Ahh, fall, the harbinger of winter. For optimists, however, the seasonal change invites expeditions into white-steepled church country to down apple-cider donuts, traipse through pumpkin patches, and photograph Mother Nature’s kaleidoscope of golds, yellows, and reds. Fall brings another annual milestone—harvest; and with it, another reason to head northeast—wine.
New England’s reputation for craft beer and, more recently, the cider renaissance, has overshadowed the area’s surprisingly viable wine industry. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that, in 2011, vineyards and wineries contributed $70.1 million (including 3,260 jobs and $36.7 million in labor income) to the economies of New England, with a 42 percent growth rate in vineyards established between 2002 and 2007, and a 32 percent growth rate in vineyards established during the following five years.
Those who have skied Vermont’s ice-sheathed peaks may wonder how such a frigid environment with beautiful but ephemeral summers can support vineyards. The answer lies in the development of cold-hardy, hybrid grapes. (The same study found that such grapes contributed over $37 million to the New England economy).
"...Vermont and other cold climate regions are breaking new ground in the modern wine world."
Successful breeding of these early-ripening varieties has given New Englanders options to plant white grapes like La Crescent, and red grapes like Marquette and Frontenac. For most of the northern states, the growing season is too short to support Vitis vinifera cultivation (e.g., Pinot Noir and Riesling), plus the vines can’t survive winters that hit below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Alternatively, hybrids, which offer disease resistance through summer rain and humidity, can endure dips to as low as 40 below, and still produce a reliable harvest the following year.
But oenophiles have rarely taken hybrid grapes seriously, long associating them with "foxy" and "musky" flavors, or with a general inability to make exceptional or interesting wine. According to local writer and regional champion Todd Trzaskos, who recently published a book called Wines of Vermont, that’s no longer true.
"These hybrids are derived from a long breeding program that spans many decades. Marquette and La Crescent are the cold-climate grapes that currently get the most attention in latitudes just beyond the Northern terminus of Vitis vinifera, and rightly so because they are interesting vines and the wines they produce are equally intriguing ... These two were only released 10 years ago or so." Trzaskos adds "it’s hard to say what grapes show the most promise because they are already making good wines while the good soils and great sites are only now being explored," but "based on the recognition and accolades so far, Vermont and other cold climate regions are breaking new ground in the modern wine world."
Vermont winemaker Chris Granstrom of Lincoln Peak Vineyard calls Marquette a "grandchild" of Pinot Noir, but with more body. It delivers black cherry and black pepper notes on moderate tannins. La Crescent typically produces aromatic whites with high-acidity, and citrus and stone fruit flavors.
Southern New England states like Connecticut, Rhode Island and the tip of Massachusetts, have had modest success growing Vitis vinifera due to marginally warmer sites. As climate change continues to influence micro-climates around the region, grapes like Riesling may creep into new pockets of northern latitudes.
New England’s Wineries
More than any other, the unlikely state of Vermont currently draws the wine world spotlight as home to the An Unlikely Vineyard, the subject and title of grower, winemaker, and author Deirdre Heekin’s recent book detailing the birth of her farm and tiny winery, La Garagista. Claiming no prior experience, Heekin, also the proprietor of Osteria Pane e Salute, a noted restaurant and wine bar in Woodstock, learned to farm grapes with the care and detail required by committing upfront to a biodynamic ethos.
Heekin’s wines easily sweep away any bias against hybrids; they are transparent, vivid, and pure, with mouthwatering alpine acidity.
Heekin’s wines easily sweep away any bias against hybrids; they are transparent, vivid, and pure, with mouthwatering alpine acidity. The Damejeanne, a blend of Marquette and La Crescent, sang of wild berries, flowers, and crunchy Green Mountain soil. It’s a poster child for the potential of New England wines. Visitors can taste by the limited production wines by the glass at the restaurant or by appointment at the farm.
While Heekin has received a flurry of publicity, she wasn’t the first winemaker in Vermont. In fact, her inspiration to plant grapes derived from a visit to Lincoln Peak Vineyard in New Haven (three miles north of Middlebury). Owner and winemaker Chris Granstrom, who has farmed the Champlain Valley for 30 years, developed a highly respected grapevine nursey and estate wine program with University of Minnesota and Elmer Swenson varieties. His wines reflect a verve analogous to Heekin’s; the 2014 La Crescent suggests a powdered tart-and-sweet lemonhead, plumped mid-palate with ripe pear. Granstrom’s production is also limited; he sells most wine through the tasting room, which is open daily.
With miles of rocky coastline and dense conifer forest, the pine tree state astonishingly boasts enough wineries to create a "trail" and a website dedicated to them. The Maine Winery Guild has 24 members, although the scope of production goes beyond grapes to include fruit wines, distilled spirits, ciders, and more.
Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren, is a particularly interesting project because winemaker Brian Smith uses pre-industrial, low-tech methods to produce natural wine (and cider) and create a self-sustaining, organic farm ecosystem. Though trained in modern oenology from Fresno State University, he chooses, for example, to plow his French-American hybrid vineyards with draft horses and to eschew refrigeration in the winery. Smith buys grapes, too, but his 2-years-on-the-lees, traditional method sparkling called Chaos, uses estate fruit. Visit the farm to taste; it’s open year-round by appointment.
Three wineries clustered around Newport keep the historic seaport’s perpetual flow of tourists busy all year, and cozy fireplaces in preserved colonial buildings make Newport an especially great winter destination. While each winery has a distinct personality, a common theme runs through them: white wines outshine the reds.
... Greenvale Vineyard has preserved a rustic slice of agrarian paradise a few miles outside of Newport.
Family-owned and farmed since 1863, Greenvale Vineyards has preserved a rustic slice of agrarian paradise a few miles outside of Newport. The winery offer daily tastings of its estate wines, supplemented with jazz concerts on Saturdays, in a well-preserved barn. Greenvale just produced its first vintage of Albariño (2014), the wine to watch, as it could prove well-suited to the climate.
Newport Vineyards represents a 180-degree shift in ambition and design. Owners John and Paul Nunes recently completed a multi-million dollar, two-year expansion of their tasting and tank rooms, while incorporating a bakery and deli. In the evening, upscale-casual dining room Brix opens, featuring house wines paired to New-American dishes. Try the crisp, apple-scented ‘In the Buff’ Chardonnay with addictive fried oysters.
Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard sits on a bucolic 163 acres of farmland, 33 of which are planted to vine. A robust summer events calendar fashions regulars out of residents who drop by with blankets to imbibe while listening to music. Many wines are estate; the rest are bolstered with purchased fruit. Once again, whites surpass the reds, the best being the White Lotus, a tame example of a delicately ginger-spiced Gewürztraminer, and the pear and citrus-tinged Siren made from 100 percent Vidal Blanc.
All three wineries form the Rhode Island section of the larger New England Coastal Wine Trail.
Persist along the Coastal Trail, past the Ocean State into Massachusetts, and the first stop will be Westport Rivers. Westport has earned cache with East Coast imbibers because its sparkling brut "RJR" has been served at the White House three times (as bubbles specialists, Westport also make a blanc de blanc and a pét-nat they call "farmer fizz"). The Russell family, who first planted grapes in 1986, now supply fruit to wineries as far as Connecticut. They cultivate 80 acres of vinifera, including Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir, outdoing all other growers in the state.
Although commercial wine production was disallowed until 1978, a slew of wineries now populate the state, 33 of which participate in a "passport" program that challenges tasters to collect ink stamps from all. Wine farms stretching from the border of New York to the Atlantic Ocean near Stonington, cultivate a mix of hybrids and Vitis vinifera, purchase grapes (from nearby states, e.g., MA, and even California), and/or produce fruit wine (from rhubarb to raspberry).
For now, stick to beer, advised the locals polled. Beyond its borders (and apparently within), New Hampshire hasn’t developed a reputation for its wines which come from hyper-local, small-scale operations.