Grapes and the Garden State, #winestudio Nov17

New Jersey doesn’t get enough press for its ability to grow grapes, but it should. The history of New Jersey wine is long and storied, beginning in the late 1750s when, per the Garden State Wine Growers Association (GSWGA), “Great Britain’s Royal Society offered £100 to any colonist who would produce red or white wine ‘of acceptable quality,’ meaning the wine was of the same caliber as that being purchased from France,” and colonial New Jersey residents William Alexander and Edward Antill stepped forward to accept the challenge. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, New Jersey producers have faced the same challenges as other cool climate wine regions in eastern North America (cold conditions, humidity, disease pressure, Prohibition, restrictive alcohol laws, etc.), but they’ve come out on top.

Flash forward to the modern-day New Jersey wine industry: According to the GSWGA, New Jersey is home to about 50 wineries and three AVAs (American Viticulture Areas): Warren Hills AVA, Central Delaware Valley AVA, and the Outer Coastal Plain AVA. The combination of Northern New Jersey’s humid mesothermal climate and Southern New Jersey’s breezy, temperature-moderating maritime climate allows for growing many different types of grapes…about a hundred varieties, to be exact. And 250 years of grape growing are paying off in more ways than just delicious flavors: Wine production contributes approximately $30-$40 million annually to the state’s economy.

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of participating in #winestudio’s four-week web-based virtual tasting of New Jersey wines, and we were introduced to some of New Jersey’s premier producers and a selection of sparkling and still wines, including chardonnay, chenin blanc, syrah, and a cabernet sauvignon/petit verdot blend. The online conversation and tastings with the Garden State Wine Growers Association, Unionville Vineyards, Tomasello Winery, William Heritage Winery, and Sharott Winery were definitive proof that we all need to pay more attention to New Jersey as a rising star in North American wine.

Palmaris - TomaselloWeek 1: 2013 Palmaris Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 3rd generation winegrowers, Tomasello Winery in Hammonton, NJ.

The nose is smoky and musky with a perfumy quality; think herbes de Provence with a healthy dose of lavender, lots of black fruit and dark plumminess, and a very subtle spice element from oak. All of these characteristics carry over onto the 13.7% ABV palate, and the oak is more apparent on the tastebuds. Overall, a very nice wine.

Week 2: 2016 Estate Grown Chenin Blanc from 6th generation winegrowers, William Heritage Winery in Richwood, NJ. William Heritage Chenin blanc still wine

The aromas are simply beautiful in this wine: White flowers, peach, and tropical notes abound. The aromas are mirrored on the palate with a flinty character. I wished for a little more acid and mid-palate weight, but the ample residual sugar (10 g/L) was a great foil for our salty/fatty smoked sausage and cruciferous sautéed cabbage dinner pairing, and its sweet notes complemented our buttery sweet potato mash perfectly.

Sharrott ChardonnayWeek 3: 2016 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay from Sharrott Winery in Hammonton, NJ.

This is an American Chardonnay lover’s Chardonnay! There is a bold nose of smoky and spicy oak with lots of butter/diacetyl. Upon sipping, it has a nice weight and texture, with its ripe pear flavors not exhibiting quite as much smoke as its aromas until the finish, where the oak comes in with fresh wood, flint, and smoke characteristics. I’d really love to try Sharrott’s unoaked version of Chardonnay to carry that lovely fresh ripe pear trait to the next level.

Week 4: 2013 Estate Grown and Bottled Pheasant Hill Syrah from Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, NJ.

Unionville Syrah

The nose seemed to be a little bit horsey upon opening this wine, which distracted me from the fruit while swirling and sniffing. However, in time, it seemed to dissipate completely and turn into earth and wet stone aromas. With every sip, I became more entranced with this wine. Tart cherries, cranberries, and a hint of cedar flooded my taste buds, and juicy, mouthwatering acid, silky tannins, and a medium-minus weight made this wine extremely food-friendly. The very subtle oak influence is elegant and well-integrated, leading me to believe that it was 100% neutral oak (later confirmed by the winemaker). A beautiful violet/floral character completed the experience. I really loved this wine and could see adding it to my regular rotation if I can get my hands on some more.

