When one thinks of American wine, it is often our thoughts find us in sunny California, Oregon, and Washington while some of the more outside-the-box drinkers may branch out to include the Finger Lakes, Virginia, and Long Island. America’s wine scene is full of infinite possibilities as well as surprises. Not only does every state now make wine – many are forming considerable industries. Pennsylvania is one such state with a budding wine industry which currently can boast five AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Over 20% of wine production in Pennsylvania comes from the Lehigh Valley.
The Lehigh Valley is located in Eastern Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia and 80 miles from New York City. It is home to three principal historic cities: Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. The traditional bounds of the region are the Poconos to the north, the Delaware River to the east, the boundaries of Berks County and Montgomery County to the southwest, and the boundary with Bucks County to the south. The Lehigh Valley is geographically and geologically part of the Great Appalachian Valley, a region largely made up of limestone that stretches along the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The Lehigh Valley is so named because it is composed of an actual valley that lies between two mountain ranges, Blue Mountain to the north and South Mountain to the south. Commercial viticulture began here in 1974 with three pioneering wineries: Clover Hill, Vynecrest, and Franklin Hill, all still thriving. Now the Lehigh Valley boasts over 30 wineries, and more opening every year. In April 2008, Lehigh Valley was granted its own AVA designation encompassing 1,888 square miles (1,208,320 acres).
The Delaware River creates the eastern border acting as a moderating feature, reducing risk of winter kill and permitting Vitis vinifera (European wine grapes) to thrive in the region. The warm Atlantic Ocean as well as the Chesapeake Bay to the South serve as further moderating factors. The Lehigh Valley is essentially a raised limestone basin with shale (fossil filled sedimentary rock), sandstone, and siltstone soils which are largely free draining, wicking moisture away from the roots, while maintaining water availability during dry periods. The year-round average temperature is 51 degrees F and receives 45.17 inches of annual rainfall, fairly evenly spread over the year. The amount of rainfall means that rarely do wineries have to irrigate in Pennsylvania, but they do struggle with fighting fungal diseases. The Lehigh Valley has four distinct seasons, which typically include humid summers, cold winters, and very short and mild springs and falls. It is often a shorter growing season for grapes which can prove challenging for late-ripening varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet, there are wineries accomplishing what seems the impossible on paper.
Like many newer wine regions, the Lehigh Valley is still trying to define itself and find its own way. However, there are several wineries paving the way to high-quality wine and sparking the thoughts that Lehigh Valley wine region will make its mark on the map. While you can find the usual suspects endemic to Pennsylvania winegrowing since early days such as Baco Noir, Catawba, Cayuga, and Concord, more and more European varietals are being produced including Zweigelt, Sangiovese, Gruner Veltliner, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir.
For some time, Chambourcin, an America-French hybrid, seemed to be the wine that the Lehigh Valley wineries wanted to make the area’s signature grape, for it’s a safe and easy option to grow, with reliable and generous yields and easily vinified, but from my experience usually results in simple wines without particular merit or distinction. It’s a deep colored red wine with a trend towards spicy green and herbal notes. What I have discovered in the past two years is that wineries seem to be veering away from the simpler Chambourcin, or at least limiting its production, and heading more into the complexities of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir varietals. Both grow very well in the Lehigh Valley, creating high-quality, balanced wines capturing the terrior of the Lehigh Valley. Riesling and Chardonnay are also excelling in this cool climate, as well as some Italian varieties, and Gruner Veltliner, a racy white wine, has put one particular winery on the international map.
At a time when the local food movement has inspired many consumers across the nation to, for the first time, consider the wines being made in their own backyards, the Lehigh Valley seems to be exploring the path blazed by the Finger Lakes in New York. There are a handful of small family-owned wineries in the Valley who are gaining national and international recognition for their top-notch wines. They see the opportunity for the Lehigh Valley to be a preeminent cold climate region for wines that are true to an authentic regional style and perceived as being as interesting as any other wine. While the region is quickly gaining recognition for its Cabernet Francs, Pinot Noirs, and Chardonnays in particular, some winemakers assert that there is still much work to be done, especially in bringing other wineries up to a higher quality standard and creating a cohesive regional style. Additionally, they have to work hard to change the stigma that Pennsylvania only creates sweet, cheap wine. While at one time this may have been true, there is a movement towards producing more high-quality European style dry wines and people are taking notice.
There is a great deal of experimentation happening, and while there is still room for improvement, the Lehigh Valley is on the right track at finding what grapes best showcase their unique provenance. The infrastructure seems to be in place, and as the skill of winemaking increases, there is without a doubt a bright future for the Lehigh Valley wine region.
Photo of Hackett Wine vineyard by Kat Collins 2017