Cheers for Pennsylvania Wines at 2019 PA Sommelier Judgment

2018 was a legendarily wet, challenging year for viticulture, but you’d never know it based on the number of world-class wines that Pennsylvania wineries entered into the 2019 Sommelier Judgment.

“Everyone says it was a difficult vintage,” explains Alexandra Cherniavsky, sommelier at The Love in Philadelphia. “But I haven’t tasted the wines that didn’t get made. The ones that I have had are really extraordinary.”

Many of those extraordinary wines — and some older bottles from 2017 — were honored at the event, a blind-tasting of locally-produced vinifera wines judged by a panel of top sommeliers. The winners were announced on October 21 at Talula’s Daily in Philadelphia.

Galen Glen Winery’s 2018 Riesling took home the event’s top honor: the “Best of State” saber.

“It’s very representative of Riesling from Pennsylvania,” says Galen Glen winemaker Sarah Troxell of the crisp, acidic white. “I like to bottle our white wines cold — as early as January, but typically March and April when it’s still cold in the cellar — so we keep a little of that natural CO2. We don’t handle [the wine] a whole lot. I mean, I’m technically a winemaker but [this Riesling] was made in the vineyard.”

The winner of the award for Best White was another Riesling, this one from Flickerwood Wine Cellars in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

“I was so excited the day that we did the tasting,” recalls Cherniavsky. “The Rieslings were singing that day. The Galen Glen Riesling and the Flickerwood Riesling are very different wines. I think that’s wonderful that Pennsylvania can make wines that are so different from each other from the same grape.”

For the second year in a row, Fero Vineyards and Winery in the Susquehanna Valley took home the award for Best Red, this time with their 2017 Saperavi, a Georgian varietal aged in oak for 18 months.

“Saperavi is a really unusual grape,” says Fero winemaker Chuck Zaleski. “It makes a really beautiful, dark red, very rich, almost warm-climate-type red.”

Fero also placed in the overall top ten with a blend of Lemberger and Pinot Noir.

“Lemberger is our most heavily planted and most productive grape variety,” explains Zaleski. “It’s a good sturdy house red. We blend that one with Pinot Noir. It adds a lot of bright fruit to the blend. Every year the blend changes.”

Fero’s Saperavi was not the only up-and-coming varietal to shine at the tasting. A zippy, aromatic Albariño from Maple Springs Vineyards also wowed the judges.

“I discovered this grape over in Barcelona, where they pair it with cockles and shellfish,” recalls Marianne Lieberman of Maple Springs Vineyard. “My wife and I fell in love with it. It’s grown in the north of Portugal and Galicia in Spain where it’s cold, humid, damp, and grows in rock. Our vineyard is incredibly rocky. My little brain said, ‘Ding, Ding, Ding.’ I just put in three more rows. I can’t produce enough — it just goes out the door. Zahav [winner of a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant] has been serving our Albariño since the very first bottle.”

The event crowd included sommeliers, wine writers, restauranteurs, and other tastemakers, and everyone had their own favorite.

“The Vynecrest 39 is my favorite wine here,” says Robin Shreeves, wine columnist at the Courier-Post. “I just think it’s a fabulous blend and I would put it up against similar wines from lots of different places.”

As Vynecrest Vineyard & Winery’s Jim Hutchings explains, the number represents the harvest.

“This is the 39th time we harvested grapes from our vineyard,” he says. “This particular blend is 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Lemberger, 10% Merlot, and 10% Chambourcin. I think it really showcases East Coast red wine — Cabernet Franc is the dominant grape and it has aged beautifully. It’s the best of what our vineyard produces.”

The only rosé on the top ten list came from Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery in Chester County. The irony is that this impressive wine, made from Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, was the result of improvisation. As mentioned above, 2018 was a tough year for red wine grapes in southeastern Pennsylvania — epic rainfall prevented fruit from ripening properly. Winemaker Virginia Mitchell decided to pivot and use the grapes in a zippy rosé.

“My rosé is in that Provencal style,” explains Mitchell. “Really light in color, really bright acidity. It’s a great food pairing wine.”

