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Wines in Eastern United States have a reputation of being very sweet – something like drinking fortified grape juice. We were initially expecting our visit to the Hershey Harrisburg Wine Country to be more of the same. We were not expecting to encounter a developing wine region making forays into robust dry red wines and strong blends harmoniously melding varietals and flavors. In short, we were extremely surprised by what we discovered at the wineries in central PA.
The Wineries of Central PA
Nissley Vineyard & Winery
Set along the hilly banks of the Conoy Creek, the Nissley family has been producing estate bottled wines since 1978. While the patriarch of the family has passed on, the vineyard is still run by his daughters and we were blessed to receive a personal tour from Judy Nissley (a Chicago lawyer turned vintner).
The vineyard produces a strong range of both dry reds and sweet whites with a strong focus on their own vinifera grapes (Merlot). Over 90% of their wine comes from their own vines. The idyllic setting in front of a massive barn is also home to the Music in the Vineyards summer concert series. They are open 7 days a week and can be absolutely packed on weekends.
The notable wine at Nissley was the Vignoles – a 90% Vignoles/10% Cayuga blend. It’s a bit on the sweeter side with a hint of pineapple or peach. We brought a few bottles home and paired it with a roast chicken with root vegetables. We also enjoyed the dryer Vidal Blanc – a 87% Vidal/13% Cayuga blend – a bronze winner at the American Wine Society competition.
Buddy Boy Vineyard & Winery
Buddy Boy specializes in sweet and super sweet wines. It’s location in the Appalachian hills of Perry County looks more like the site of a moonshiner’s still than a vineyard and when you Meet Bill “Buddy Boy” Warner, you’re convinced he must have a still around here somewhere. But the rows of grapes attest to the soil’s unique properties. This is one of the most unique wineries in central PA.
The wines at Buddy Boy are on the sweeter side. They have a grape varietal here that is unique in the world – not found anywhere else (according to the owners and Cornell University). That varietal is used to make the Eye of Newt – a dry red blend. It’s a curious little wine and I’m glad we had a chance to try it.
Buddy Boy also has tasting rooms in a couple of other cities, including their popular weekend tastings in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The Vineyard at Hershey
One of the newer wineries in central PA, The Vineyard at Hershey is not actually at Hershey. It’s not even close. However, that does not diminish its important contributions to wine making in Pennsylvania. The wines made here were some of our favorites from the region. Since being established in 2012, they have burst onto the scene with 40 acres in 14 varietals. They have also added a brewery if hops is your thing.
The standout wine at The Vineyard at Hershey is the Firefly – a bold, full-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Firefly has plum notes and heavy spice tones. We had this at a local restaurant the night before and made sure to purchase a bottle to take home. Also excellent and finding its way home with us was the Unoaked Chardonnay – a dry and buttery Chardonnay with heavy floral notes.
Armstrong Valley Vineyard & Winery
If someone were to ask us what is the most perfect winery in central Pennsylvania, our vote would have to go to Armstrong. The winery revolves around a 200-year old barn where the wines are produced – and a summer concert series brings in visitors. Named for Robert Armstrong who founded the farm in 1769, history is very much alive here at Armstrong. The property has 8 acres in vines.
There are a number of excellent wines at Armstrong. We loved the Vidal Blanc – a light, sweet white wine with pineapple notes. We also loved the Stonehouse – a dry, oaked red with plum and berry notes. Finally, we also liked the Spicy Apple – a fruit wine that is delicious when mulled.
We brought bottles of each home with us. Sadly, when we opened the Armstrong Stonehouse about six months later we were very disappointed – it had turned sour, almost acidic. It occasionally happens that a wine goes bad and we were sad that it happened with one of our favorites from the trip.
Spring Gate Vineyard
On the outskirts of Harrisburg is the sprawling Spring Gate Vineyard. One minute you’re driving by a strip mall and corporate office park, and the next you are transported into a lush vineyard under ancient trees. Spring Gate Vineyard has it all: an old barn for ambiance, a giant events space, a winery, a brewery, a cidery and resident food trucks. Spring Gate is a one-stop relaxation spot. Since opening in 2014, Spring Gate has become an institution in the Hershey-Harrisburg cultural scene.
This isn’t to say that Spring Gate is some kind of gimmick. They’ve got 16 acres of real vines and were started by vintners from Virginia who know what they are doing. Serious wine is happening at Spring Gate. We loved the unoaked chardonnay with a crisp green apple and honeydew finish. The Détente is a beautiful blend of Vidal Blanc and Traminette with peach and elderflower notes.
But the real surprise for us was the unoaked Merlot. We’re not Merlot people, but this one lacked the deep smoky complexion of normal Merlots, while providing a soothing cherry finish. Yes, they do the obligatory Central Pennsylvania wine slushies, but if you overlook that, there’s great wine happening at the Spring Gate Vineyard. And the ciders are absolutely remarkable too!
The Hershey Harrisburg Wine Country is more than a marketing gimmick – it’s an emerging wine region producing some great wine! The wineries in central PA are worth a visit!
Want to know more about wineries in Pennsylvania? Check out Lake Erie Wine Country.
Visiting Hershey Harrisburg Wine Country
Nissley Vinearyds, 140 Vintage Drive, Bainbridge, PA 17502. Hours: Monday-Saturday 10:00-5:00; Sundays 1:00-4:00. Website: www.nissleywine.com
Buddy Boy Winery and Vineyard, 111 Barnett Drive, Duncannon, PA 17020. Hours: Thursday-Friday 10:00-9:00; Saturday 10:00-5:00; Sunday 11:00-5:00. Website: www.buddyboywinery.com
The Vineyard at Hershey, 598 Schoolhouse Road, Middletown, PA 17057.
Hours: Saturday and Sunday 11:00-6:00. Website: vineyardathershey.com
Armstrong Valley Vineyard and Winery, 212 Rutter Road, Halifax, PA 17032. Hours: Monday-Thursday 12:00-6:00; Friday 12:00-9:00; Saturday 11:00-7:00; Sunday 12:00-5:00. Website: www.armstrongvalleywinery.com
Spring Gate Vineyard, 5790 Devonshire Road, Harrisburg, PA 17112. Hours: Wednesdays, 5:00-10:00 p.m.; Thursdays, 3:00-10:00 p.m.; Friday, Noon-11:00 p.m.; Saturday, Noon-11:00 p.m., and Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Website: http://www.springgatevineyard.com/
Accommodations: Check prices on accommodations in the Central PA wine region.
[Update: A prior version of this article included Tamanend Winery, which is now closed.]
We were the guests of the Hershey Harrisburg Wine Country and the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau. All opinions are our own.