Location, Location, Location: How Winemakers Identify the Perfect Spots to Plant

Estate wines are made from grapes grown on a winery’s own property. These wines reflect the terroir of the land — its bumps, soil, and sun — and every vineyard has prime spots: places where the serendipity of geography produces grapes that are a cut above.

Some Pennsylvania wineries are embracing (and bottling!) that phenomenon, giving added attention to wines coming out of their prize “blocks” of the vineyard. Whether it’s by labeling them “reserve” or branding the wines by where they are grown, these winemakers are telling drinkers to take note.

Hoping to tackle terroir on a micro level, we chatted with three PA winery owners about what makes the elite parts of their vineyards so special.

Rock of Ages

Vox Vineti‘s Ed Lazzerini decided he wanted to grow grapes when he was 15 years old on a family trip to Burgundy, France. His dream took 30 years to realize. In the early 2000s, he and his wife were living in Manhattan and looking for land to plant a vineyard.

“We found this incredibly rocky hillside in Andrews Bridge, PA,” he recalls. “We purchased that in 2006 and planted the first three-and-a-half acres — or about 7,000 vines — in 2010.”

The rocky soil means that water drains more easily away from the vines which is especially important in a wet area like Lancaster County. Thirsty vines mean better fruit.

“You really want to induce ‘water stress’ in the vines, especially at certain key times of the growing season,” explains Lazzerini. “If you look at all the great wine growing regions of the world, the one thing you’ll find in common is that they induce water stress, either because they don’t get much rain during the growing season, or they have really steep slopes, or they have very rocky soils.”

“We’ve got the slope, but it’s really the amount of schist that we have in the soil,” he continues. “It really helps the vines focus on fruit maturation.”

The top of the ridge is the prime spot and one that’s home to the winery’s latest ripening varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Nebbiolo. That block earned a special name: the Shatterhammer Block.

“When I was putting in the trellis originally in 2010, I started pounding steel posts into the ground with a standard 15-pound fiberglass sledgehammer,” recalls Lazzerini. “And about 50 posts in, the soils were so rocky up in the top of that hill there, that the handle of the hammer actually shattered.”

A lot of the fruit from that top block goes into Polyphony, the winery’s signature blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. In addition to the name of the winery, the label includes the name of the vineyard — Galloping Cat — as a signal to drinkers that this wine comes from a specific spot, not just a specific region.

A relatively new operation, Vox Vineti has successfully placed its wines in top restaurants in Philadelphia, Lancaster, and West Chester, which has helped lure people to the winery’s tasting room in Christiana, PA. A sample of the rocky soil from the Shatterhammer Block is prominently displayed and Lazzerini is available for vineyard tours on request.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

At the 2018 PA Sommelier Judgement Day, Nimble Hill Vineyard & Winery‘s 2017 Toczko Vineyard Riesling was named the best Riesling in the state (an especially high compliment since five Rieslings were in the top 10 overall). It was an exciting victory for a winery that started out with no vinifera vines at all.

“Early on, everything pointed towards the winters here being too cold for vinifera,” recalls owner Gary Toczko. “That’s a false statement, but it’s taken us this many years to find out. Riesling was the first vinifera I did plant. It was this block.”

As is the case with Vox Vineti, the highest place on the hill — with the best drainage — is the prime spot.

“This particular site has very high acid levels,” says Toczko. “We don’t have a scientific explanation why. We have vineyards that are close-by and they have nowhere near the acids. Riesling loves an acid backbone.”

In 2015, as a way of signaling its revered status, the winery started labeling wines from this specific block as “Tozcko Vineyard Riesling.”

“Out of this block, we’re getting a lot of petrol, a lot of minerality,” explains Vineyard Manager Jeff Zick. “But we’re also getting citrus notes, as well as nectarine and pear. Compared to all of our other blocks and varieties, this one seems to be the most consistent. Every year, we know the profile and flavors we’re going to get.”

When you buy a bottle of Tozcko Vineyard Riesling, every grape comes from that specific place on the hill. Because of that commitment and the consistent high quality, these wines have gained a following with patrons and restaurants.

Nimble Hill has a new vineyard called “Lone Stone Vineyard,” named for the large big rock that sits at the bottom of the field.

