“A very strong bias against sweet fruit wine exists and is mostly deserved,” says Michael Terrien, co-owner of Bluet, a producer in Maine that makes a wild blueberry sparkling wine. “Fruit wines are often made by adding lots of cane sugar, both to jack the alcohol and to sweeten the wine. Large sugar additions make it very difficult…to represent the complexity and character of the fruit.”
Recently, however, serious vintners, inspired by American history and modern maker trends, have begun to ferment local fruit beyond typical wine grapes in dry styles. The results are balanced, thoughtful wines that might surprise traditional wine lovers.
From traditional-method blueberry bubbles to fermented apples that taste a lot like Chardonnay, a new era of fruit wines has arrived.
The History of Fruit Wine in America
Archaeological digs prove humans will ferment anything to make alcohol. In America, the “anything” is typically fruit.
Fruit wines have long played a role in America’s agricultural history. Early homesteaders used yeast to preserve seasonal berries into belly-warming beverages.
Throughout the period of European colonization of the Americas, settlers expressed their love of grape-based wines with fruit from the native Vitis riparia varieties. However, not satisfied to only use North American grapes, many growers began to experiment with importing European Vitis vinifera vines, a trend later championed by Bordeaux wine-advocates like Thomas Jefferson. These vines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and many others that continue to produce America’s most popular wine grapes today.
“[The wild blueberry] is very good for making wine due to its natural acidity and balance, especially wines that suit the changing 21st-century palate that favors the natural, authentic, low alcohol, local and healthy.” —Michael Terrien, co-owner, Bluet
Of course, the building blocks of grapes differ from those of other fruits. Red varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon embody the holy trinity of acid, sugar and tannin. Unlike, say, a peach, grapes ripen with enough natural sugar to achieve a minimum 11% alcohol by volume (abv), with freshness and structure informed by acid and skin tannin.
However, through winemaking skills, fruit wines can resemble more traditional bottlings and still remain honest to their core ingredients. And like grape-based wine, raw materials matter. Rotten grapes equal bad wine. The same rule applies to plums and apples.
The “drink local” movement dovetails nicely with fruit wines. These offerings allow producers to diversify their income from pure crop production, especially when a farmer’s site is better suited to orchards than vineyards.
New Jersey grows a broad range of fruit. The state’s wine industry brings in millions of dollars each year, says Bob Clark, who co-owns Chestnut Run Farms in Salem County with his wife, Lise. The couple have grown Asian pears and other fruits for 34 years.
“We were grower/packers for the wholesale fruit trade for about 20 years,” says Clark. “With that industry’s global shift, our small farm could no longer compete with corporate importers. We experimented with various value-added products…and switched over to wine about 13 years ago.”
Clark attributes the success of Chestnut Run’s dry Asian pear wines to his philosophy: He makes fine wine from fruit, not “fruit wine.”
Vintners that apply science in their cellars give consumers new reason to try these products. This may appeal to drinkers who seek to support local, sustainable beverages with lower carbon footprints. As Terrien says, wild blueberry fields don’t need intensive management or inputs the way wine grapes do because they evolved on the landscape.
Can—and Should—Wine Drinkers be Converted?
“Absolutely,” says Bob Manley of Hermit Woods Winery, in Meredith, New Hampshire. He says he regularly turns classic wine drinkers on to his New World fruit wines.
“We convert them every day,” he says. “We see people from around the world in our tasting room…many of them serious wine drinkers. If we can get them to the tasting bar, we almost always make a convert out to them.”
Carlo DeVito, owner of Hudson Valley’s Hudson-Chatham Winery, professes intrigue and respect for the potential of fruit wines. He calls Bartlett Estate’s Blueberry Dry Oak Aged wine a “First Growth” of the category and argues it tastes like Chianti.
“We convert them every day. We see people from around the world in our tasting room…many of them serious wine drinkers. If we can get them to the tasting bar, we almost always make a convert out to them.” —Bob Manley, co-founder, Hermit Woods Winery
DeVito has even gone so far as to serve it secretly to his “Italophile” brother-in-law.
