While the overall quality of New Jersey wine has improved greatly over the last decade, its sparkling wines are playing catch-up. Many producers—including top-tier labels like Unionville, Hawk Haven and Beneduce—have only recently begun releasing bottles of bubbly.
One reason it’s taken so long is that it took many years of trial and error for growers and winemakers to figure out which grapes grow best here. Now that they’ve settled on the varieties that best suit their soil and climate, they can focus more on honing their winemaking craft.
“There’s definitely a learning curve,” says Todd Wuerker, owner/winemaker at Hawk Haven Vineyard in Cape May County. “Something new is always challenging, and there’s a certain level of winemaking skill that you need to have in order to do it well.”
In 2017, Wuerker started making sparkling wine from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes in the French méthode traditionelle, the way Champagne is made: with a second fermentation triggered by a dose of yeast and sugar added in the bottle. He’s one of a handful here to do so, along with Tomasello Winery in Hammonton and Warren County’s Alba Vineyards, whose sparklers have yet to be released.
Perhaps the best-known Jersey sparkling wines are those from William Heritage Winery in Mullica Hill, which have been recognized nationally by Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. In October, the winery’s all-chardonnay Blanc de Blanc took home the Governor’s Cup Award for Best Sparkling Wine in the state.
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Many agree that New Jersey has the potential to become a great sparkling-wine region, capable of producing the required high-acid grapes, which get picked first. “It makes so much sense, because we harvest those grapes before they get affected by the bugs, the fungus, the floods,” says Rich Heritage of William Heritage Winery.
So why aren’t more of them produced? It “is outrageously expensive,” says Heritage. “You have to be a little crazy to do it.”
“Sparkling wines require more equipment, which requires more investment,” says Mike Beneduce, owner/winemaker of Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown. He’s decided to start with bubbly made using a less costly and quicker process—the ancestral method, in which the wine is bottled before fermentation finishes. The result is a fizzy wine known as pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat, which is just as fun to toast with.
“I always wanted to do sparkling,” says Beneduce, “but never had the space or money for the equipment required for Champagne-style sparkling. So pét-nat made sense for us.” Unionville, William Heritage and Hawk Haven also make them.
Having made it through 2020 is something we can all raise a glass to. Why not do that with a bottle of local bubbly?