Western Pennsylvania has more than its share of myths and mysteries. The B-25 that crashed into the Monongahela River near Downtown Pittsburgh but was never found or the reported U.F.O. landing site near Kecksburg are just two of the myths I have heard recounted over the years. None is more intriguing than the one about an elusive Pennsylvania winery that produces vinifera wines in a dry European-style with grapes from their own vineyards. I was beginning to doubt the existence of such a winery when driving through the beautiful Bedford County countryside I saw a signpost up ahead that read “Briar Valley Vineyards & Winery.” This was no mirage it really was the only winery in Pennsylvania to make only vinifera wine from their vineyards of all vinifera grapevines.
Tod and Jean Manspeaker are the owners of Briar Valley with Tod managing the vineyards and Jean the winemaker. To pursue their passion for winemaking Tod packed up his degree in accounting and Jean her M.B.A. and English Lit. degrees and left the 9 to 5, five day a week business world to join the “Glamorous” 5 to 9, seven day a week lifestyle of the winery. This dedication to excellence is reflected in their mission statement ” It’s all about the wine” and it really is, even if it takes handpicking leaves to allow more sunlight to reach the grapes, rejecting any batch of grapes that doesn’t meet their high standards or only using $1000 French Oak Barrels instead of using a lower cost option the wine always comes first. With that goal in mind they planted a second vineyard on the 100 acre farm that Tod’s father purchased in 1950 where he and his family raised quarter horses. Tod said they corrected any mistakes made in the first vineyard by planting the second vineyard on a southeastern facing slope with grape varieties perfect for the slate soil. He laughed and told me the best thing about raising grapes on his father’s old farm was “I have never been bucked off a grapevine!”
The terrior of Briar Valley can be tasted in their Proprietor’s Reserve Estate White 2013. This white is a blend of 50% Gewürztraminer, 26% Riesling and 24% Chardonnay and while it displays crisp citrus flavors what really makes this offering a star is the driving minerality that it draws from the slate-rich soils of Bedford County. This came as no surprise to me because after talking with Tod I found out we are both big fans of the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes, long known for their world-class signature dry-style Riesling. I usually judge a winery by their Cabernet Sauvignon but by default I have to judge Pennsylvania wineries by their Cabernet Franc because Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have proven to be difficult to ripen on the East Coast. I sampled a 2010 Cabernet Franc from Briar Valley and found it to be one of the best Pennsylvania Cab. Franc I have tasted. It has a full-body and supple tannins with flavors of red cherry and oak that has been fleshed out with the extra aging Jean gives her wines before release.
Tod could barely contain his enthusiasm for their newly released 2010 Chardonnay and soon-to-be released 2010 Merlot calling them “Spectacular.” Leading me through the tasting of the following three wines in his tasting room at 107 E. Pitt St. Bedford, Pa. he explained the nuances of each in a way only someone with an intimate knowledge of their production could. The following are my impressions of the wines I sampled that day. 2009 Proprietor’s Red: The award-winning 2009 Proprietor’s Red is one of the best reds grown and made in the state of Pennsylvania. Winemaker Jean Manspeaker has put her own spin on the quintessential Bordeaux blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes to produce a superbly crafted wine. Proprietor’s Rosé 2012: This is a truly dry Rosé made in the French Saignee method which produces the beautiful Rosé color and flavors we have come to expect from this traditional summer wine. Lively acidity and soft tannins combine with the flavors of red fruit to yield a very enjoyable Rosé. Chardonnay 2012: This is a dry Chardonnay but not at all like the bone-dry Chardonnay we have become accustom to from California. This wine has a good balance of acidity combined with a nice structure and the taste of citrus and apple. You can taste the terrior of Briar Valleys slate-rich soil in this Chardonnay.
The Manspeakers are not content to keep what they have learned about growing vinifera grapes and making winemaking to themselves. They have partnered with Juniata College to host the colleges’ enology students at the winery. The couple has been impressed by how intuitively the students understand every step of the winemaking process and their eagerness to learn the intricacies of the craft.
As the public’s taste in wine matures and evolves the Pennsylvania wine industry must continue to improve their products or lose customers to others that do change. Briar Valley Vineyards & Winery has taken a huge step in that direction with an innovative approach to the wine market. I wish them the best of luck but I know luck has very little to do with their success. Their success is built on a foundation of hard work, perseverance and smart planning. For more information go to http://www.briarvalleywinery.com or call 814-623-0900.