“We planted another 1,200 vines on a different field, different slope, different row orientation,” says Tozcko of Lone Stone. “We haven’t gotten any fruit off of it yet. We’re interested to see, just being 500 yards away, what the difference in fruit quality will be. It may become its own brand if it’s just as good or better.”

Since those Riesling vines were planted in 2007, Nimble Hill’s equipment has been updated, their winemaking technique has improved, and their manpower has increased. But maybe there is something — a little bit of magic — to the way that original block was planted, with blood, sweat, and tears.

“If you saw how I planted [Tozcko] vineyard, anybody in their right mind would say, ‘What did you do?'” recalls Tozcko with a laugh. “We drilled very large holes for every single vine. I was on my hands and knees to refill the holes. It was very labor-intensive…Would I do it again like that? Probably not. I’m a little older and a little smarter. But that might just have something to do with [why it’s so good].”

Lay of the Land

1723 Vineyards‘ Ben and Sarah Cody both grew up in farming families but found themselves living in Washington, D.C. (and drinking a lot of wine). They decided to combine their experience and their passion by launching a vineyard and winery.

Hoping to move to Pennsylvania to be closer to family, the couple discovered a piece of land in Chester County with rolling hills and southeastern exposure. Cody called in his friend Dr. Cain Hickey, a native Pennsylvanian and current professor of viticulture at the University of Georgia, to scope out the site.

“We felt like the site had not just potential for making great wine, but the commercial side of it would be good,” recalls Cody. “It was right on Route 896, which is a well-traveled road, and in the middle of a historic village called Kemblesville. The land had previously been slated to become 170 condos and townhomes. People were a lot more excited about getting the vineyard.”

The couple bought the property in November of 2014 and spent the winter getting to know the land intimately.

“I was out there looking,” says Cody. “When it snowed, where did the snow melt first? I knew that for things like Cabernet Sauvignon — with its much later bud break — we needed to focus on the soils that warmed up first. We put in several weather stations to understand how air drained out of the vineyard, so we knew where the cooler spots were, too.”

All that work paid off, especially for more finicky grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, which was planted on a small ridge.

“I’ve got Cabernet Sauvignon that starts to arrive at the same time the [Cabernet] Franc does, which is almost unheard of,” says Cody. “It’s because we picked that side with those warmer soils and the angle intercepts the sunlight just perfectly.”

“Like most of Pennsylvania, [our vineyard] is rolling hills and there are contours in the land,” he continues. “Almost anything that’s higher up on the hills is going to ripen faster and be a little bit higher in terms of sugar because the water drains faster. Our Chambourcin Reserve gets harvested from the top block of our Chambourcin. The Cab Franc we use for our full-bodied red comes from the top of one of the other rises.”

1723 boasts two vineyards: McMaster, where those French reds are planted, and Ford Farm, where their Sauvignon Blanc is grown. The latter faces west. Traditionally, western-facing sites have been viewed as the most advantageous because they catch the afternoon sun. But as part of his Ph.D. thesis, their friend Hickey argued that wine grapes are better off facing east because mid-Atlantic mornings are more likely to be sunny.

“You get all these pop-up showers in the afternoon and it clouds up,” explains Cody. “So your cooler whites and your early-ripening stuff, you plant those to the west. You need full-bodied reds to be facing east. Everybody else is the old Napa Valley mindset — the mornings are foggy and we plant towards the west because that’s where you’re gonna get all the heat. In the afternoon, the ambient air temperature is higher, but once you get to the 70s, the vine doesn’t really care about the ambient air temperature. It needs sunshine!”

The winery’s superstar wine is Petit Verdot. Those vines also sit on a natural rise in the land and face east. According to Cody, the resulting wines exude flavors of blueberry and cocoa; they’re super rustic and tannic, making them not for everyone — but a dream for certain wine drinkers.

Cody recently planted more Petit Verdot and is hoping this new block will be just as special.

“I actually pulled some other grapes out to make room for it,” he explains. “We’ll see. It’s also got that eastern-facing slope. On that plot, the rows are planted 22 degrees off of North-South because that’s the angle that the sun comes up. It literally gets perfect sunlight exposure.”

For more wineries that grow estate wines, check out PennsylvaniaWine.com.