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Lehigh Valley (AVA)

New AVA calls to Manhattanites for a Day in the Wine Country

An hour and a half from downtown Manhattan, the Lehigh Valley has always offered country comfort to battle-weary New Yorkers just past the Delaware Water Gap. An attractive and affordable rural getaway whose main attractions were clean air and fireflies, eastern Pennsylvania was a place where you checked your tastevin and your taste buds at the border. No longer.

by Clark Smith
March 9, 2012

The Appalachian ridge lines flanking the Lehigh River in Eastern Pennsylvania cradle a pastoral home for one of America’s newest and most exciting AVAs, now home to nine wineries and at least a handful of the best varietal representations we have discovered anywhere in the United States, and yes, that includes California. August visitors to its free ten-day Musikfest, the nation’s largest, can take a break to visit its charming and personable wineries spread throughout the valley, each with its own rustic charm, and sample a hundred wines they’ll never see at Dean and Deluca.

On January 30th, 2012, our Best-of-Appellation panel, conducted a survey of the current offerings of the region’s nine wineries. The panel included myself, Dick Peterson, the acknowledged Dean of California winemakers, and Brooklyn-based Master of Wine Lisa Granik. Stunned, we found ourselves awarding BOA status to a surprising total of 22 wines, with six wines achieving Double Gold status, which is to say, compelling examples of the region’s capabilities on a global stage for Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and Zweigelt. For a new region, that’s a double hat trick, and if you doubt that these wines are among the best examples on the continent, the bad news is that they can only be shipped to Pennsylvania residents, so I guess you had better charge up your Tesla and go see for yourself.

In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been so surprised. Lehigh Valley is due east of the Lake Erie AVA we have so long admired, ad is warmed in winter by its proximity to the Delaware River and the Atlantic, allowing survival of V. Vinifera and a long growing season to ripen them, while also taking advantage of the long day length of which California, owing to its lower latitude, is deprived. Add to this Pennsylvania’s secret weapon, and you have a recipe for excellence no other spot on the continent can match. “What makes my work easy is that the entire State is sitting on coal strata that provide excellent drainage,” says veteran Pennsylvania State Viticulturalist Mark Chein. “I never have to worry about vines with wet feet, and that extends the growing season at both ends.”

Lehigh’s Winery Rainbow

In your visit to Lehigh Valley, you won’t feel like processed cattle. These are small, personal enterprises, mostly run by the families themselves, and your glass is as likely as not to be filled by the winemaker in person. Each winery has its own distinctive feel and flavor.

At the Valley’s eastern edge, I sat in Franklin Hill’s quaint cellar lapping up tales from Owner Elaine Pivinski and her winemaker Bonnie Pysher , who teamed up after some husband trouble and created their winery in part as a refuge for young women from troubled homes, a role which, 30 years later, the winery still fulfills. Though self-taught, Pysher’s wines have been winning awards from the start, and our panel found much from her wide variety of offerings to admire. Bonnie makes a style which is rich and generous, and she prefers the benefits of unrefrigerated fermentations in order to enhance palate weight and complexity. In describing the winery itself, the personalities of its team, and the wines themselves, the word “colorful” comes constantly to mind. You will enjoy yourself at Franklin Hill, and you will never, ever be bored.

Forty miles due west, Galen Glen Vineyard is yin to Franklin Hill’s yang. The mood here is understated elegance. In this oasis of calm and quiet, you may share a table with a savvy uptown New York sommelier as you drink in a panorama of vine-covered rolling hills against the distant mountains while admiring some of North America’s most elegant and profound whites. Galen Troxell is a master of poise, delicacy and understatement, while his wife Sarah has created a setting to match.

Your soul restored, and now aching now for the sophistication of city life, you now make a beeline for the bustling hamlet of Kutztown, population 5,067. Inside it’s ridiculous hex-tatted quaker barn, you are sure to find the handsome and hip Brad Knapp, a rockstar of Pennsylvania reds. His lean, racy Chardonnay is also a refreshing change of pace form the ponderous Napa offerings.

Comprehensive guidance on planning your excursion to Lehigh Valley is available at http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-region/Lehigh-Valley.html. A complete list of our at Best-Of-Appellation wine selections can be found on the Lehigh Valley AVA page.

Signature or Sell-out?

Now we must speak about Chambourcin. This French-American hybrid, now grown in 56 of the continent’s 311 AVAs and varietally bottled by over 500 of our 8,000 wineries, it is the only variety bottled by all nine Lehigh Valley wineries. The vintners of Lehigh Valley have chosen to hang their hat on this variety as a signature cultivar for their region. Gutsy move. In his insightful article, “Lehigh Valley Coming of Age,” Sommelier Christopher Bates expresses skepticism that this election may reflect commerciality rather than excellence. “I cannot help but suspect that Chambourcin may have been nominated merely as a safe and easy option to grow, with reliable and generous yields and easily vinified, but resulting in simple wines without particular merit and distinction.”

Our panel found substantial grounds to dispute this assertion. While I imagine that Bates’ skepticism echos that of many classically-trained wine experts, a fresh breeze is blowing which may soon turn vinifera prejudice on its ear. The exquisite whites from Vignoles and the wonderfully fragrant, generous and ethereal Chambourcins are leading candidates to overturn the Eurocentric apple cart.

Of the nine wines Lehigh submitted, five were given status, and the Franklin Hills got a Double Gold, as fine an expression of this variety as could be hoped for. To me, Chambourcin delivers with reasonable consistency the velvety, ethereal richness I hope for in great Burgundy and seldom receive. There is no foxiness whatever. I am cuckoo for violets, and the best Chambourcins are packed with deep, heady floral tones.

What makes this result all the more amazing is that 2010 was a terrible year for Chambourcin, a pitiless drought year in which floral aromas were often baked off and some wines fell prey to dry tannins. If Lehigh Valley can do this well in a challenging year, we can’t wait to see what the kinder 2011 vintage will unfold.

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