By Paul Vigna
Sean Comninos, as much as anyone, symbolizes the lofty potential of East Coast winemaking. He’s young, having graduated with highest honors from the Wine School of Philadelphia in 2008. His background is diverse, having studied Marine Biology at the University of the Virgin Islands before traveling throughout Europe.
Finally, he has been enormously successful, joining William Heritage Winery (formerly Heritage Vineyards) in 2009 and developing estate wines of a high enough quality for Heritage to draw New Jersey Winery of the Year accolades in 2011, 2014 and 2015. He highlighted his tenure in late summer 2017 by drawing a 90-point score from Wine Spectator for his 2014 Vintage Brut, the first time a wine made in the state has achieved that standard.
So it’s appropriate that he’ll be part of two “excellence” workshops at the U.S. Wine and Beverage Conference & Trade Show (USBevX) on Feb. 21-22 in Washington, D.C. One of those will focus on Appassimento-style of winemaking, the other on producing rosés. Denise Gardner, the former Penn State Extension enologist who recently left that post to start a wine-consulting business in suburban Philadelphia, will moderate both panels.
Appassimento is an Italian term for drying harvested grapes for a few weeks or up to several months to concentrate the sugars and flavors. A few East Coast wineries have dabbled with the process, including Luca Paschina, of the esteemed Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, and Comninos. Both are on the panel.
“I’m always trying to come up with a new product or way of presenting a wine. I was thinking about making a red dessert wine, and dehydrating [or desiccating] some fruit seemed like a viable option,” Comninos said. “Knowing the Italians had done so for centuries gave me a bit of confidence. We played around with letting some Chambourcin hang on the vine in 2012 [Hurricane Sandy played a role]. We got the fruit pretty dry and the birds didn’t eat it all. The resulting ‘late harvest’ wine was pretty good.”
Comninos said he ended up with about 15 percent alcohol and around 10 percent residual sugar, producing a red dessert wine that drew interest and sales because there wasn’t much to compete against it. “In 2016 I decided to try my hand at drying grapes in our greenhouse, which is conveniently empty in the fall. We were able to dry things more consistently and the resulting dessert wine was/is pretty great [yet to be bottled].”
Gardner said that she and others on her advisory committee at Penn State had been talking about the process for a couple years, At the same time, she learned that several universities in Canada were discussing the process from a concentration perspective and that the Virginia industry also was exploring its potential. For a side of the country that operates with fewer degree days and a shorter growing season than the West Coast, it’s a technique worth studying.
“So one of the things we want to talk about is, when you’re doing this at a winery, there’s a lot of business decisions involved and there’s a lot of mechanics, like how do you manage drying the grapes but also not increasing the microbial content,” she said. “So we’re going to talk about all those things like the challenges, the considerations for styles, what kinds of wine you can create. I think this is new. It’s taking an Old World technique and making it into a new applied utilization, so there’s a lot of unknowns. But there’s also some potential in terms of differentiating wine portfolios, [and] creating a style of wine that can be marketed to a specific group of people.”
At the other end of the spectrum is rosé, which an increasing number of wineries are producing using a variety of grapes and methods. That makes it ripe for a discussion because of the opportunities that exist in how to make it, the overall general improvement in its quality, and because more consumers are buying it at more times of the year.
“More people are producing rosés, especially dry rosés. And I thought it would be a great idea because a lot of people are producing these rosés and the styles are really different,” she said. “I thought it would be a great time to talk about the grape varieties they are using, and how they are producing their rosés.”
One of the best at it is Virginia Mitchell, of Galer Estate Winery, located in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. A former student at Penn State who learned her craft, in part, from Gardner, she has excelled in making rosé. Mitchell’s 2015 vintage won a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.
“I enjoy making rosé because I also like drinking them,” she said simply. “It may seem like a simple wine to produce, but it also poses some challenges.”
Mitchell specializes in two styles of dry rose, including a “pressed” style that’s produced early in the harvest season and what she calls her favorite wine to make.
Comninos said that he, too, presses the fruit from the 50 acres of William Heritage vineyards to achieve the highest quality. While rosé remains largely a summer wine, he noted that interest now spans the full calendar. “I personally feel pretty strongly that rosé has the potential to reach a broader audience,” he said. “I would like to see us dive into canning some rosé for the casual consumer and beach crowd. It lends well to mobility.”
It’s a panel that promises a lively discussion about a wine that, while so many can make it, there are hurdles involved in the production.
“I think what’s really interesting about rosé is that people assume that when you don’t have as great of a ripening year you can automatically put it into rosé,” Gardner said. “The problem with that is that if you don’t get the grapes ripening, then you’re not going to get the flavor development, and you just make really green rosé. I’ve had plenty of rosés in the past where they tasted like green bell pepper. That’s still really important for rosé production.”
Learn more about these sessions at the U.S. Wine and Beverage Expo, Feb. 21-22 in Washington, D.C