East Coast Wine on the Rise

Vineyard Overlooking Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes AVA

East Coast wineries are on a roll both in terms of production and the quality of wine being made.  We recently completed several trips along the East Coast in collaboration with the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association and winery associations in each of the states. We came away impressed with the tremendous improvements in the wines being made and the unique styles of those wines.  The East Coast can make cool climate whites at least as good as those on the West Coast. And the reds are lower in alcohol and often more elegant in nature. We’ll be writing about these wines and the diverse growing regions of the East in a series of reports beginning early next year.  For now, see our recommendations for Thanksgiving.

Growth in Numbers

Not only is quality going up, but the number of wineries has been increasing exponentially in almost every state.  The graph shown here is for Pennsylvania, but it looks much the same for New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina. [Note: These data come from the Department of Treasury’s TTB data base.]

The growth in wineries reflects a change in wine culture in the East.  Wine consumption is growing and, more importantly, consumers are increasingly interested in drinking local wines. Their thirst for wine and wine knowledge is reflected in the rapid growth in wine tourism and the high percentage of wine sales made through the tasting room.

Legal Framework

But the wine industry would not have grown had it not been for liberalized wine legislation in state after state.  Until relatively recently most of the states bordering the Atlantic discouraged the wine industry. Until 1981 the establishment of a new winery in New Jersey was effectively prohibited.  But over the past decade legislation has changed in state after state to facilitate the creation of new wineries and to allow them to directly distribute their wines to restaurants and stores.  At the same time, politicians began ignoring wine and instead started promoting it. Virginia was first with its Governor’s Cup annual wine competition, but other states now follow its example by promoting local wine at every opportunity.

Viticulture

Other factors also contribute to the rise of East Coast wine.  Over the past decade or more, wineries have begun to put the focus on the vitis vinifera grapes that originate in Europe rather than the grapes native to North America.  In North Carolina this began with the Biltmore Winery in Asheville planting vinifera in the late 1980s.  One of the largest grape revolutions took place in New York’s Finger Lakes which grew only native American grapes like Catawba or Niagara until the arrival of Konstantin Frank. Today, one only sees vinifera and French hybrid grapes planted on the lake shores.

Growers are also learning where to plant grapes and how to match varieties to terroir. Many of the original vineyards in the East were plantings of convenience.  Farmers who could no longer survive off tobacco or dairy cattle planted grapes instead. Or couples looking for a change of lifestyle would build a home and plant a vineyard in a location for its beautiful views. The original plantings were also often to popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon better suited to a warmer, drier climate. Today, new vineyards are being sited only after careful soil analysis and with the advice of viticulture experts, and growers are replanting with varieties better suited to their terroir.

Winemaking

While there have always been outstanding winemakers in the East like Jim Law and Michael Schapps  in Virginia, Hermann J. Weimer and Morten Hallgren in the Finger Lakes, Dave Collins and Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron in Maryland, and Chuck Jones and Mark Friszolowski in North Carolina, the numbers have grown dramatically.  And the region is beginning to attract young winemakers from all over the world.  Jacques van der Vyver of  Chateau BuDe in Maryland and Stephen Bernard of Keswick in Virginia hail from South Africa. Matthieu Finot of Virginia’s King Family and Louis Barroul of Forge Cellars in the Finger Lakes come from France;  Luca Paschina of Barboursville in Virginia hails from Italy.  Other winemakers come from Germany, Portugal, and, of course, California.

The homegrown winemaking talent is also getting better and better thanks to first rate enology and viticulture training offered at universities and community colleges throughout the East. Even more important, perhaps, is the growing number of agricultural extension agents offering advice on growing grapes and making wine and the viticulture consultants like Lucie Morton and Joyce Rigby and winemaking consultants like Lucien Guillemet and Stéphane Derenoncourt.  In addition, winegrowers have formed their own, often informal groups to exchange ideas and taste wines with the goal of learning from experience to improve winemaking.  Virginia’s recently created Winemakers Research Exchange is an especially noteworthy effort to engage winemakers in practical research to improve grape growing and winemaking.

Climate and Grapes

The climate of the East is, in general, humid with rainfall throughout the growing season. This  puts a premium on grape varieties that have the thick skins and loose clusters that give good disease resistance.  Vinifera varieties like Albariño, Petit Manseng, Vermentino, and Viognier show excellent promise among the whites, and Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are especially promising among the reds. French hybrids like Chardonel, Chambourcin,  Traminette, and Vidal Blanc do especially well and may be the only varieties than can make good wine in a wet year like 2018.

Average GDD in the Finger Lakes

As shown by the graph for the Finger Lakes above, the climate is warming throughout the Atlantic Seaboard as it is everywhere else in the wine world. This presents problems like heavier rainfall and more frequent extreme weather events, but it also extends the growing season. As a result, over time we can expect continued changes in the grape varieties successfully grown as well as changes in where they’re grown.  Jones von Drehle Vineyards in North Carolina already has vineyards at 1600’ in the Yadkin Valley, and others are experimenting with very high altitude vineyards in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  In Pennsylvania, Galen Glen is making excellent cool climate whites at their 1000’ vineyard. Vineyards that are now marginal in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley may become prime sites in the not too distant future.  And one can expect better and better Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes as that region continues to warm.

The Future

All the stars appear to be in alignment for continued improvement in East Coast wine.  In another decade we may very well look back and say there has been a “revolution” in the quality of wines coming from the Atlantic Seaboard. What’s clear at the present is that each state has several outstanding winemakers making world quality wine. At the same time, too  many wineries are still producing wines of mediocre quality. Raising the average quality of wine depends on many factors: enlightened public policies and support on the part of the states; continued strengthening of extension services and university-based viticulture and enology programs;  new investment to increase the supply of high quality grapes and state of the art winemaking facilities; and more retail distribution of wines to increase their visibility in the market and to strengthen incentives to raise quality and value. As indicated above, we think all of these factors are currently moving in the right direction and promise a very bright future for the wines of the East Coast.

 

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