Friday, May 12, 2006

Pennsylvania's farmland paves the way to wine country

Picked this up interesting read about Pennsylvania wine.

Pennsylvnia State's farmland paves the way to wine country
By Michelle Isham
Posted on Fri, May. 05, 2006 on the

Centre County residents know they live in the heart of farm country, but probably few are aware that the county is also on the edge of wine country. Tucked in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania's Upper Susquehanna wine region, there are six wineries within easy driving distance from State College.

On a sunny day in late April, my parents, a couple of friends and I chose three wineries -- Shade Mountain, Brookmere and Mount Nittany -- to make up a mini-tour.

We started by heading east through Penns Valley to Middleburg and to Shade Mountain Winery. Housed in a newly remodeled 19th-century bank barn on a hilltop two and half miles south of Penns Creek, the winery overlooks rolling vineyards. A large deck furnished with tables and chairs made us wish we'd had the foresight to bring bread and cheese to enjoy with a of bottle wine in the late morning sun.

Yes, late morning. Most wineries in the area are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Not knowing how long it would take us to complete our circuit, we left home at 9:15 a.m., and pulled into the Shade Mountain parking lot an hour and 15 minutes later. After poking around the winery store for 20 minutes, we sidled tentatively up to the counter. Fortunately, people who make their living creating wine tend not to be judgmental about sampling in pre-noon hours. We were quickly handed a wine list.

For those just discovering wine, a visit to a winery offers three main advantages over blindly selecting unknown bottles from the liquor store shelf. First, a staff is there tell you about the qualities of each wine and make suggestions. Second, the winemakers can tell you which varieties do best locally and what vintages to look for. For instance, according to Carolyn Zimmerman, who owns Shade Mountain Winery with her husband, Karl, 2005 was an especially good wine year in Pennsylvania. Third, you can sample the wines. Our group fell into two camps -- those who like dry wines and those who prefer semi-dry. The terms dry, semi-dry and sweet refer to the amount of sugar in a wine. In a fully dry wine, such as a Chardonnay, all the sugar from the fruit has been converted to alcohol during the fermentation process.

The winemakers at Shade Mountain and the Brookmere Winery in Belleville, which we visited next, said sweet wines sell especially well locally. The Zimmermans grow 25 varieties of grapes in their 60 acres of vineyards. From that, they bottle 39 varieties of wine for sale, including 11 fruit wines and the intriguing Six Dwarfs Mint Wine, as well as selling grapes to other wineries. My favorite is the Lemberger, a jammy red that falls between dry and semi-dry on the sweetness scale.

"Karl grows all grapes we use in our wine. He's vine to wine, you can kind of control the quality that way," Carolyn said.

From Shade Mountain, we went to Brookmere in picturesque farmlands of the Kishacoquillas Valley. Brookmere is best known for its Frog Hollow white, a sweet grapey wine made from Niagra grapes, but the winery also produces a selection of dry and semi-dry wines including Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Autumn Red and Valley Mist. The winery also produces a few varieties of sparkling wines in small batches. Here we sampled dry and semi-dry wines, settling on the earthy Autumn Red and the crisp Valley Mist.

Wines such as Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc are known as varietals, be-cause they're named for the dominant variety of grape used. In the United States, a wine made with at least 75 percent of one grape variety tends to be named as a varietal. Blends are made up of two or more varieties of grapes. Blends tend to be more creatively named, bearing monikers such as Autumn Red, Tailgate Red or Great White. The Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc and Reisling varieties grow well locally.

We ended our tour on the slopes of Mount Nittany at the Mount Nittany Winery in Centre Hall. Owners Joe and Betty Carol started out as amateur winemakers in 1983. Since then, their vineyard and winery have grown to five acres of vines and a production of 12,500 gallons of wine per year. Our host, Sandy Anderson, joked that as production grows, so does the winery, with Joe building new additions to the building each year.

Because it takes 18 pounds of grapes to get a gallon of juice, Mount Nittany augments its own harvest with grapes purchased from other Pennsylvania vineyards. At Mount Nittany, we tasted dry red wines, favoring the Montage and the smoky Mount Nittany Red.

At the end of the day, as we sipped one of our recently purchased bottles, we unanimously agreed our excursion into Pennsylvania wine country was a complete success. Not only did we pick up some great local wines, we explored a little of the central Pennsylvania countryside and gained some wine knowledge along the way.