-acre property was saved from sheriff’s sale only by his son-in-law.

But Pennsylvania’s wine history dates back even further, to founder William Penn, who, it is said, planted the first European grapes in Philadelphia. Of course, the area already had an abundance of sweet native grapes, though these were relegated primarily to juicing, not winemaking. Ironically, it was the sweet, humble native American grape that saved the dry, dignified European varieties when continental vineyards nearly went belly up.

In the late 1800s, a deadly vine pest destroyed many of the vineyards in Europe. So many landowners never recovered financially from the natural disaster, but a two-pronged approach rescued the grapes. First, pest- and disease-resistant native American plants were grafted to some of the surviving European species. In addition, Euro-American hybrid grapes were bred. One of those hybrids, Chambourcin, a French-American crossbreed from the 1960s, is the “official” wine grape of the Lehigh Valley. It is the only grape grown by all eight members of the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail (see callout).

Federal Recognition

In April 2008 the local wine industry got a boost when the federal Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau designated the Lehigh Valley region as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA. To qualify for an AVA, a region has to show that it has “delimited” and “distinguishing” features, such as a particular climate and soil that renders the wine with certain flavor characteristics. From the website of Amoré Vineyards & Winery, a wine producer in Bath, labeling allows “vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and…consumers to [better] identify the wines they purchase.”

John Landis, owner of Vynecrest Vineyards and Winery in Breinigsville, describes Lehigh Valley soil in part as “shaley limestone” that is less acidic, good for growing certain European grapes, such as Riesling and Pinot Grigio.

By using at least 85 percent of locally grown grapes in their wines, Lehigh Valley winemakers in the AVA are permitted to sell wines that say “Lehigh Valley” on their labels, as opposed to the generic “Product of Pennsylvania,” which could contain a very small percentage of locally grown grapes. The Lehigh Valley AVA encompasses portions of Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Schuylkill, Carbon, and Monroe counties and is the twenty-third largest AVA in the nation.

According to Dallas Drummond, manager of Blue Mountain Vineyard, the AVA designation is “crucial to the development of the Lehigh Valley wine region, as it is a hallmark of the highest quality of wine making. It has helped immensely with tourism. [Other] states are finally starting to hear about the wonderful wines coming out of our region. I think it also helps all industries in the area as more people get to see what a wonderful area we have, and that there is so much to do!”

Robust Agriculture

Perhaps because of its size, Pennsylvania usually ranks in the top five to seven spots in terms of number of wineries, number of grape-growing acres, and volume of wine produced. The top states tend to be California, Washington, Oregon, and New York. Since 2002, the number of Pennsylvania vineyards has grown by 50 percent.

“With experience, the quality of [Lehigh Valley] wine…has improved to the point that we have become competitive with other great wine-growing regions,” says Landis. “This has happened over a period of thirty years, which is relatively short for a wine-region development.”

“Our soil, elevation and location combine to create an extraordinary microclimate, characterized by dry summers and long, cool autumns perfect for ripening wine grapes,” says Sarah Troxell of Galen Glen Vineyard and Winery in Andreas, Schuylkill County. During the Wine in Bloom event in May, which celebrates the establishment of the AVA, visitors can take advantage of Galen Glen’s informative walking tours, taste Franklin Hill’s new Thin lower-calorie wine, learn about the best food to pair with Big Creek Winery’s wines, and other activities across the wine trail.

“The region is rich with shale and limestone, very similar to that of the Loire Valley in France, which allows the region to produce “old world” style wines,” says Drummond. “Most people think cold is our biggest problem, but, typically, it is rain, such as the heavy amounts of rain we got from Hurricane Irene in 2011. If we have a fairly dry late summer and early fall generally we can be pretty consistent.”

“We’re selling to a greater diversity of people,” says Landis. “More people now drink wine than beer. Typically, we’re selling wines to people who live no more than two hours away. That’s 20 to 30 million people. We’ve doubled production in the past five years. When you produce something that people like and is healthy for them, that’s something you can feel good about.”

Upcoming Events

May 18-19 – Wine in Bloom: Wine producers celebrate the AVA designation and the importance of soil in the development of the grapes.

July 27-28 – Wine on the Mountain: Ticketed wine festival at Penn’s Peak, Jim Thorpe, includes wine samplings in a commemorative glass, along with panoramic views, live music, and a local-artisan market.

September 14-15 – The Butcher, the Baker and the Winemaker: During the harvest, wineries partner with manufacturers of other Pennsylvania products to showcase their high level of quality.

October 19-20 – Chambourcin Weekend: Post-harvest event focuses on the “official wine grape of the Lehigh Valley,” the Chambourcin.

November 16-17 – Nouveau Weekend: This is the earliest chance to sample the first vintages of the new harvest and purchase wines for the upcoming holiday season

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