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Pennsylvania winemaker experiments with area's terroir

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The full moon over the Brandywine Valley bathed Chaddsford Winery in a brilliant glow.

The evening gathered proprietors Eric and Lee Miller with family, friends and colleagues to celebrate 25 years of pioneering Pennsylvania winemaking. Infectious rhythms from samba drummers paced dancers who led the joyful assembly into a decorated tent.

Inside, special older vintages -- such as the 1997 Chaddsford Roth Vineyard Chardonnay and the 1982 Chambourcin Seven Valleys Vineyard -- flowed freely during the walk-around feasting on all-Pennsylvania produce including lamb, mushrooms and artisan cheeses. Noted author and wine educator Kevin Zraly capped the evening with hilarious commentary on wine enjoyment.

Earlier in the day, in the winery's barrel room during a tasting of older vintages and current releases, Eric Miller reflected on the winery's origins and the unique challenges and character of Pennsylvania winemaking. After living in Burgundy, France, as a teen and then working in his father's upstate New York vineyards and winery, Miller wondered in the early 1980s whether eastern Pennsylvania terroir could produce high-quality grapes for world-class table wines.

"I started out knowing almost nothing," Miller said. "The first goal was just to determine if it made sense to make wine in this area."

Some of the Commonwealth's well-established vineyards already included top-drawer venifera varieties -- such as chardonnay and pinot noir -- and outstanding French hybrids -- such as chambourcin -- but Miller discovered that underpaid grape growers were not consistently delivering the top-quality fruit needed to fathom Pennsylvania's true terroir potential.

"With my background, I knew the costs to grow quality fruit," he said. So Miller set about adapting Pennsylvania's grape-growing culture by paying premium prices for excellent quality grapes delivered consistently on a long-term basis.

While slowly "discovering the region's flavors," he came to another realization: "The grape-growing season here is short, but warm," he said. "Grape ripening occurs around the clock, because the temperatures do not cool down enough overnight to stop the ripening."

This critical information motivated Miller to work diligently towards understanding how best to maintain the lively acidity fundamental to retaining complexity, freshness and balance. For example, he altered the winemaking techniques with his flagship chardonnays, including those from his own Miller Estate Vineyard, to use only partial malolactic fermentation to preserve tart malic acid in the wines.

Miller's ever-inquisitive, experimental winemaking bent also led to Chaddsford Due Rossi, a novel blend of barbera and sangiovese.

"I thought it could be pleasant, like some northern Italian reds," he said. "Also, the local terroir reduces barbera's naturally high acidity. Besides, I really love sangiovese flavors, so I gave it a shot."

The results are encouraging.

Pinot noir, Burgundy's signature red wine grape, also has a special place in Miller's esteem. His confident, light touch shines through on the charming and eminently quaffable 2006 Chaddsford 25th Vintage Pennsylvania Pinot Noir (inquire with the winery for availability) and the 2005 Chaddsford Miller Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir, a complex and beguiling world-class wine aged in French oak for smoky black cherry notes, silky tannins and lovely balance.

Aside from premium selections, Chaddsford Winery offers wide-ranging off-dry wines and popular seasonal wines. From the humble beginnings of just 3,000 cases annually, Lee Miller, with the dedicated staff's able assistance, now oversees the business and marketing for more than 30,000 cases annually as Pennsylvania's largest winery.

The winery's popular on-site events feature numerous concerts with blues, rock, soul, big band, jazz and even opera. There is also a big BBQ weekend and regular wine education classes.

Looking forward, experimental plantings on hillside vineyards and comparative trials with winemakers in neighboring states might occur. Also the Millers' son, Eric, is completing an enology degree at the prestigious University of California-Davis program to become possibly a third generation family winemaker, a rarity in the Eastern United States.

In the meantime, enjoy the following wines, available either at the winery or online for in-state shipping:

2005 Chaddsford Proprietors Reserve White ($11.99): Recommended.

• 2005 Chaddsford Pinot Grigio ($16.99): Recommended.

• 2005 Chaddsford Miller Estate Vineyard Chambourcin ($24.99): Robust, spicy red. Highly recommended.

• 2005 Chaddsford Miller Estate Vineyard Chardonnay ($27.99): Recommended.

• 2005 Chaddsford Miller Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir ($34.99): Highly recommended.

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