New Jersey is known for a lot of things: oil refineries, The Sopranos, Bruce Springsteen and Snooki, not to mention as a place you pass through to get to Philadelphia or New York City. Historically, great wine has not been one of its claims to fame.
“A lot of people don’t see New Jersey as being anything other than a landfill or industrial site,” say Sean Comninos, winemaker at William Heritage Winery.
That bias, and a history of sweet, often hybrid-based wines, means even the state’s top producers are fighting an uphill battle. “Being from Jersey holds the industry back,” says Peter Leitner, founder/winemaker of Mount Salem Vineyards. “Winegrowers must focus more on quality than quantity.”
• AVAs: Central Delaware Valley (Shared with Pennsylvania), Outer Coastal Plain, Warren Hills
• Renault Winery (purchased in 1864 and still open today) was the first commercial vineyard
• About 2,000 acres planted
That quality exists, if you know where to look. New Jersey’s top estates are producing some of the best bottles in the east, on par with anything found in New York or Virginia.
Though it’s a small state, geographically speaking, its wines are diverse. Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc are successful statewide. Northern New Jersey, where the Warren Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) is located, boasts varied elevation, slopes and soils, including significant limestone and granite deposits. This part of the state is also home to Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah and Gewürztraminer. Slightly more obscure grapes, like Blaufränkisch, Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt, are also popular.
The southern half of New Jersey, which includes the Outer Coastal Plain AVA, tends to be flatter, with well-drained, loamy sand soils that have lots of gravel. There, red and white Bordeaux varieties dominate.
Blaufränkisch, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon,
Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir,
“More wineries are focusing on quality, both in the vineyard and in the winery,” says John Cifelli, general manager of Unionville Vineyards and executive director of the Winemakers Co-Op, a group wineries pushing fine wine in the state. “The next era of wine drinkers are anti-wine establishment and reject the notion of preconception.”
With more and better wine than ever, as well as a growing base of consumers who are increasingly open to trying new things, New Jersey is ready for its time in the spotlight.
“I think we have to keep on doing exactly what the co-op and many of the quality New Jersey producers are doing already,” says Comninos. “Times are changing and the smart wineries will change with them.”