“I placed bottles of Tignanello on the table and when no one was looking, filled their glasses with this fabulous [blueberry] red wine,” he says. “Everyone cheered.”
To Manley and DeVito, when vintners take fruit wines seriously, they can be as interesting as grape wine. However, “the tastes of people who enjoy sweet fruit wines are as valid as those who enjoy other types of wines,” says Keith Bishop, of Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market & Winery in Guilford, Connecticut. “Wine is a beverage and can be enjoyed in all its forms as part of an interesting and varied diet and lifestyle.”
Unlike the strong tradition of apple wine in Denmark, or plum wine in Japan, few American regions produce one particular type of fruit wine. However, a few areas boast enough specialization to warrant recognition.
Traverse City, Michigan, reigns as America’s tart cherry-farming capital and has a long history of wines made from it. More than a dozen producers make some version of deeply hued cherry wine in dry, semi-dry and sweet styles.
“We wish more people realized fruit wines can be just as serious and delicious as wines made from grapes.” —Megan Molloy, marketing coordinator, Chateau Grande Traverse
Chateau Grande Traverse started to produce fruit wines in the late 1970s and now distributes as far as China. “We wish more people realized fruit wines can be just as serious and delicious as wines made from grapes,” says Megan Molloy, the winery’s marketing coordinator. “Fruit wines take just as much attention and time…to create a successful final product.” Chateau Grande Traverse’s lineup includes six cherry products, from 100% cherry wine to a rich, fruity fortified bottling crafted in the style of a reserve Port.
If there’s one fruit indelibly synonymous with Hawaii, it’s the pineapple.
MauiWine started to make pineapple wine in 1974 on a lark. To test a traditional-method sparkling wine program, they first practiced on local fruit. The surprise success of the wine turned into a core focus of their business.
“Wine is a representation of agriculture and place, simple as that. For a winery on Maui, what better way could we represent these things than to utilize a famed part of our culture and agriculture heritage as the pineapple.” —Joe Hegele, marketing and branding director, MauiWine
Today, the winery makes three pineapple wines. Its traditional-method brut sparkling bottling has particularly earned serious praise from wine lovers and bartenders.
“Wine is a representation of agriculture and place, simple as that,” says Joe Hegele, MauiWine’s marketing and branding director. “For a winery on Maui, what better way could we represent these things than to utilize a famed part of our culture and agriculture heritage as the pineapple.”
Wild blueberries carpet the landscape in swaths of Maine. Several producers have capitalized on the bounty to craft beautiful wines made from this tart fruit.
“This native, 10,000-year-old wild fruit is the original blueberry,” says Terrien of Bluet. He believes the fruit has a natural affinity for fermentation. “[The wild blueberry] is very good for making wine due to its natural acidity and balance, especially wines that suit the changing 21st-century palate that favors the natural, authentic, low alcohol, local and healthy.”
Bluet’s bottle-fermented wine features a cork and Champagne-like packaging, while remaining true to its provenance at 7% abv.
Other Notable Producers
At Bishop’s Orchards, Keith Bishop has experimented with the diverse fruits grown on his family’s nearly 150-year-old farm. However, his wildly popular apple wines often fool visitors into believing they’re sipping a traditional white wine.
New Hampshire’s Hermit Woods has racked up accolades for its fruit wines that “drink like classic wines from notable regions of the world,” says Manley. “We studied classic winemaking techniques; we barrel-age many wines for a year or more. Many of our wines are well suited to lay down in your cellar for ten or more years.” He and his cofounders, Ken Hardcastle and Chuck Lawrence, use local, organic whole fruits blended to create drier, complex wines.
DeVito likens Hermit Woods’s Petite Blue, made from wild Maine lowbush blueberries, to Syrah.
In Tenino, Washington, Deana Ferris of Mill Lane Winery makes 22 different fruit wines. She sources local and fresh produce with ripeness levels that require little additional sweetening. She and her husband, Dan, first earned recognition at a local wine festival for their blackberry wine.
Because of their success, the local industry has enjoyed a related boom. “Now almost all wineries produce some version of fruit wine to pour at events,” says Ferris.