Connecticut Wines: Drinking It In
The Experts' Top Picks...
Impressed and admittedly surprised, the judges gave a thumbs-up to (most of) the wines they tasted. They scored the wines independently, and we did the math. Here are the top three winners in each category (descriptions are from the winemakers themselves). An asterisk (*) designates a wine made with 100 percent Connecticut grapes. In addition, we asked the judges to name their favorite wines overall. We'll reveal the winners in one category a day, starting with Dry White.
Winners: Dry White
Winners: Other White
The story of winemaking in our state—from its humble beginnings in the 1600s, when thirsty Colonists were delighted to discover that grapes grew wild here, to the present—is told in a rather slim volume titled A History of Connecticut Wine. At just over 100 pages, the cheerfully written book by Hamden's Amy Nawrocki and Eric D. Lehman may be brief, but it’s big on the idea that wine made here is surprisingly good. In many ways, that sentiment mirrors the spirit of the Connecticut wine industry today.
There’s no question that Connecticut wines have been underestimated and misunderstood, says Renée Allen, a wine educator and director of the Wine Institute of New England. A Guilford resident and big fan of homegrown wines, Allen served as a consultant for our magazine’s first-ever tasting. (We’d been hearing the buzz for a while that some very good wines were being produced here, and decided it was time to put them to the test.)
Says Allen: “The biggest misconception about our wines is that they are cloyingly sweet and only fruit- or white-grape based. And while it’s true that many Connecticut wines are considered sweet, many are not. Any fruit can be made into a dry or off-dry wine, and there are some good ones out there.”
Our climate may not be as hospitable to grape growing as, say, that of the Napa Valley, but that hasn’t stopped us. “Most people don’t know that many American and French-American hybrids have been created specifically for cool-weather climates, and many of the red varieties are doing incredibly well here,” says Allen. “One of the famous Bordeaux blend grapes, Cabernet Franc, happens to do exceptionally well and produces some of my favorite Connecticut red wines.”
As Connecticut agribusinesses go, wine is in its infancy; growers have been producing it commercially for just over 30 years, since the Connecticut Farm Winery Act was passed in 1978. Making wine in New England is a hardscrabble business. Crossing their fingers, vintners plant their vines, cajole stubborn soil, combat pests and scheme to outsmart long winters in order to produce wines that people will buy. It’s trial and error all the way. Growers and winemakers are experimenting all the time, learning what works and what doesn’t.
Today, close to 30 wineries are succeeding, often thanks to like-minded friends. “California had to start somewhere. So did we,” says Margaret Ruggiero, co-owner of Paradise Hills Vineyard in Wallingford. “At this point, I believe we have to be there for each other, and most of us are. We’re trying different grapes, different methods . . . we share our learning, give one another cuttings. The way I see it, if we help others, we’re helping ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, even with frequent cooperation, there have been tactical and philosophical disagreements over the years. And increased competition has bred some real differences among winemakers.
There are essentially two camps.
The purists are bound and determined to produce only estate wines made from native grapes; these winemakers believe that Connecticut-grown wines should be the cornerstone of the industry. An overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to our call for submissions revealed that sense of pride and ownership.
Jamie Jones, of the Jones Family Vineyards in Shelton, was excited to learn we'd be tasting Connecticut wines, but voiced his concern. “I strongly believe that a Connecticut wine is a wine that is made from grapes or fruit grown in Connecticut,” Jones says. “Many wines sold by Connecticut wineries are made from fruit that is not grown in Connecticut, which is fine, but it's not a true Connecticut wine. I believe that a wine is made in the vineyard, where the geography, soil and climate impart their influence on the grapes or fruit. If the Connecticut wine industry is going to grow, it needs to show that wines made from grapes grown in our state are unique and special in their own right.”
The other camp doesn’t exactly share Jones’s passion. Critics say these winery owners are content to import grapes and simply ride the wave of popularity that Connecticut wineries have been enjoying. Some have been less than forthright in disclosing the origin of their fruit, as well as the details of their production practices. “This is common knowledge [within the industry],” says Allen.
The industry is populated by a diverse group—from plant scientists and cancer geneticists to agricultural experts and business professionals. “So, it is no surprise that opinions, approaches and goals will differ at times," says Allen. “As with any family, there are disagreements. But by airing them, we hope the industry will evolve and grow stronger.”
At any rate, the wine business is flourishing of late, thanks to the overall quality of the wine—and to the marketing efforts of wineries from Litchfield and Sandy Hook to Pomfret and Stonington.
Tourism is booming on the Connecticut Wine Trail, for example, an ingenious idea hatched by members of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association. The 24 wineries that participate in the program welcome visitors who travel the state with wine “passports” and have them stamped, which proves they were there and enters them into contests for prizes ranging from gift certificates to hotel stays to a trip to Spain.
Wineries all over the state are hopping every weekend; tours are frequently followed by tastings held in venues from polished and quite grand to rustic and intimate. Many tasting rooms are available for weddings, corporate events and private parties. More than a few vineyard owners are enhancing the wine-tasting experience by providing live music, farm dinners, picnics, harvest festivals, farmer’s markets, seminars and more.
Beyond the shared mission of making a living from making wine, at the heart of the excitement is a desire to put Connecticut wines on the map.
Our tasting suggests they already are.
Our decision to hold a tasting of Connecticut wines was met with enthusiasm by virtually everyone we talked to—from the judges who were invited to participate to the folks at the more than 20 wineries that initially responded to our call for submissions. “What a great idea!” is what we heard over and over again—that, and “It’s about time!”
The tasting—which ultimately included 15 wineries and 84 wines—was held at Barcelona Restaurant in downtown New Haven. Thanks to the expert assistance we received from management and staff, we managed to pour 336 glasses for our four judges in just over three hours and wrap up the event in time for the restaurant’s 5 o'clock opening!
Our judges were Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director for the Barcelona and Bartaco restaurants; Robert Jordan, wine buyer for The Wine Thief in New Haven; Bob Feinn, co-owner of Mt. Carmel Wine & Spirits Co. in Hamden; and Vin Marottoli, whose wineloverstours.com conducts regular wine-centered expeditions to Italy and other destinations. The tasting was organized and ably directed by Renée B. Allen, a certified wine educator and director of the Wine Institute of New England.
Wines were sampled in six categories: Dry White; Other White; Rosé/Blush; Red; Fruit; and Dessert. They were scored on a scale of 1 to 25; the top three winners in each category (those with the highest aggregate scores) are listed here.
It’s important to note that we asked winery owners to attest to the fact that the wines they submitted were made with at least some Connecticut fruit. They took that request to heart: A full 70 of the 84 bottles sampled were 100 percent estate-grown here in Connecticut. And of the rest, none was made with less than 40 percent native fruit.