Pennsylvania's Signature Wine?

Cabernet Franc, Grüner Veltliner and Viognier are contenders

by Linda Jones McKee
Herbert Zillinger Grüner Veltliner Stargazers Vineyard
Herbert Zillinger, third generation winemaker at his family's winery in Austria, talked about growing Grüner Veltliner at Stargazers Vineyard in Coatesville, Pa.
West Chester, Pa. -- Oregon is known for its Pinot Noir wines, Missouri for its Norton, and New York for its Riesling. So far, Pennsylvania hasn't come up with a "signature" variety, in spite of having almost 150 wineries and thousands of acres of grapes. Last week two organizations -- the Pennsylvania Quality Assurance Group and the Pennsylvania Winegrowers Association -- joined forces and started a program to look at several grape varieties that both grow well in the state's cool, humid climate and make excellent wine.

Grapegrowers and winemakers spent two days, Aug. 11 and 12, listening to lectures, looking at a local vineyard, tasting wines and, most importantly, sharing their experiences with growing and making different wine varieties. The formal program focused on Cabernet Franc and Grüner Veltliner.

Considered to be more winter hardy and a more consistent ripener than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Cabernet Franc has been the topic of numerous seminars and tastings in the past two decades. The early plantings were vines from California, and the widely planted clone CA2 proved to be both overly vigorous and susceptible to leafroll virus.

Long a proponent of achieving complexity in wine by planting different clones in the vineyard, Lucie Morton, a Virginia ampelographer and viticulturist, advocated planting several clones of Cabernet Franc on different rootstocks based on 1-meter spacing of the vines, establishing two trunks per vine and using cane pruning to help with disease management.

Recognizing clonal differences in the vineyard, however, is extremely difficult. "It's hard enough to identify the correct variety, let alone the clone," Morton pointed out. She recommended three European clones of Cabernet Franc as being superior for Eastern vineyards: 214, known for its fruity flavors, currently is the most popular clone; 327, slightly less vigorous and less fruity in flavor; and 623, which has dark fruit and some spicy flavors.

Two Virginians talked about their experiences with these three clones. Jim Benefiel, a grower whose Benevino Vineyards is located in Winchester, Va., planted 10 of his 12 acres with Cabernet Franc clones and put them on Geneva double curtain trellising in order to get the fruit high up on the vine. He shoot thins, pulls laterals, and in 2009 has had to hedge for the first time. His yield has averaged about 4.5 tons/acre.

Adam McTaggart, winemaker at Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Va., has 5.6 acres of Cabernet Franc, with 3.5 acres in clone 214 and the remainder divided between 623 and 327. The 214 vines are vigorous but manageable, with hedging on his site. He thins the clusters on the vine's laterals because, "These are Christmas clusters -- that's when they tend to ripen," McTaggart reported.

The wine from 214 has been consistent during three vintages, with dark fruit and anise on the nose and strawberry, fruity flavors on the palate. He has made wine only once, in 2008, from the other two clones.

Another problem with Cabernet Franc has been the presence of green aromas and flavors, and according to Justin Scheiner, these herbaceous flavors come mostly from methoxypyrazines. Scheiner, Gavin Sacks and Justine Vanden Heuvel have studied the problem at Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.

"The best predictor of methoxypyrazines or MP in a wine is the presence of MP in the grapes in the vineyard," Scheiner said, "and this is especially true in red wines such as Cabernet Franc." While there are various techniques that can be used in the winery, such as thermovinification, use of activated charcoal, oak aging and microoxygenation, the most successful way to solve the problem is in the vineyard.

The Cornell researchers did studies across New York state at 10 different Cabernet Franc vineyards in an attempt to identify the factors that correlate with MP concentration. According to Scheiner, "We have found that yield per vine is not the important factor. Most important is the balance of the vine and the cluster light exposure."

Grüner Veltliner
Grüner Veltliner grapes at Stargazers Vineyard.
While Cabernet Franc has been grown in Pennsylvania for many years, Grüner Veltliner is a newcomer, with very limited acreage currently planted in Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the mid-Atlantic region. For expertise, the PQA looked to Austria. According to Herbert Zillinger, third-generation winemaker at Weingut Herbert Zillinger in Ebenthal, Austria, one-third of the acreage of vineyards in Austria is planted with Grüner Veltliner. Austrian winemakers use Grüner Veltliner -- or G.V., as it is sometimes called -- to produce a range of styles of wine, from light, young wines, to more complex and full-bodied wines, and even sweet dessert wines. The wines often have a spicy aroma and good acidity.

The clones Zillinger prefers in Austria, G.V. clones KR 1-1 to 1-5, are not available currently in the United States. His site in Ebelthal is high in lime, and on those soils he finds SO4 to be the best rootstock. The row spacing is 2.7 to 2.8-meters, and there is 80cm between vines. The climate in Austria is somewhat milder than in Pennsylvania: Vines start to grow in early April, and grapes are machine harvested in late October or early November.

Zillinger leaf pulls after bloom and hedges two or three times, depending on the season. In late June he will do a green harvest, as he has found that if yields are too high, there will be more chance for G.V. to have a problem with ATA (atypical aging). He has noted some weather changes in the past few years, with more hard rains, severe storms and hail causing problems in the vineyard.

