A Perspective of the Pennsylvania Wine Industry

Joe Roberts, national wine blogger, discusses PA wine quality as of the 2012 vintage year, how to enhance quality over time, and insights for the future.
A Perspective of the Pennsylvania Wine Industry - Articles


In August 2012, Joe Roberts, 1WineDude.com national wine blogger visited with several Pennsylvania winemakers and tasted Pennsylvania wines produced with Pennsylvania-grown grapes from around the state. Joe was enthusiastic about the quality of the wines tasted and featured several selections on his Twitter feed during the 2012 year (@1WineDude).

However, Joe also raised several points of interest with regards to Pennsylvania wines. Joe is exposed regularly to the international wine industry and has years of experience in communicating wine quality to the mass market of U.S. wine consumers in the U.S. The following article relates some of Joe's perceptions and suggestions pertaining to how Pennsylvania wines relate to the national market.

Prevalence of "Herbal" (e.g. dried herbs) and "Savory" Characteristics in [vinifera] Red Wines

Many of the red wines tasted during Joe's visit were Vitis vinifera or hybrid varieties. Some red varieties, including many of the V. vinifera red wines contain herbal and savory characteristics that are common in Old World style wines. However, the market today is used to New World style wines that are often fruit forward in their aromatic profile.

It is important to note that these Old World-associated flavors tend to dominate the aroma profile over the fruit-based aromas that are more commonly expressed as red fruit, cassis, berry, plum, and jammy aromas. Most of Joe's tasting notes described many of the red wines as having "black currant" and "balsamic" aromas. Although these descriptors indicate "fruitiness," Joe said that it doesn't overpower or outlast the herbal/savory characteristics.

Whether or not this is a "problem" is a matter of perspective. On one hand, Joe primarily reviews wines that appeal to the mass American market. One can speculate that this market has created a high demand for fruit-driven, low acid, and soft red wines. This has become known as the "international style," and is well accepted by many wine enthusiasts, writers, and critics.

However, on the other hand, Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region are poised to embrace the fact that their wines are different, and may be able to "bridge the gap between fruity (what [consumers] know) and savory (what Old World styled wines do well)." One place Pennsylvania producers can benefit is to act as an intermediate between traditional Old World wines, like those produced in Bordeaux, and traditional New World wines produced in California. The Old World style, after all, does have some advantages including the fact that Pennsylvania-grown and produced wines are local and are ideal food pairing wines.

Additionally, the aromas and flavors associated with Pennsylvania-produced wines is also an expression of the local terroir, which has not yet been well defined. Red wines are not being described as herbaceous or green, which is the description associated with unripe grapes. Instead, "herbal" and "savory" flavors documented in these tastings offer expression of young, ripe red wines when produced in this region.

However, it is recommended that wineries understand that many wine consumers expect or want fruit-driven wines. It is up to individual wineries to educate consumers on why a Merlot produced in Pennsylvania tastes differently than a Merlot produced in California, Chile, or Bordeaux. Tasting room staff should be aware of these differences and focus on wine styles that may appeal to consumers, as opposed to generalizing by varietal name.

How to Make an "International Style" Wine in PA

It is not necessary to make an "international style" wine. However, if this is of interest to the business, it is important to become familiar with what those wines taste like and how production can be altered to create this style.

  1. Taste wines accepted as having the "international style." This may include many familiar wine brands including Mondavi, Kendall Jackson, and Yellow Tail. These wines are traditional New World in style: low acid, fruit forward in aroma and flavor, soft and easy-drinking mouthfeel, and typically have a higher alcohol.
  2. Use the ripest fruit (not just in Brix content, but also in terms of the grapes' flavor) for these wines. Berry Sensory techniques may help winemakers determine picking times.
  3. Experiment with yeast selections as some yeasts have better reliability in making "fruit forward" characters during primary fermentation.
  4. Tannin additions may be desirable to alter mouthfeel, enhance red fruit characteristics, or minimize herbaceous-associated aromas. Always conduct bench trials first.
  5. Wine mouthfeel may be softened with inactivated yeast or polysaccharide additions. Always conduct bench trials first.
  6. The use of rotary fermenters may help alter the sensory perceptions of wines produced from Pennsylvania-grown grapes.
  7. Consider blending up to 25% of west coast fruit in the wine and creating a wine specific to meet the "international style" flavor profile. These wines would have to be labeled as "American," but can offer marketing options for the winery.

In general, having a plan for the winery's wine portfolio is recommended to avoid duplicating efforts and to enhance production efficiency.

