Maritime Climates and Diverse Styles Define New England Wine

Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Connecticut
Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Connecticut / Photo by Don Pike

You are probably already familiar with the wines of New York State; Long Island and the Finger Lakes have generated enthusiasm in the wine world for years.

To the north, though, the wines of Southern New England remain a relative secret to many outside the region. Since 1984, the Southeastern New England American Viticultural Area (AVA) has included parts of three southern New England states: Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

These distinct regions share a common maritime climate, similar hardiness zones for grape growing, and, for the most part, a broad style of winemaking.

Overlooking the vineyards at Salt Water Farm Vineyard in Connecticut
A vineyard in Connecticut / Getty

Connecticut

Connecticut’s first winery, Haight-Brown, opened in 1975. Three years later, the state began its move toward winemaking prominence with the Connecticut Farm Winery Act’s passage, which allowed winery owners to sell their product to the public. Today, the state is home to more than 50 wineries.

The Connecticut Wine Trail was introduced in 1992, which links 24 state-approved wineries in one route for easy access.

Although it’s a small state, Connecticut is diverse in both geology and climate. Divided by the Connecticut River Valley and impacted by the coastal effects of the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, the state experiences a vast array of mitigating influences.

As a result, the state’s two AVAs reflect different growing seasons and soil types.

Established in 1988, the Western Connecticut Highlands AVA includes Litchfield, New Haven, Fairfield and Hartford counties. It possesses a cool microclimate with a short growing season.

This AVA, which contains roughly 1,000,000 acres, is known for Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc. Its soils comprise mainly of sandstone, shale and basalt.

Steven Vollweiler, co-owner of Sharpe Hill Vineyard, filed a petition that helped create Connecticut’s second AVA, the Eastern Connecticut Highlands, in 2019. His winery, established in 1996, is the oldest in the new AVA.

“Most of the wineries in the state were not included in an established AVA,” says Vollweiler. “The new AVA now includes 12 wineries, about 25% of the state’s total.”

The Eastern Connecticut Highlands AVA is known for its elevation, with some vineyards as high as 1,000 feet above sea level, and its rocky soils. It encompasses Tolland, Windham, New London and Middlesex counties. But the newer AVA also intersects with its Western Connecticut Highlands counterpart in New Haven and Hartford.

“The Eastern Connecticut Highlands has a climate similar to the Finger Lakes region of New York,” says Vollweiler. “We get information from their weekly Finger Lakes newsletter, and their harvest dates and their Brix and acid numbers at harvest are almost identical to our varieties at harvest.”

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Sharpe Hill turned its attention toward Riesling, much like Finger Lakes growers.

But unlike the blue slate soils of New York, this area of Connecticut contains mineral schist soils created from an ancient seabed. Soils like this are useful for growing Riesling.

“We’re ocean-bottom bedrock here, ocean-bottom bedrock that is four million years old,” says Howard Bursen, winemaker at Sharpe Hill Vineyards. “It’s unique. It’s left over from the formation of [ancient supercontinent] Pangea.”

The AVA benefits from climate, topography and terroir.

“We’ve got these wonderful hillsides, and they’re not very high, but when you’re on top of one, you can see for 30 miles,” says Bursen. “That gives us a big advantage in terms of air drainage.”

When the temperature drops in winter, the cold air falls downhill due to its density. The result is a warming effect on the top of the hillside. Because of its proximity to the water, the AVA is also tied to maritime patterns.

“If a [weather] system is circulating such that the first thing it does is sweep over the ocean and it brings it our way, that brings a warming influence,” says Bursen. “But it can happen the other way around, where a circulation hits us and then it goes out over the ocean. So, in that case, we don’t get the benefit.”

Other Connecticut producers of note: Chamard Vineyards, Hopkins Vineyard and Jones Family Farms Winery

Sakonnet Vineyards in Rhode Island
Sakonnet Vineyards in Rhode Island / Alamy

Rhode Island

Just because it’s the country’s smallest state doesn’t mean Rhode Island makes the country’s smallest wines.

Winemaking here dates back to 1663, when King Charles II of England included wine production in the royal charter for land uses when he established Rhode Island as an English colony.

Rhode Island winemaking in the modern sense, however, didn’t begin until 1975, when Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyards, the state’s first winery, was established.

A vineyard in Rhode Island
A vineyard in Rhode Island / Getty

Because of the moderating effect of the nearby Atlantic Ocean and its small size, Rhode Island enjoys a more temperate climate than its northeast counterparts.

Rhode Island winemaking takes place in Bristol, Newport, Providence and Washington counties. And you can visit 11 wineries on the Rhode Island Vineyard and Winery Trail.

Other Rhode Island producers of note: Diamond Hill Vineyards, Newport Vineyards, Greenvale Vineyards, Nickle Creek Vineyard and Verde Vineyards.

Massachusetts

The Bay State is known mostly for its coastal wines, which is fitting because its sole AVA is located on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The Martha’s Vineyard AVA was established in 1985, just a year after the Southern New England appellation.

Along with encompassing the island, the Martha’s Vineyard AVA also includes all of the lands in Dukes County, which includes Chappaquiddick Island, Nashawena Island, Gosnold Island and Naushon Island.

Chappaquiddick Island is a barrier island on the eastern coast of Martha’s Vineyard, while Nashawena, Gosnold and Naushon islands all fall to Martha’s Vineyard’s northwest.

When the Martha’s Vineyard AVA was established, it ignited controversy among the owners of a vineyard in California with the same name. They worried that the new AVA would tarnish their brand.

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But regulators rejected that argument, after seeing evidence that the island of Martha’s Vineyard had received its name as far back as 1602. Notably, nearly none of the wine in Massachusetts today is produced within the AVA itself.

Wine is produced, however, on Cape Cod, in western Massachusetts, and in the northern part of the state. On Cape Cod, winemakers benefit from precisely the same climatic effect.

At Russell Orchards, located in the northeastern Massachusetts town of Ipswich, the Russell family has been producing wine for three decades.

One crucial difference at Russell Orchards is that a glut of seasonal fruit, as opposed to grape varieties, is vinified into wine. It also practices chaptalization to aid in the fermentation process of these low-alcohol wines, which are made with plums, sour cherries, Pink Lady apples and other fruit grown on-premise.

Netted Vines winery in Massachusetts
Netted vines in a winery in Massachusetts / Getty

Russell Orchards benefits from true maritime climate, as the winery is just down the road from the area’s famous Crane’s Beach.

“We’re on the coast, which is great, and sometimes just a few degrees difference between where we are and inland growers can really make a difference in whether we receive a frost, whether we receive a hard frost, whether it’s a damaging kill frost, and those types of things really come into play with fruits like stone fruits,” says Miranda Russell, co-owner/winemaker at Russell Orchards.

“We’ve seen years where just a degree of difference for 15 or 20 minutes in the wee hours of the morning made a difference in whether or not our crop survived or failed due to frost,” she says.

In a region known for extreme temperatures, proximity to the water is often a saving grace for winemakers, irrespective of what product they happen to be vinifying.

In addition to fruit wines, popular grape varieties grown in Massachusetts include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc. Some winemakers experiment with varieties like Pinot Noir, Concord and Maréchal Foch.

Black Birch Vineyard, in Hatfield, Massachusetts, produces a dessert-style Maréchal Foch, as well as more traditional varietal wines from Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In North Dartmouth, Running Brook Winery produces wines from Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay and other grape varieties to much success.

Other Massachusetts producers of note: Boston Winery, Plymouth Bay Winery and Truro Vineyards

Published on October 23, 2020
Topics: New England