Fall harvest season is one of my favorite times of year. The leaves are changing, and as the cool breeze releases us from the sweaty grip of east coast humidity, we look for ways to participate in the beauty of the season. Some people take leaf gawking drives through the country, or visit apple orchards and pumpkin patches with a hay ride on the side. I, however, luckily remembered that fall harvest season also applies to grapes, and thought our local vineyards and wineries would be buzzing with activity.
My boyfriend and I had been craving a relief from the city’s hectic pace, so a journey to PA wine country seemed like the perfect satiation. We decided on Chester County’s Brandywine Valley, hoping to experience some of the magic of wine making, from vine to wine. The Brandywine Valley is actually part of the Pennsylvania Wine Trail system. There are 6 geographic regions of the state of Pennsylvania that boast their own Wine Trail, where you can buy a pass for tasting at all the vineyards.
After doing some research, we settled on visiting The Black Walnut first. They are a winery – which means no vineyard – and we were hoping to see some winemaking. We also intended to visit Chaddsford winery, the largest in the region, and if time allowed, finish the day off at Kreutz Creek. So we would set off to see some harvest season winemaking, and watch the sunset from a local vineyard.
STOP #1: BLACK WALNUT WINERY
On a sunny mid-October Saturday morning we made our way to Black Walnut Winery, arriving by 11:30 and hoping to beat the crowds, which we did manage successfully but just barely. The building is striking, an old modernized barn with heavy gilded doors. Off to the side there was a patio with clusters of inviting tables and chairs, a great place to enjoy the wine. As we made our way up to the doors I noticed that there were two guys pushing some machinery around in the driveway, and the cellar doors were open revealing an underbelly of giant fermentation tanks. We walked over for a closer look to see (and smell) wine being filtered out of a giant vat and into secondary fermentation.
One of the guys introduced himself as Lance, one of the owners and winemakers there. He was genuinely kind and offered a tour, explaining the winemaking process to our starry-eyed selves. Their story started in 2001 when Lance and his wife Valerie, and their friends Jack and Karen, produced their first crush of 500 pounds of grapes in the backyard. After working with local vineyards over the years to contract grapes, they have grown this labor of love to more than 100 times their first crush with Black Walnut Winery.
After seeing and smelling the perfume of fermented grapes, it was time to taste some wine. Upstairs in the tasting room we met owners Jack and Karen, who gave us a tour of the 198 year old barn that they renovated themselves. You can tell how much sweat and tears they have put into the business when you see their books documenting the restoration of the barn and hear their passion for the experience.
Jack poured our tasting and talked with us about each wine – it is truly an intimate experience to taste wines with the winemakers themselves. Black Walnut makes nine white wines and seven reds, quite a selection for a small young winery. We asked Jack, “what is your best wine”, and he replied: “whichever one you enjoy drinking most”. It is this easygoing and approachable attitude towards enjoying wine that makes a tasting at Black Walnut so much fun. We walked out of there with four bottles of wine, including my favorite, Black Tie Optional, an herbal and earthy blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their off-dry Pinot Gris was just a tad sweet and made me think of pairing with my upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. I also indulged in their Apple wine, because it’s so distinctly Pennsylvanian, and with a light French oaking is absolutely scrumptious and carries a flavor reminiscent of coconut. My other top choice was the Blanc Franc, a barely pink Cabernet Franc that is only left with its skins for 24 hours, and tastes like it was born to be devoured with goat cheese and apples.
STOP #2: CHADDSFORD WINERY
After a brief stop in Kennett Square for lunch – and if you are ever there, check out a little cheese and prepared foods shop called Talulah’s Table – we continued on a beautiful drive of windy roads and horse farms to Chaddsford. I had never had wine from Chaddsford Winery even though they are by far the largest winery in the valley. Producing 25,000 cases annually, they surpass the size of Black Walnut by at least 10 times.
Upon pulling into the lot, this destination’s popularity was overpowering. There were tour buses in the parking lot and every seat on the patio was full, and big groups were gathering for family photos in front of the huge barn that houses the facility. The entrance to the building was packed with people, and we almost missed the small sign pointing to the self guided tour. We opened a small door to an empty wooden catwalk above the fermentation tanks. It seems that we weren’t the only ones who missed the sign for the tour! There was a series of informational signage to take you through the winemaking process step by step along the catwalk, and at this point that we realized their vineyard was not in the same location, and also learned that these esteemed winemakers also buy grapes from their fellow growers across the valley. It was intriguing, but the walkway to the tasting room was crowded, and we had really hoped to see a vineyard, so we bailed out after the tour. I hope to go back and try their wines someday…but it wasn’t happening now. In a mad dash to watch the sunset from a vineyard with a nice bottle of wine, I whipped out my trusty cell phone and started google-ing.