“Galer is a very elegant, sophisticated winery,” enthuses Jon Medlinsky, owner of Martha, a Philly bar with an emphasis on local wine. “They make beautiful wine. At Martha, we do local wines and natural wines. When we first started, [our wine list] was like 50 percent local. Over the years, things have gotten better in PA winemaking, but also I’ve also gone to more places and been exposed to more wines. Now it’s like 70 percent. I’m really pushing to get to 90 percent.”

He’ll certainly have plenty to choose from. If preliminary reports are any indication, the 2019 harvest is shaping up to be a special one. The panel will have a tough job at Pennsylvania Sommelier Judgment 2020.

“Pretty much across the board, everyone has been very excited about the grapes and what’s been happening so far with early fermentation,” says Cherniavsky. “I’m really interested to see what the 2019 wines taste like.”

Here’s a complete list of the winners:

Best in State

Galen Glen Vineyard & Winery 2018 Riesling (Andreas, PA)

Best Red

Fero Vineyards & Winery 2017 Saperavi (Lewisburg, PA)

Best White

Flickerwood Wine Cellars 2017 Riesling (Kane, PA)

Top Wines of the 2019 PA Sommelier Judgment 

(listed in alphabetical order)

Chaddsford Winery 2017 Cabernet Franc (Chadds Ford, PA)

Fero Vineyards & Winery NV 1812 (Red Blend) (Lewisburg, PA)

Galen Glen Vineyard & Winery 2018 Cabernet Franc, Stone Cellars (Andreas, PA)

Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery 2018 Rosé (Kennett Square, PA)

Maple Springs Vineyard 2018 Albariño (Bechtelsville, PA)

Mazza Vineyards 2017 Teroldego (North East, PA)

Vynecrest Vineyards & Winery 2016 #39 (Red Blend) (Breinigsville, PA)

Wayvine Winery & Vineyard 2016 Carmine (Nottingham, PA)

Honorable Mention Wines of the 2019 PA Sommelier Judgment

(listed in alphabetical order)

Galen Glen Vineyard & Winery 2017 Grüner Veltliner (Andreas, PA)

Grace Winery 2017 Dragonfly (Red Blend) (Glen Mills, PA)

Grace Winery 2017 Pinot Gris (Glen Mills, PA)

Grandview Vineyard 2016 Merlot (Mount Joy, PA)

Karamoor Estate Winery 2015 Cabernet Franc (Fort Washington, PA)

Karamoor Estate Winery 2016 Chardonnay (Fort Washington, PA)

Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery 2017 Cabernet Franc (Centre Hall, PA)

Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery 2018 Rosé (Centre Hall, PA)

Penns Woods Winery 2018 Rosé (Chadds Ford, PA)

Presque Isle Wine Cellars 2018 Grüner Veltliner (North East, PA)

Shade Mountain Winery 2016 Lemberger (Middleburg, PA)

Stony Run Winery 2017 Brut Sparkling Wine (Kempton, PA)

Stony Run Winery 2017 Viognier (Kempton, PA)

Tolino Vineyards 2017 Cabernet Franc (Bangor, PA)

Vynecrest Vineyards & Winery 2017 Riesling (Breinigsville, PA)

2019 PA Sommelier Judgment Tasting Panel

Alexandra Cherniavsky, The Love

Ashley Peters, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse

Bryant Fennel, Vintage Wine Bar / The Noble Grape

Chris Marcus, Philadelphia Country Club

Dave Snyder, Fond

Ed Dimarzio, Fork

Heather Curtis, Final Cut Steakhouse and Hollywood Casino

Jamie Rubin, Southwark

Jill Davis, The Four Seasons Hotel

Jill Weber, Jet Wine Bar

John Danley, Del Frisco’s Grille

Keith Wallace, The Wine School of Philadelphia

Kevin Hess, Village Bar + Kitchen

Len Boris, White Dog Café

Michele Konopi, The Four Seasons Hotel

Nicolas DiMeglio, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse

Rebecca Sollisi, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse

Robin Shreeves, Wine Columnist, Courier Post

Ryan Bogden, Seasons 52

Sande Friedman, Di Bruno Bros.

Scott Zoccolillo, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse

Steve Wildy, Vetri Family Restaurants 

Wes Satterwhite, Final Cut Steakhouse and Hollywood Casino