In talking about emerging wine regions of the US, many states on the East Coast have come front and center. Excitement has been brewing of states circling the mid-Atlantic—New York and Virginia being well-established along with New England states and Pennsylvania. But what about the “Garden State”? It’s time to take a minute to explore the small but mighty New Jersey with its burgeoning renaissance of viticulture and its bright and wide-open future.
New Jersey is one of the oldest viticultural states, with vines planted in the area as early as the 1700s. The story goes that the Royal Society of Arts in Great Britain offered a cash prize to anyone who could produce “five tuns of red or white wine of acceptable quality.” When no one jumped at the first offer, the second offer of £200 turned up two men, William Alexander and Edward Antill. Antill eventually won the prize with his vineyards, and his legacy even produced a book to aid future growers, An Essay on the Cultivation of the Vine, and the Making and Preserving of Wine, Suited to the Different Climates of North-America.
In the 1800s, agricultural connoisseurs started to test grape varieties for planting in the local soils, and an influx of immigration helped spur the industry. This time also marked the arrival of Louis Nicholas Renault of Champagne houses in Reims, who founded Renault Vineyards in 1870 in Egg Harbor, NJ. His wine became known as the “champagne” of New Jersey, and the winery is still running today.
The birth of winemaking culture in the state came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of phylloxera and Prohibition’s enactment. A few wineries continued to sell their products notwithstanding, and some managed to survive. Still, the continuance of a restrictive law post-Prohibition did immense damage to what was left. This law only allowed one winery license per 1,000,000 residents, which essentially left the state’s winery count to seven.
It wasn’t until 1981 when Governor Brendan Byrne passed the New Jersey Farm Winery Act, which repealed this law and allowed wineries with a mere three acres and 1,200 vines to produce and sell wine. This Farm Winery Act opened the state up to exponential growth and opportunity. There are now over 50 wineries in the state producing from over 40 grape varieties.
Divided into five distinct physiological areas, the southern half of the state comprises the Upper and Outer Coastal Plains area with well-drained sandy loam soil. The land is rich and fertile and the main inspiration for New Jersey’s Garden State moniker. The area’s humid maritime climate is due to its proximity to the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The northern part of the state is divided into three more geological areas that are much more rocky and mountainous, containing shale and slate. The northern areas see a humid continental climate in this Appalachian-influenced area. The differences are stark when comparing the state’s four official American Viticultural Areas.
Central Delaware Valley AVA
This AVA was established in 1984. The AVA covers 96,000 acres and is shared with Eastern Pennsylvania, north of the Philadelphia/Trenton areas. The climate is humid and continental and grows vines of vinifera and labrusca. All three of the wineries in this AVA are located in Pennsylvania; New Jersey currently has no wineries established here, but there are several on the outskirts of the AVA border.
Warren Hills AVA
Warren Hills was the next AVA established in 1988. It covers 182 thousand acres in the western part of the state. This area has sandy loam soil atop sedimentary rock and encompasses a true continental climate defined by the rolling hills created by the Delaware River. There are five wineries established here with 100 acres of vines combined. The vines here are primarily French hybrid but some vinifera is planted in different aspects.
Outer Coastal Plain AVA
By far, the largest of the AVAs and most productive, the Outer Coastal Plain covers nine southern counties of well-drained sandy loam soil. Its humid maritime climate, due the influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, provides warmer days, cooler nights, and a longer growing period. This AVA is responsible for 70 percent of vineyard production.
Cape May Peninsula AVA
This small AVA is a sub-AVA of the Outer Coastal Plain and is the state’s southern tip. It’s bordered by mostly water and the Pinelands National Reserve to the north. It’s productive and an exciting AVA home to wineries focused on Bordeaux varieties and more experimental winemaking methods.
Many Varieties and Endless Opportunities
Thirty percent of the state’s wineries lay outside of a designated AVA, and not one of these is home to a specific signature variety. Due to the variances in soil types and microclimates, many grape growers have found a plethora of varieties that work in these areas. The state is home to vinifera, labrusca, and hybrid varieties. Its top white varieties are Albariño, Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, Petit Manseng, and Riesling, while reds at the top of the list are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petit Verdot. Hybrid varieties include Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, and Vignoles. The experimentation happening and the endless combinations of soil and variety are what’s exciting here. There are innovative and up-and-coming wineries doing everything with these varieties from blends to pét-nats to sparkling wines, and that’s where our attention should be turning.