Pennsylvania's Pinot Noir & Cabernet Franc

pinot noir in pa pennsylvania wine

As fall arrives and transforms the landscape, the change to the cooler season may also influence the wines you drink. That doesn’t mean that you’ll put away the Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño or stop buying a rosé, but red wines may be the better pairing as the evenings lengthen, the

temperature drops, and the fireplace gets lit. Pennsylvania wineries make a variety of red wines to sample, whether it is a companion for your evening meal, something to sip as you get cozy with a new book, or check in on the latest episode from your favorite show.

Some of the grapes growing across the Commonwealth may be familiar – traditional Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot – and are being made into a single variety or red blends. Pinot Noir, a traditional Burgundy grape also has found a very comfortable home in Pennsylvania.  

All make delicious red wines, some lighter with less oak that bring out the best in a vegetarian meal and others darker with more tannins that pair perfectly with veal and steak. All are reds you can drink now or store for a few years if you care to provide a few more years to the aging that those reds already have received. Overall, the list of high-quality reds that you can sample in the tasting room or purchase at your favorite restaurant continues to grow, by producers from Philadelphia north to Allentown and west to Erie. Well-known to consumers, these varieties are being embraced by Pennsylvania Winemakers and made into wines that could match up quite well against similar wines from across the U.S. and the world. 

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is the world’s most popular light-bodied red wine. Consumers love it for its complex flavors of red fruit (cherries), floral (rose petals), earthiness and spice aromas followed by a long, smooth finish. 

An estimated 270,000 acres of Pinot Noir is planted worldwide, making it the fifth most-planted red grape in the world, even while having a reputation as a cooler-climate grape that can be more susceptible than others to disease and provide yields that fall below expectations.

Richard Blair, Owner and Winemaker of Setter Ridge Vineyards in Kutztown, Berks County has turned Pinot Noir into a signature wine. “I fell in love with the Burgundy side of Pinot Noir on July 9, 1983! A premier cru Chambolle Musigny 1976,” he says, noting that he spent years assessing why it “works so well in Burgundy and not so well” elsewhere. In 1998, he planted 3 acres at his home, he said. The first two vintages were nice – no rot, high sugar levels. I thought everyone was just picking on Pinot because they could not grow it, and [then] 2003 and 2004 came – wet and cold and no Pinot to make into Pinot Noir. Then the learning really started, and it has been a journey ever since.“ 

The good years outweigh the bad, “but not by much,” he says. Still, “once you taste a really nice Pinot Noir, you know you are close to the Holy Grail.” That’s because the wine pairs well with so many foods given its high acidity and lower tannins. Pinot Noir pairs especially well with duck, chicken, pork, and mushrooms. 

Cabernet Franc

Meanwhile, no red wine has found a higher profile or won more medals for wineries across Pennsylvania than Cabernet Franc. In the most recent of the Sommelier Judgment competitions that have been taking place since 2016, the Cabernet Franc from Armstrong Valley Winery in Halifax, north of Harrisburg, was selected as the best red. This blind tasting competition of Pennsylvania wines from grapes grown in the state is judged by sommeliers, beverage directors and other notable industry representatives from the region’s top wine programs. 

Cabernet Franc is the parent grape of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which helps explain the complex reds made from it, with aromas of raspberry, bramble, and green bell pepper (pyrazines). Here, like elsewhere, wine drinkers will find it included in Bordeaux-style red blends that are medium- to full-bodied with aromas of black currant, plums, and earthy notes of wet gravel or pencil lead. With more frequency now, producers are choosing it as a variety to produce on its own. 

Kevin Robinson began his career working at several wineries in northern California before coming east in 2011 to join a relatively new venture called Karamoor Estate Winery outside Philly. It has won a mix of regional and national awards for its Cab Franc, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. “I have found that the Cabernet Franc, grown in southeastern Pennsylvania, to be some of the best in fruit concentration, but more importantly, the suppleness and roundness of the tannins as well,” he says. “Our growing conditions here are more akin to Bordeaux and the Loire, where the climate seems to mirror our own with sporadic rain and humidity throughout the growing and ripening periods.”

If you haven’t tried a Pennsylvania Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc, it’s time. There’s no better reason than the onset of fall to give several a try.

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