I guess I need to plan a visit to New Jersey wine country ASAP! And so should you.

 

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Planting a Vineyard in Metro Detroit

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to plant grapevines? I have, and I’m embarrassed to say that it took me 15 years in the wine industry to find out! Luckily, my friend Jessica Youngblood, with whom I serve on the board of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, has planted a vineyard nearby in Ray Township, Michigan. When she advertised the opportunity for volunteers to assist on one of their planting days, I jumped at the chance. The kids and I hopped in the car to go help dig in the dirt at Youngblood Vineyard.

When I asked how they ended up in the grape biz, Jess gave me some family history: She grew up in Washington state, met her husband Dave while they were in college, and they later moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. There they fell in love with the wine industry after visiting many Northern Virginia wineries. When the opportunity arose to return to Metro Detroit, where they had a family farm, they jumped at the chance to plant wine grapes. In less than two years, they have planted over 20,000 grapevines on nearly 23 acres of the farm, establishing Youngblood Vineyard as the largest vineyard in Eastern Michigan. Jess’ primary job is to take care of the vines full time: tying, pruning, thinning leaves, checking clusters, and maintaining overall vineyard health. Dave primarily does the planning and construction side of things, such as land clearing, vineyard layout, and trellis construction, though they both do some of everything. Their kids get in on the action, too, pruning, planting, mowing, and fighting for their turn to drive the tractor.

The Youngbloods are growing several cold-hardy hybrid grape cultivars that can survive extreme winter weather fluctuations (which metro Detroit certainly had during the 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex seasons), including three reds and three whites: Marquette, Frontenac, Petite Pearl, Frontenac Blanc, Prairie Star, and Traminette. (If these grape names don’t sound familiar, just wait—hybrid grape wines are gaining traction and can rival dry, semi-dry, sweet, or dessert wines made with the Vitis vinifera grapes most people are familiar with.) The Youngbloods may sell some of their grapes, but they strategically planted varieties with complementary flavors and structure for when they decide to produce their own label. In conjunction with Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology, they also host occasional VESTA (Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance) workshops, so students looking to gain valuable hands-on vineyard experience should definitely contact them!

Best of all, in addition to being a founding member of the Great Lakes Sustainable Wine Alliance, the vineyard is verified by the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, which “shows peers and neighbors the high level of commitment to agricultural stewardship and protecting the environment.” Find out more about the MAEAP verification program here: http://www.maeap.org/get_verified.

When my kids and I arrived on a chilly May day to help plant, the Youngbloods provided a quick training session for all of the volunteers, teaching us the correct orientation in which to plant the vines, how to wrestle with the long root system (they kept the roots long instead of trimming them since they had augered holes that were a couple feet rather than just a few inches deep–Jess told me that this would shorten the period until the vines will be ready to produce viable fruit for wine), and how to install the grow tubes that would protect the young vines until they can be trellised. We jumped in with gusto and were able to plant a few rows of vines before my crew had to leave for karate and guitar lessons. We all left dirty and happy, wishing that we could have contributed more. I hope the Youngbloods will let us come back when it’s time for harvest so we can check on the vines we planted and help pick the fruit from the vines Jess and Dave planted in 2016. Most of all, I hope I can “help” them when it comes time for taste-testing their first wines!

We can’t wait to see what’s next for Youngblood Vineyard! While Detroit has a rich history as a beer-producing town, the founders of Motown and the Big Three auto makers probably never would’ve fathomed that there would be a working vineyard only about 30 miles from the heart of this gritty manufacturing city. Follow Youngblood Vineyard on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/youngbloodvineyard/.