STOP #3: PENNS WOODS WINERY
The google search told me that Penns Woods was quite close, and had a vineyard on the premises, as we headed down another squiggly line of concrete grey painted across a grassy green canvas. It was about 4:30pm by now, and our sunset time was limited. Pulling into the driveway, I saw rows of grapes in the distance, set in stripes down a small hill behind a quaint country house that was residence to the tasting room. Upon closer examination, the vineyard seemed to be fenced in, and closed. We headed into the tasting room, which was petite, with a friendly and clean-cut young gentleman pouring wine tastes to a captivated mini-crowd. There were various medals adorning the wines.
Some information pamphlets near the wine display revealed that the owner of the vineyard, who we had just missed stopping by, was from Abbruzze in Italy, and came from a family tradition of winemaking. I smiled – that’s where Danny & Joe Di Bruno also had their roots. I had a feeling this wine would be excellent! After reading more, I learned that a lot of wineries buy grapes from other vineyards, and this one was no different. They had their winery at another more centralized facility; so once again, the grape growing and winemaking were geographically separated.
For our tasting, we were able to taste 10 wines, bartender’s choice. Some of the highlights of this wine tasting were the Pinot Grigio, Merlot-Chambourcin, and the Meritage Reserve. The Pinot Grigio was oak aged and had notes of tangerine and grapefruit. It made me wish for strawberries and summer cheese. The Merlot-Chambourcin had big flavor, and was the nicest blend with Chambourcin that I have yet to enjoy in my life. I would love to serve it with a big steak smothered in garlic and peppercorns alongside potent roasted root veggies, it’s that kind of wine. Chambourcin is a grape that thrives in Pennsylvania, and most, if not all, of our great state’s wineries produce at least one wine containing this grape. The Meritage Reserve was my favorite wine here, a big Bordeaux style with a complex mix of flavors and a hint of sour cherry.
Upon perusing the list I realized I was out of my league – this wine was expensive. I did appreciate that $1 per bottle is donated to my alma mater, Penn State; Penns Woods supports their agriculture school with each bottle, which made me feel good. I didn’t buy wine here, but the $7 tasting fee was well worth it! After paying our fee, we asked our friendly hosts to take a stroll through the vineyard and were surprisingly denied. The gates are locked. Oh, no! What now? It was getting late and I still had not seen any grapes up close. It was time to whip out that trusty cell phone again for a last possible attempt.
My first thought was Twinbrook, but I knew we were too far away to make it in time. I called Kreutz Creek Vineyard to see how late they were open. I learned later that it was the owner, Jim, who had answered; he said to come on by, we would absolutely get to take our evening stroll. After a brief fist pump, high five, and happy dance, we jumped in the car and sped off.
STOP #4: KREUTZ CREEK VINEYARD
Finally, a vineyard. We stepped out of the car in the driveway of a large, modern house surrounded by acres of groomed grapevines. We could see a farmhouse and tractor in the distance. It felt like I had come home after a long journey. The door of the tasting room led to the basement of the house, which was packed with fermentation tanks and oak barrels around an open floor plan that included high top tables and a bar. This was a welcoming place with a vibe that said, “sit down…stay a while”. Jim told us about his passion for winemaking and caring for the vineyard, and the tasting room in downtown West Chester that his wife was running.
The wine tasting at Kreutz Creek was casual and easygoing, and Jim chatted away with us about each wine, and never once rushed us even though we showed up rudely late for closing time. This tasting had many highlights – I purchased another four bottles of wine here. There’s something about being able to see and smell where the grapes are grown while you are drinking the wine that makes it extra special. The tasting progressed from dry whites to dry reds, then semi-dry, and dessert wine. Here are my highlights: The Stainless Steel Aged Chardonnay was nice and crisp with a pineapple flavor. If you don’t like oaky white wines, this Chardonnay is for you. My favorite reds were the Wickerton Red and the 2006 Kordeaux Reserve, the Kreutz take on Bordeaux, which is velvety and bursting with berry flavor. It’s actually Jim’s favorite. The Wickerton is a blend of the Kordeaux and the Chancellor grape, which adds a savory, spicy and smoky element. The Niagra semi-dry smelled just like Welsh’s grape juice, and with good reason because it is made from the same grape. This wine literally tasted like biting into a perfect Niagra grape. I could drink it on a hot summer day, all day long. Last, but certainly not least, was the Ruby “K” Port. Jim serves up this port with a piece of dark chocolate on the side, and recommends dissolving the chocolate on the tongue, and then sipping the port. “Is that a chocolate covered cherry, or what?!” he stated. It sure was. I was sold, the port was amazing. Jim invited us back for a free open house that he’s hosting, serving chocolate fondue and his port on December 1st from 11am-6pm. Yum!
After thanking Jim for our tasting, and loading up on goodies, we headed out into the vineyard for our sunset stroll. At the end of the vineyard we found a pavilion and a clearing, where Kreutz Creek hosts summer concerts. We sat there facing the fading light, enjoying the afterglow of our tasting. A flock of migrating Canadian Geese passed overhead, and as the sun slipped below the horizon, the earth in West Grove, PA was quiet and lovely. We had succeeded in our hunt to find and enjoy a Pennsylvania harvest season vine-to-wine experience.
List of Resources for enjoying the wines of Pennsylvania: