Taking A Stand For New Jersey Wines

A blind taste tests proves Garden State wines have their own unique voice.

I’m not in the habit of turning friends into performing seals or any kind of circus animal, but I needed to know something, and fast. What would two pals with pitch-perfect palates and considerable experience tasting well-made wines think of a bubbly from a place not known for producing high-quality sparkling wine?

So I poured, without letting them in on the province of the bubbly. I told them I just wanted to know what they thought about it. Yes, a blind-tasting, which I hate. Fortunately, they were game. Here’s what they said:

Not Italian; definitely not prosecco. Not Spanish, either, so not cava. French? Champagne seemed along the lines of the taste and textural characteristics, but—well—why would I be conducting this experiment if it were Champagne? Cremant? Possibly. But maybe not creamy enough, though the fineness of the bubbles were evident. Bottom line: These primo palates liked the sparkling wine. Liked it a lot. It was the 2014 Heritage Estate Reserve Vintage Brut. From Mullica Hill, New Jersey.

2014 Heritage Estate Reserve Vintage Brut


New Jersey is perennially the punch line in a tasting at which a wine made from Garden State wine grapes “performs” well. Proponents of New Jersey wines are quick to point to the Judgment of Princeton. A few years back, New Jersey strutted its wine stuff and bettered Old World bottles. That “Judgment” is a reference to the seminal Judgment of Paris of 1976, when a California wine stunned the universe by slam-dunking Bordeaux and its brethren.

George Taber, the Time magazine writer who was in the room to report on the Judgment of Paris, was also on-hand Sunday, May 28, when the Winemakers’ Co-operative presented its Spring Portfolio in a tasting at Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown. During a seminar preceding the event, the Heritage Brut was poured—and roundly applauded.

Representatives from the four wineries in the co-op—Heritage, Beneduce, Unionville and Working Dog—were introduced by the co-op’s executive director John Cifelli, who hit on a key point that I don’t see mentioned often enough when New Jersey wines are discussed: What makes Garden State vino unique?

Michael Beneduce, from the host winery, noted how New Jerseyans have taken to spending time sourcing and supporting produce grown in the state. Why not New Jersey’s wine grape products? Sean Comninos of Heritage waxed evocative about the salinity inherent in wines from Jersey’s Coastal Plain, deliciously apparent in his bubbly. Mark Carduner of Working Dog smiled as he spoke of the “brothership of wine,” not just among co-op members but all winemakers in New Jersey. Conor Quilty of Unionville drew nods and applause when he called the industry “an underdog story.”

Then why, I thought, were so many at this Spring Portfolio tasting continually pointing out the similarities between any given New Jersey wine and more famous wines from everywhere else in the world? Why is validation needed in the form of “this red blend from New Jersey tastes just like a Bordeaux”? Or, “this big cab is just as good as a California cab at twice the price”? Or, “bet you can’t tell the difference between a German riesling and a New Jersey riesling”?

My take-away from the Winemakers Co-operative event is that the two wines I liked best—the Heritage sparkling wine and the 2015 Beneduce Vineyards Dry Riesling—didn’t taste like any other wines from any other winemaking region of the world. The sparkler brought to mind that singular Atlantic Ocean salinity and a brisk limey-ness that popped to the top in every teeny bubble. The Riesling—honest to goodness!—had a riff of cream soda on the palate that dovetailed nicely with a steely wash of acidity.

2015 Beneduce Vineyards Dry Riesling

While others were raving about the “likenesses” to blockbuster California red blends or cabernet francs with “Bordeaux power” or “Burgundy-esque chardonnay,” I was thinking Jersey’s wine pride could grow on its unique merits, not its similarities to anything else.

These co-op folks have something special to offer: their grapes, grown in New Jersey, neither messed with nor manipulated, but allowed to speak with their very own voice in the glass. Cheers!

* Beneduce Vineyards: 1 Jeremiah Lane, Pittstown. 908-996-3823. www.BeneduceVineyards.com.

* Heritage Vineyards: 480 Mullica Hill Road, Mullica Hill. 856-589-4474. www.heritagewineNJ.com.

* Unionville Vineyards: 9 Rocktown Road, Ringoes. 908-788-0400. www.unionvillevineyards.com.

* Working Dog Winery: 610 Windsor-Perrineville Road, Robbinsville. 908-670-7611. www.workingdogwinerynj.com.

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  1. Debbie

    I totally agree with you that a wine region need not compare themselves to another. Terroir and growing seasons are different and each region needs to capitalize on their uniqueness, what makes them special not how their wines taste as good as another regions.