The following is a guest post from Rich Rocca, a Pittsburgh-area writer who blogs regularly as the Western PA Wine Pirate.
Sweet wines pay the bills. It’s a common refrain heard up and down the East Coast, and throughout our great Commonwealth, even those winemakers awash in awards for dry wines confirm this. Finding that Pennsylvania winery, then, that exclusively produces dry vinifera wines from their own vineyards can prove quite elusive. I myself was beginning to doubt such a place even existed, quite frankly, until a meandering drive through the beautiful Bedford County countryside led me to Briar Valley Vineyards & Winery.
Though both raised on farms – she on dairy, he on quarter horse – Briar Valley owners Tod and Jean Manspeaker found themselves ensconced in the monotony of the business grind when they had what they like to call their “ahhh moment.” A time when they realized that the special occasions in their lives, when things slowed down, became more serene, more special, all revolved around vineyards and wine. So, naturally, they traded their five-a-week 9-5s for seven-day 5-9s.
To make it even tougher on themselves, the Manspeakers eschewed convention, deciding to focus exclusively on vinefra grapes. “We understood the current wisdom to plant hybrids and have a portfolio of sweet wines,” said winemaker Jean. “But that was not our vision. We believe there are a lot of people in PA who like dry vinifera wines and seek them out, so we felt we could do few good dry wines and remain a small producer.”
“Looking back now, perhaps it was a foolish decision,” she continued. “Because it’s been an uphill struggle. But we’ve had some great help from wine consultants in Virginia such as Michael Shaps and Jeanette Smith, and also take inspiration from Jim Law and the great things he is doing at Linden Vineyards. We think we can achieve the same things in PA… It is definitely the road less traveled and, certainly not an easy one. But I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
The Manspeakers’ commitment to excellence requires more manual effort day-to-day, like hand picking leaves to allow more sunlight to reach the fruit, rejecting any grapes that don’t meet their high standards, and often translates to higher-cost options, such as top-of-the-line French oak barrels for aging the wine, but they believe this extra effort is reflected in the final product.
First opened in 2007, Briar Valley started on just 3 acres of Bedford land, but in 2011 they expanded to an additional 15 acres on the former Manspeaker quarter horse farm, and are now producing approximately 2000 cases per year. They corrected any mistakes made in the first vineyard by planting the second on a southeastern facing slope with grape varieties more suited to the slate soil. One such example, the Proprietor’s Reserve Estate White 2013 – a blend of 50% Gewurztraminer, 26% Riesling and 24% Chardonnay – which displays crisp lemon and lime on the palate and a driving minerality on the finish, is a brilliant reflection of said terroir.
Briar Valley’s Chardonnay 2012 also shines in the slate-rich soil, resulting in a nicely structured wine that features notes of apple and citrus. Though brisk, it is not as austere as those bone-dry, puckery California Chards currently en vogue.
The Proprietor’s Rose 2012 also benefits from lively acidity; it’s a dry wine made in the French saignée method, resulting in a beautiful salmon color and traditional pink fruit flavors.
On the dark side, the award-winning 2009 Proprietor’s Red (a Bordeaux blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) is one of the best Pennsylvania reds I have come across. This fruit-forward wine is packed with black cherry and berries and just a hint of French oak, while the tannins and bright acidity blend beautifully into a long smooth finish.
The Cabernet Franc 2010 – perhaps the best way to judge a Pennsylvania winery’s red wine chops – is also excellent. Full bodied with supple tannins, it features Bing cherries and oak spice that’s well-integrated due to the additional bottle aging Jean gives her wines before release.
As I have gotten to know Tod and Jean over two visits to the winery, it is evident that their passion and skill does show through in the wine, and I myself am hopeful that this success will inspire other Western PA winemakers to grow their own dry portfolios.
Briar Valley’s wines are available at the tasting room, as well as their website, briarvalleywinery.com. They are also available at some PA restaurants, including Omni Bedford Springs Resort; The Wooden Angel in Beaver, PA; LeMont in Pittsburgh; Jean Bonnet Tavern; and Golden Eagle Inn and Pub. They also sell their wine on Amazon.