Philly-area folks with a mind for local eating are well acquainted with heirloom produce from Green Meadow and CreamLine milk from Trickling Springs. But when it comes to locally sourced wines, even the city’s most seasoned sniffers and swirlers feel at a loss when talking Pennsylvania-vinified bottles.
But there is one place in the city that’s doing right by local drinking: Paris Wine Bar, Terry Birch McNally’s jewel-box operation adjacent to Fairmount Avenue’s longstanding London Grill. Open for just less than a year, McNally and former bar manager Cristina Tessaro have created a space that highlights unique-to-our-area vintages. And Paris sets itself apart from the city’s other wine bars not only by offering exclusively Pennsylvania-made wines, but by pouring them on draft.
So many people assume that our home-state wines are nothing but sangria-sweet bottles with silly names like “Nittany Lion red.” Thus, it’s not a big shocker that even the most serious in-state winemakers don’t get the respect they would in other, more well-recognized wine-producing regions.
But there are many out there having a lot of success with cooler-weather varietals like Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer as well as lesser-known grapes like Chambourcin.
In order to give these wines a post-harvest moment in the sun, we invited a trio of the city’s top sommeliers to Paris to taste their way through McNally’s taps. On board was Steve Wildy, beverage director for the Vetri Family; Philippe Suriat, a recent New York import heading up the cellars at Le Bec Fin; and Tim Kweeder, whose passion for natural wines keeps the list at a.kitchen thrilling.
Although the vibes at this living-room-like wine bar are decidedly casual and approachable, getting some serious wine folks into Paris to talk tasting is exactly what McNally is going for.
“I know absolutely nothing about Pennsylvania wine, but that’s probably because I just moved here,” said Suriat. “I need to catch up.” After his first taste of Galen Glen’s Gewürztraminer, he was impressed with the sense of terroir that the wine held, an almost transportative quality.
Wildy noted, “Gewürztraminer is a well-placed choice for Pennsylvania wine growing,” with the Austrian varietal having the ability to stand up to humid summers and not having to worry about harvest-crushing rot.
Moving onto Pinnacle Ridge’s barrel-aged Chardonnay, our tasters were put off by overwhelming oak — clearly this wine was up against the group’s strong preference for the floral, elderberry-nosed Gewürztraminer.
Wildy serves a similarly oaked Chardonnay on tap at Alla Spina, one of two local “slosh-and-go” kegged wines on offer. “The Chardonnay is cool,” he said. “I think it’s one of those ones where they probably sell more chard than anything else. And I think it maybe suffers little bit from that influence, because there’s so much oak on top of it. It’s fresh and bright up front, and if they continued on that path it would be more similar to the Gewürz. But I can see people drinking the hell out of it for sure.”
Suriat worried that “it feels like they try to almost mask something with the oak. There’s a purpose to using the oak to give an identity to the wine that it doesn’t need. After tasting the Gewürz, you realize that they don’t need that — you really feel like where you are with these wines.”
McNally works closely with her cache of local vineyards, so closely that it seems as though they’re her own private labels.
When Burgundy native Suriat asked McNally about her favorite local domaine, she was tickled at his usage of the French for vineyard: “I’m sorry, that’s just so cute. The domaine of Galen Glen!”
McNally loves the sixth-generation farm turned winery not only for its outstanding terrior-driven wines, but for Sarah Troxell, its award-winning female winemaker. (Troxell’s daughter is soon returning to her family’s vineyard, about two hours north of Philly, from studying winemaking in Germany, McNally reports with glee.)
Back at the tasting, the trio moved onto to a curious, little-known varietal. “This is a weird grape. Have you ever heard of Chambourcin?” asked McNally. It’s a hybrid that never really took off in France but has found a home in Pennsylvania.
Wildy showed much familiarity with the wines that these mid-Atlantic varietals produce. “I can imagine these wineries looking at it from some kind of philosophical approach,” he said, “where if you truly want to be local, you grow grapes that are suited for the environment here. This one here is related to Seibel, one of those American grapes. A lot of guys do the American grapes, and there’s only so much you can get from them. They end up being juicy, simple and easy-drinking. But, there’s something really charming about using it as a showcase of what’s grown in the backyard.”
Comparing American and Old World grapes is hardly apples to apples, said Wildy: “There’s definitely less of a connection to French-grape wine. They’re both wine and they’re both alcoholic, but I think there’s a very different profile. It’s great, easy drinking; but it’s hard to compare it to, say, a Bordeaux.”
“Drink what lives here” is the idea behind the wines McNally is pouring at Paris. It’s about that great (and sadly lacking in American wine culture) mentality that local wine falls into the same category as shopping at local farmers’ markets.
McNally has plans to take her Pennsylvania-wine venture a step further by introducing growlers to go, because, as Tessaro would like to think, “If you can go and pick up the makings for a wonderful, locally sourced meal at Headhouse, why not take home a growler of Pennsylvania-grown wine to pair with it?”
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