He allows the G.V. fruit to hang until late October or early November before harvesting, in order to get more ripeness in the grapes. The sugar doesn't go up, but the petioles turn brown and overall ripeness improves. By mid-October, temperatures are too cool for Botrytis to be a problem.

Four G.V. wines from Austria were tasted during the course of the conference. The first, a Buchegger 2007 Holzgasse, represented the light, somewhat simple style of wine. It had melon and tropical fruit flavors, but an acidic finish. The second wine, a Birgit Eichinger 2007 Hasel from Kamptal, Austria, was smoother, with more complexity, some spice and better balance.

Of the two wines Zillinger brought from Austria, one was a 2008 Spätb Grüner Veltliner that tasted more like a Sauvignon Blanc than a G.V. It had a grapefruity nose, was somewhat sharp on the taste, and as Zillinger noted, "had no terroir, no depth of fruit." However, the wine he had made, the Herbert Zillinger 2008 Ebenthaler Lagen, was an excellent example of the potential for Grüner Veltliner. It had a fruity aroma of melons and peaches, followed by complex fruit flavors and a hint of spice.
The grapes were harvested between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, and Zillinger used a combination of hyperoxidation, flotation and fermentation using a Champagne yeast at about 18°-19°C. He believes in a "minimalist approach" and did not rack until right before bottling.

Three East Coast Grüner Veltliners also were tasted -- one from Pennsylvania and two from Maryland. The 2008 G.V. from Galen Glen Vineyard and Winery in Andreas had an apple-y aroma followed in the mouth with pleasant fruity flavors of apples and melons. It had a hint of the grassiness of a Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a slightly spicy finish.

According to Galen Troxell, owner of Galen Glen, their site north of Allentown in northeastern Pennsylvania is relatively cool. In 2004, he planted 700 vines of G.V. with 6 feet between vines, and now gets 3.5 to 4 tons per acre. He picked early in October last fall, when the grapes were at 21° Brix and 5.5 gr/L acid. Troxell said, "After this conference, I think I will now let G.V. hang a bit longer to get better aromatic ripeness."

The two G.V. wines from Maryland were from Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy. The 2007 was Ed Boyce's first vintage of Grüner Veltliner. It was picked Sept. 10 at 23° Brix. The wine was made in the light style, slightly apple-y and somewhat simple. It did have a mellowness that probably came from the fact that Boyce stored the wine in neutral oak during the winter. The second wine, a G.V. from 2008, was picked Sept. 4, remained six to eight hours on the skins and was pressed and then fermented at a warmer temperature than in 2007. The resulting wine was more like the 2008 Spätb from Austria, and it had more of the characteristics of a Sauvignon Blanc, with a pink grapefruit aroma and citrusy flavors.

If Grüner Veltliner has possibilities for becoming the signature white wine of Pennsylvania, it may have to hold off another contender for the title: Viognier. We tasted two outstanding Viogniers at this event: a 2007 Viognier from Veritas Winery in Afton, Va., and a 2008 Viognier from Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland.

The Veritas Viognier was one of the nicest I have ever tasted. Somewhat light in color, it had fresh peaches on the nose that followed in the peaches and apricot flavors that filled the mouth. The finish was quite long and smooth -- truly a delightful wine.

The Black Ankle Viognier had a tropical fruit aroma that followed through in the flavors and in a spicy finish. Boyce is aiming for a style similar to that of Condrieu in the Rhône Valley, and certainly this was a lovely wine. As a variety, Viognier may present some problems to growers. "It can be a problem in the vineyard -- Viognier likes to grow any which way but up," Boyce noted. Viognier can also be low in acid and variable in its yield from year to year.

It obviously is much too soon to determine which of these aromatic white wines may become the preferred variety. But it's not too soon to say that both have excellent potential. More acreage of Grüner Veltliner needs to be planted, and it would be an advantage if some of the preferred clones from Austria were available in this country. At present, the only clone is University of California, Davis, clone 1.

More time also is needed to evaluate the "new" clones of Cabernet Franc. We know that Cabernet Franc in the East can make a very good, even excellent, wine, and that as the vines get to be closer to 10 years old, the herbaceous flavors in the wine diminish. It may be that as the plantings of clones 214, 327 and 623 mature, wines made from those vines will put Pennsylvania on the world map for making super premium wines.

The Pennsylvania Quality Assurance Group is an organization of Pennsylvania wineries that want to promote the vinifera wines produced by its members. According to John Weygandt, owner of Stargazers Vineyard and president of PQA, the focus of the group is on quality and education. More information is available at pqawines.com. Richard Blair, owner of Blair Vineyards in Mertzville, is the president of the Pennsylvania Winegrowers Association.
Posted on 08.19.2009 - 10:34:39 PST
I did not attend the Gruner, Cab F workshop and so do not have the benefit of those presentations but it is my experience that the most complex and enduring red wine we grow in this region, with minimal manipulation in the cellar, is Barbera. As I get to know Cab F I see it has potential but regret every year the necessary acidulations.
42 vintages
Chadds Ford, PA USA