Friday, June 20, 2014

Blind taste testing of Lehigh Valley wines by our winery owners proves to be an enlightening experience

Earlier this month the winery owners of our Wine Trail's nine wineries participated in a blind taste test of their own wines as lead by Penn State Extension Enologist Denise Gardner. Read her blog post about the experience here.

Below is her feedback to our winery owners about the blind taste testings and her observations.

"On Monday, June 2nd, winery members of the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail tasted 21 of their wines blind.  This doesn’t quite mean that each person was blindfolded, but that all of the wines and their subsequent labels were hidden from each participant during the tasting.  What’s the purpose of conducting this kind of tasting?

Tasting wines blind, or by numeric codes instead of having awareness of the brand or label, forces the wine drinker to perceive the wine differently. “I wasn’t sure which ones were my wines,” one winemaker exclaimed at the end of the tasting. That could be a bit nerve racking for any winemaker, but it is an essential practice that many in the wine industry undergo regularly to improve their palate, and hence, improve the quality of wines that they produce.

I have to applaud this group of winemakers for taking these steps. It forces the whole group to minimize their bias and focus on each wine holistically. Is it flawed? Should it be sold as a representative of Pennsylvania wine? Do I even like this wine? All questions that I’m sure everyone was thinking during the tasting, including me.

After tasting through all 21 wines with the group, it was definitely an eye-opening experience trying to guess whose wine was whose! Like most of Pennsylvania, an array of wine varieties and styles were presented during the tasting. In the whites, we tasted everything from Vidal Blanc to Chardonnay, oaked and unoaked, some from fairly young vintages and some wines with age.  In the reds, several red hybrid varieties were tasted, with a heavy emphasis on Chambourcin: one of the leading red wine varieties produced in the Lehigh Valley.

With the vast number of different white varieties made in several styles, some of them were a bit difficult to identify blind. However, as a whole, the Chambourcin wines were quite identifiable by their varietal character, or those attributes that are specific to Chambourcin. Such attributes include a deep red color, crisp acidity – quite “zippy,” with light red fruit and herbal flavors, almost reminiscent of oregano and sage from a spice cabinet. Chambourcin is a French-hybrid variety, which grows consistently well in the numerous climatic conditions associated with Pennsylvania. It’s a flexible wine grape, in which the winemaker has a lot of room to create various wine styles using Chambourcin as the base variety.

If you have your doubts on trying dry, red wines from the Lehigh Valley, I would encourage wine drinkers to give them another try. While most wines produced in warm, dry climates like California produce jammy and low-acid wines, these can be challenging to pair with food. However, the brightness in most red wines produced from the Lehigh Valley and other PA wineries is especially food friendly. For example, I enjoy using Chambourcin for meals that include pizza, spaghetti, and ratatouille. Of the few Bordeaux varietals (varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon or their associated blends) that were tasted earlier in June, you can pair these with heavier red meats like steak or even hamburgers made on the grill.  Many also go well with hard cheeses or a creamy, white pasta sauce.

And don’t neglect one of the greatest gems associated with Pennsylvania producers: white wines. These wines come in so many styles from dry to sweet, unoaked to oaky, light aromatics to overly aromatic – and there are so many wonderful ways to enjoy them. Vidal Blanc is a friendly white wine to enjoy while picnicking on a warm, summer day, and the Lehigh Valley has many different styles to choose from.  Gewurztraminer and Riesling, a few aromatically intense varieties we tasted, may seem powerful up front, but this wine pairs beautifully with spicy foods like Thai, Indian, and seafood-based cuisine.

While the objective of our tasting was not to identify food pairings with Lehigh Valley wines, consumers should be aware of the great care each winery is taking to continuously enhance wine quality. These tastings are a small part of quality control practices for wines made in Pennsylvania, and I hope that this wine trail will continue this practice in the years to come."

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