No one is likely to compare New Jersey to California’s Napa Valley. But the Garden State’s offerings, while certainly less visible, are receiving more and more favorable reviews these days.
Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Jersey wineries jumped from 21 to 38, according to the National Association of American Wineries, and several more are planting vines before they open for business. All are part of a nationwide vinicultural renaissance during which two-thirds of America’s newest 2,100 wineries have opened outside California.
But numbers tell only part of the story. The real news is New Jersey’s rapid jump in quality. While we don’t match California’s finest wines, most of the state’s varietals hold up to similarly priced California bottles. Yet the state continues to search for its wine identity. Once known for sweet fruit and native grape wines, growers now gravitate to European grapes such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon and American-European hybrids such as vidal and chambourcin. Winemakers have ripped out old vines, replanted better varieties, and improved their techniques. Even our sweet wines have become drier, subtler, more flavorful.
“It reminds me of California back in the 1970s,” says Cameron Stark, who left Napa’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards in 2004 to join Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes as winemaker. “We still have a lot of experimenting to do, but I wouldn’t have come here unless I saw the potential.” A visit to the state’s top wineries lets you judge for yourself:
(Ringoes, 908-788-0400, unionvillevineyards.com).
Set amid rolling farmland, Unionville has ranked among the state’s best wineries since its first vintage in 1991. Several of its former employees now manage other state wineries. Winemaker Stark’s fine hand has improved many of the recent whites: His riesling is a triumph of light, fruity complexity with only a faint hint of sweetness. The 2003 Hunter’s Red Reserve is an elegant, textured Bordeaux-style blend. For dessert, try the rich, chocolaty port and sweet Foxy Lady vidal. The tasting bar overlooks the fermentation tanks, and you can picnic outside.
(Milford, 908-995-7800, albavineyard.com). Alba, whose 200-year-old stone-and-timber tasting room sits at the bottom of a vine-covered hillside, serves as a model for Jersey’s budding wine industry. For seven years, owner Tom Sharko and former Unionville winemaker John Altmaier have replanted, pruned, and experimented, and you can taste the results. The prize-winning rieslings are luscious, as is a smoky vidal. The chambourcin and Old Mill Red are the top reds, and the fruit and dessert wines are excellent. Sharko believes his hillside, set in New Jersey’s southernmost limestone valley, provides ideal mineral soil for pinot noir.
CAPE MAY WINERY
(Cold Spring, 609-884-1169, capemaywinery.com).
Toby Craig, former owner of Cape May’s popular Washington Inn, has turned this winery around. He and former Unionville winemaker Darren Hesington are taking advantage of Cape May’s long growing season to make intensely flavored wines. The merlot is rich and the cabernet sauvignon and chambourcin deep and full-bodied. The pinot grigio and Victorian blush stand out as two of the best wines in the state. A bite of chocolate with the chambourcin port tastes just like a cherry bonbon. Check out the winery tours, which include barrel tastings.
(Cream Ridge, 609-259-9797, creamridgewinery.com).
Tom Amabile made wines and taught oenology for twenty years before founding Cream Ridge in 1988. His winery quickly earned a reputation for producing superb fruit wines and won the Governor’s Cup in 2005 for its cherry wine. Its tart, aromatic Cherry Amabile tastes like liquid cherry pie. Close your eyes and the autumnal-gold pear wine will transport you to an orchard on a fall day. Cream Ridge also makes several unusual whites, including a spicy May wine, a Walnford white chardonnay/riesling blend, and a summery kiwi-flavored chardonnay.
HOPEWELL VALLEY VINEYARDS
(Pennington, 609-737-4465, hopewellvalleyvineyards.com).
Sergio Neri draws on his experience in his family’s Tuscany vineyard to make lovely Italian-style wines. The barbera and Rosso della Valle are fine light reds, and the more complex 2003 merlot is exceptional. The pinot grigio and vidal are top whites. With its copper tasting bar and a porch fronting the vineyard, Hopewell Valley is a picturesque visit and a winery to watch.
(Hammonton, 800-666-9463, tomasellowinery.com).
In Hammonton, where home winemakers litter the streets with empty grape boxes in the fall, Charles and Jack Tomasello run the state’s largest and most diverse winery in a Mediterranean-style facility. Among the reds, the villard noir, shiraz, and chambourcin are winners, and the elegant cabernet sauvignon is even better. The full-bodied fruit wines, notably cranberry and blueberry (blended from three varieties), burst with flavor.
