On Monday, October 15 — one of the first nights of the year that truly felt like fall — a buzz was coming from inside Talula’s Daily on Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park. Sommeliers, winemakers, journalists, and wine influencers had gathered to snack on locavore nibbles and sip some of the best wines in the state.
At this casual, chatty event, the ten triumphant wines from the 2018 PA Sommelier Judgment were poured and the overall winners crowned. Nearly 100 wines were submitted by wineries from across Pennsylvania, the wines were rated and ranked by a panel of 14 sommeliers during a blind tasting in September. After sampling the victors and chatting with the proud wineries, it was hard not to feel pretty good about the state of the state’s wine industry.
Scott Zoccolillo, Advanced Sommelier and Wine Director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse and organizer of the event, agrees.
“This year, I saw more variety in varietals,” he says. “Last year, it seemed to be five or six big varietals that came in. This time, there were a lot more. We saw more Albariño, more Grüner Veltliner. Riesling really shined this year.”
That last sentiment is a bit of an understatement: five of the top ten wines chosen by the panel feature the iconic German white varietal. The top Riesling — 2017 Toczko Vineyard Riesling — came from Nimble Hill Vineyard & Winery in the northeastern corner of the state.
“We’re getting a lot of petrol notes out of the wine, a lot of lime and tangerine flavors,” says Nimble Hill vineyard manager Jeff Zick. “Prior to 2015, we always blended [grapes from our Toczko Vineyard] with fruit from a neighboring vineyard, but then we noticed that this fruit was of better quality, so we started making it as its own wine and treating it a little bit differently — colder fermentation, different yeast — and the wines have improved greatly.”
“Last year, there were seven Cabernet Francs in the top 10, so I was surprised to see five Rieslings this year,” adds Zick. “I think Pennsylvania, for the most part, is more of a white wine region, like the Finger Lakes. In our area, it’s very cold — we do a lot better with German-style wines such as Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.”
While Nimble Hill took home a prize for Best White, the overall “Best in State” went to a different white: South Shore Wine Company‘s 2017 Grüner Veltliner. This crisp, dry, aromatic wine had the whole room talking. Located on Lake Erie, South Shore is owned by the Mazza family, who also took home top ten finishes for their Mazza Vineyards 2017 Riesling and their Mazza Vineyards 2016 Teroldego, an Italian red varietal.
“It’s very gratifying,” says founder Bob Mazza of the win. “We’ve met some interesting folks at this event — wine writers, bloggers, restaurateurs, wine-bar owners — so we’ve made a lot of good contacts. My son Mario [Mazza], the oenologist, makes the determination in terms of what he feels are our best wines to submit. Obviously, he made some pretty good choices.”
Like many across the state, Mazza sees a lot of promise in Grüner Veltliner, a white varietal that remains relatively under-the-radar.
“Grüner is a phenomenal variety,” he says. “I think it has so much potential. It’s still a fairly obscure variety — not a lot of people are making it, and those of us that are doing it, and doing it well, are finding great success.”
The award for Best Red went to a mid-state outfit: Fero Vineyards & Winery outside Lewisburg in the Susquehanna Valley. Their Bison Roots Red is made from estate-grown Pinot Noir and aged in French oak for a little over a year.
“Pinot Noir is really hard to grow,” explains Nick Kifolo, head of marketing and distribution at Fero. ” You just don’t get as many days of sun as you do out west, so I think that tends to make the color a little lighter.”
Fruit-forward and complex, Bison Roots Red wowed Alexandra Cherniavsky, a sommelier at The Love in Philadelphia and one of the panelists.
“The thing that I was most impressed by this year were the grapes that did well that I didn’t think would do well in Pennsylvania,” she says. “I was really impressed by the [Fero] Pinot Noir, I really enjoyed the [Mazza] Teroldego, too. I was impressed by the wineries I discovered that are new to me —and really cool — and making really great wines that I might want to bring into the restaurant in the future.”
2018 PA Sommelier Judgment Results:
Best in State: South Shore Wine Company 2017 Grüner Veltliner (Erie County)
Best Red: Fero Vineyards & Winery Bison Roots Red (Union County)
Best White: Nimble Hill Vineyard & Winery 2017 Toczko Vineyards Riesling (Wyoming County)
Additional wines in the top 10 (listed in alphabetical order):
1723 Vineyards 2017 Albariño (Chester County)
Armstrong Valley Vineyards & Winery 2016 Cabernet Franc (Dauphin County)
Armstrong Valley Vineyards & Winery 2017 Riesling
Flickerwood Wine Cellars 2017 Riesling (McKean County)
Mazza Vineyards 2017 Riesling (Erie County)
Mazza Vineyards 2016 Teroldego
Vynecrest Vineyard & Winery 2017 Riesling (Lehigh County)
Honorable Mentions (listed in alphabetical order):
1723 Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Franc
Armstrong Valley Vineyards & Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon
Chaddsford Winery 2015 Petit Verdot (Delaware County)
Grace Winery 2016 1734 Red Blend (Delaware County)
Grandview Vineyards 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Lancaster County)
Greendance Winery 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (Westmoreland County)
Maple Springs Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir (Berks County)
Pinnacle Ridge Winery 2017 Cabernet Franc (Berks County)
Stony Run Winery 2016 Albariño (Berks County)
Stony Run Winery 2016 Sauvignon Blanc