The Quality Differential Among Wines Produced in Pennsylvania is too Great

Emerging regions suffer most from quality differentiation amongst wine processing facilities and inconsistent wine quality each vintage year. However, this is a challenge affiliated with every wine region in the world.

Pennsylvania will have vintage-to-vintage variation given the annual climate and variation in annual weather. Some years may produce better wines than other years. However, to Joe's point, the mass American market is familiar with consistency.

Consumers also tend to base their perception of the entire industry on the few (or one) tasting room they visited. This can be a dangerous practice when the overall reputation of the region is unknown. Joe recommended that for wineries that want to build their own individual reputation, as well as the state's reputation, the focus of the industry must continue to be based on improving quality.

How to Improve Wine Quality at Your Facility

  1. Eliminate flawed wines. There is an age-old myth that if a winemaker adds sugar to the wine, it will hide any flaw. However, sugar does not hide the flaw or enhance the quality of the wine. Sugar additions may help sell the wine, but it does not offer a solution in improving quality. Remember that most wine professionals will know if the wine is flawed, which may not be reflected positively on a wine review.
  2. Educate winemakers and cellar staff in flaw identification, remediation and prevention. There are a series of workshops, including the Wine Quality Improvement (WQI) Short Course and Sensory Defects in Fermented Beverages and Distilled Spirits workshop offered through Penn State Extension that can help educate production personnel.
  3. Enhance one's understanding in wine quality by including weekly tastings in the winery. The best way to understand wine quality is through regular tastings of wines produced all over the world. Enrolling in a wine appreciation program may be beneficial. Additionally, Penn State Extension offers several opportunities for industry members to taste local and internationally renown wines at Regional Meetings and through various workshops.
  4. Make small quality enhancements to your facility and production routinely. Quality enhancements do not have to mean a large investment. Changing things like having bi-annual cleaning days for areas in the facility that are not regularly cleaned can make large quality changes. Improving tasting room operations like providing educational opportunities with employees or only using an open bottle for tastings for up to 2-3 days enhances quality in the eyes of consumers. It is okay for an owner to make a list and tackle improvements over several years.

Minimize Extreme Vintage Variation and Improve Consistency

This recommendation from Joe can be a challenge for Pennsylvania grape growers and winemakers.

One of the beauties of wine is that it reflects the growing season and region in which grapes were grown (terroir). However, some vintage years can offer extreme differences, such as those wines produced in 2010 (hot, dry harvest season) versus 2011 (harvest season filled with hurricanes and tropical storms).

Joe's suggest is, again, developed from the perspective in that many consumers expect consistency in quality. However, many consumers can also be captivated and educated about year-to-year variation.

How to Improve Vintage Consistency

There are several tools in a winemaker's toolbox to help improve consistency, including years in which Mother Nature is inconsistent.

  1. Save wine from each vintage to back blend. Reserving a small volume of your red wines, especially, and then use to blend into the new vintage will help improve consistency over time. However, wine that is reserved needs to be properly treated for preservation. Also, wines that are preserved should be suitable varieties for aging and/or storage.
  2. Do not produce varietally labeled wines (e.g., "Cabernet Sauvignon") during challenging vintage years (like 2011). Use the grapes, instead, for blends or other products in the wine portfolio. The reason for this is because the varietal wine probably has very little sensory qualities that are comparable to what the wine should taste like in the minds of consumers.
  3. Reduce the number of wines produced. Having a large product portfolio (15+ wines) is stressful for the winemaker and emphasizes a lack of focus. Many wine varietals taste similar in terms of style and would offer unique blending options. Minimizing the number of wines on the tasting room sheet also saves on production resources and expands upon creativity of the winemaker.
  4. Consider integration of an "international style" wine. See notes above.

Consider Sweet Wine Quality Standards

Sweet wines offer an economic advantage to many Pennsylvania wineries. However the quality variation in sweet wines is enormous. Joe noted that there are many sweet wines on the mass market and offer "benchmarks" for quality parameters. Remember to avoid having flaws in your wines regardless of whether they are sweet or dry. Joe emphasized that just because a wine is sweet does not mean it is a "non-serious" wine. Consider quality and appeal (i.e., what consumers are looking for) when producing wines of this style.

Also, Joe noted that wineries should consider price associated with their sweet wines and know where they fit in with the national market place. Many sommeliers are now interested or working with Pennsylvania wines and may offer potential solutions for wineries to improve the quality of their sweet wines or how to price them based on the current market.