(Hightstown, 609-371-6000, silverdecoywinery.com).
This winery proves a few years can make all the difference in the world. Silver Decoy’s first vintage produced barely passable wines. But the winery took a huge step forward two years ago thanks to its chardonnays, with their wonderful fruit and aroma. The chambourcin’s velvety berries jump forward and leave a long aftertaste, and the cabernet franc has an intense vegetal aroma. Silver Decoy does not have much of a tasting room, but it produces wines worth tasting.
(Shamong, 609-268-6731, valenzanowine.com).
Valenzano’s cynthiana was voted New Jersey’s top wine in 2004 and 2005. Crafted from an unusual native grape, it coats the palate with dark, complex flavors. Several other reds benefit from the long Pine Barrens growing season. The dry vidal has a citrus finish that cuts the heat in warm weather, and the fruit and sweet wines are uniformly good. The tasting room has a front yard designed for weddings and parties.
(Landisville, 856-697-7172, bellviewwinery.com).
Only ten miles from the South Jersey home of Thomas Bramwell Welch—the Prohibitionist who in 1869 discovered the pasteurization process to prevent the fermentation of grape juice—Jim Quarella has planted an enormous variety of grapes on his 30 acres. His contagious enthusiasm and his willingness to experiment promise interesting wines in the future. His best whites include a heady Rhône-style voignier and a spicy, balanced traminette, a hybrid related to German’s gewürztraminer, and his earthy syrah promises to age well.
(Waterford, 856-768-8585, amaltheacellars.com).
Louis Caracciolo operates one of the state’s most unusual wineries. His Bordeaux-style blends are highly structured, almost austere, and require aging, but promise surprising complexity if you have the patience. He also makes a more readily drinkable merlot and cabernet franc, and a nicely balanced chardonnay. Spend some time in the stone tasting room and you’ll think you’re thousands of miles away from Jersey.
Sylvin Farms looks more like a home than a winery, but for years owner Frank Salek set the state’s standard for fine wines. His cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc can rise to exceptional heights.
HERITAGE STATION WINERY
(Glassboro, 856-589-4474, heritagestationwine.com).
This local farm offers some surprising tastes, including an apple wine so fresh you can identify the apple varieties used to make it.
The grapes of New Jersey
New Jersey grows a wide variety of European, European-American hybrid, and native grapes that go with all kinds of foods. The classic rule of wine-matching used to be, “Reds with meat, whites with fish and fowl.” Today’s rules—if you can call them that—emphasize matching wine with cooking styles. Here are some suggestions.
Cabernet franc A light, aromatic Bordeaux grape bottled alone or used for blending. Goes well with light red meats, grilled salmon, and tuna.
Cabernet sauvignon This Bordeaux red is complex and elegant. Fine with roasts, lamb, and other rich meats.
Merlot This popular grape does especially well in the southern part of the state. Goes nicely with hamburgers, Mexican food, chicken, and lighter red meats.
Chambourcin A nicely structured hybrid that grows well in cool climates. Complements red meats as well as spicy foods.
Chardonnay Burgundy’s primary white wine grape is probably the Garden State’s most widely planted European vine. An oaky chardonnay cuts the flavor of buttery fish and fowl, while fruitier versions go great with lighter dishes and eggs.
Pinot grigio This widely grown Italian grape has a mineral base and citrus finish. Made for fish, pasta primavera, and chicken.
Riesling Wineries are now producing drier, more complex versions of Germany’s most popular wine. Sweet rieslings are very popular accompaniments for spicy Asian cuisine. Drier versions work well with everything from pork, chicken, and veal to eggs and salads.
Vidal Local vintners have begun making drier versions of this versatile riesling hybrid. Like riesling, it pairs well with sweeter dishes.
Great Grape Escapes
The Garden State Wine Growers Association hosts several weekend festivals each year, the biggest of which is the Grand Harvest Festival at Alba Vineyard, held September 30 and October 1. The festival features live music, tours, and children’s activities. Alba also has a Blues and Pumpkin Festival from noon to 5 pm on October 21 and 22. November 24 through 26, the association runs a holiday wine-trail weekend, where participating wineries offer tours, food pairings for the wines, and music. Visit newjerseywines.com for more information.
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