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Articles January, 2010

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Pennsylvania Wine: Penns Woods

Gino Razzi is an Italian importer who started, not too long ago (first vintage, 2002), Penns Woods Winery in Pennsylvania. If you are like most people, merely saying "Pennsylvania" turns you off. Yet, this is a winery doing very interesting things, even in its youth. Given that it is mostly producing young vines Pennsylvania wines, the results in that context are quite impressive in a very short time, granting that it is not all the way there as yet. Its best days are ahead of it if Razzi stays the course--meaning that starting a winery, waiting for the vines to age and doing it right is a very expensive task and Pennsylvania wines do not command equally handsome prices.

Razzi's story is the type of story Pennsylvania needs---someone who just decides that fine wines can be made here, and is determined to expend the resources necessary to make them. He is not the only person who has hung a hat in Pennsylvania, but he seems particularly determined and has achieved interesting results already.

Initially, Razzi decided not to make Pennsylvania wines. He was making wines in Italy (Symposium, for instance) and thought that the wines here could not be good enough. After having grapes from some vineyards analyzed, he changed his mind, eventually coming to believe that conditions here were no less favorable than they were, for instance, in Bordeaux. Since then, he has epitomized the old joke: how to make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large one. Yet, to do it right allows no shortcuts. There is a brand new, high tech little winery here. The question is how to pay for it. Pennsylvania vintners always face that dilemma: Low yields, attention to viticulture (he has brought in consultants), French oak (he uses François Frères and Taransaud, among others) and other components of good winemaking are not cheap, but the word "Pennsylvania" on the label limits what the wines can be sold for. The reward for fanaticism is red ink. There is a lot of promise here--if Razzi can sell enough wine with "Pennsylvania" on the label to justify the costs.  Admittedly, some of the prices can be high, and there is a lot of competition in that price range. They are small production wines, at least. There isn't a lot of Ameritage to sell.

Razzi likes to show his wines next to some famous Frenchies, such as '98 Lafite. Having sat through that experiment, I would say his wines, especially the 2005 Ameritage, held up fairly well--although the Lafite was, of course, far older and continually expanding in the glass. It is a useful exercise to examine preconceptions sometimes and measure them against wines everyone concedes are good. Sometimes reputations mean more than they should--both for good and bad.

What has Razzi accomplished so far? First, I love the structure on the wines. Very few Pennsylvanians are made like this. It is a remarkable achievement in a short amount of time from mostly  young vines. On the downside, I think Razzi's wines need a bit more mid-palate concentration to balance out their power, and they tend to be clean and correct but show little complexity. Occasionally, there are odd flavor nuances. In terms of structure and fundamental concepts, he already has the right ideas, though. I will be interested in seeing how his best '05 reds hold up with some age. I tend to think they will not age quite as well as their structure would imply (otherwise I would rate them a bit higher), but as time goes on and the winemaker becomes more comfortable with what he has to work with, I think the quality level is going to rise considerably. The best is yet to come, I think.

Here are some recent releases to look for:

2008 Traminette
I thought this hybrid white wine was delightful. It is not meant to be deep and ageworthy, but it probably exceeds its initial goals. Fruity and spicy, with a  gewurztraminer heritage, it is charming, distinctive and easy going, without much concentration, but with perfect balance, no bitterness and some of that gewurz typicity. This probably charmed me more than it should have, but it is a pleasure to sip. Drink it young. 87 points.

2005 Merlot Reserve
This is pretty classy on Day 1, not as much on Day 2. My first sip was unenlightening. It certainly does not show a lot of concentration. It is, however, refined and graceful, with good structure and intense tannins. While it does not have a lot of mid-palate concentration, it also does not have the lean, hard  demeanor that a lot of Pennsylvania reds develop. It drank decently the next day, the tannins still quite assertive, the fruit, however,  more one dimensional and simple, with a certain cherry pulp nuance that had hints of bubblegum. It was still quite a nice performance from a young, Pennsylvania winery. The tannins will outlive the fruit, so despite the good structure, drink this on the younger side. Those who appreciate structure may lean up on this wine, but I'm not sure it has the mid-palate depth to evolve, and the flavor profile, particularly on Day 2, was slightly eccentric. On the other hand, how many times do we even want to discuss how a Pennsylvania wine shows on Day 2? 85 points.

2005 Cabernet Reserve
The Cabernet is a nice step up on the Merlot, adding a layer of both depth and power. It is nicely focused, with delectable, sweet, cherry-tinged fruit and a bright, refreshing demeanor. It drank beautifully the next day, although as with the Merlot, I think the tannins will outlive the fruit here as its mid-palate depth does not quite balance out the power. While I do not think its balance will allow it to develop long enough to show much complexity in the cellar, it did drink well the next day. It has a backbone that most Pennsylvania reds can only dream about.  Like all the reds here, the flavor profile is just a little different than what you expect--more cherry pulp and roasted rhubarb, rather than classic cassis or the like, but it was more nuanced than with the Merlot. 87 points.

2005 Ameritage Reserve
This is not really a Bordeaux blend. Or, call it a Bordeaux blend with an Italian twist, as it is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese and Carmenere. I loved the structure on this wine, something too few Pennsylvania red wines show. Of the reds, this was my pick of the litter, by a small margin, and it showed the best the next day, too. There are touches of oak, but also lovely fruit and considerable power. This has pretty good depth, and it is focused, tasty and gripping on the finish. As with the other reds, the tannins here are likely to outlive the fruit to some extent, but this has the best balance of the three. There was a hint of ripe, roasted rhubarb as a flavor nuance the next day. It continued to evolve in the glass, even after being open a day, and I will be interested to see how this holds up in a few years. Let's be conservative at the moment. 88 points.

2007 Chardonnay Reserve
This is just lovely, a bit oaky, but crisp, and with a lingering finish. It seems very classy, surprisingly intense, if, like most of the wines here, a bit shy on mid-palate concentration. Still, I think that if Razzi has a big breakthrough here, it will be with this Chardonnay first. 88 points.

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