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New Jersey: A Journey of Discovery

New Jersey: A Journey of Discovery

Cabernet Sauvignon vines at Cape May Winery | Photo credit: Cape May Winery

“We are proving, vintage by vintage, that New Jersey [has moved beyond past perceptions] of just making fruit wines. There are many young and passionate winemakers throughout the state that are making this clear,” Michael Mitchell of Cape May Winery muses. “I love opening people’s eyes or palates to new things. I love to take a customer out of their comfort zone and introduce them to something they may have never thought to try.”

The passing of the Farm Winery Act in the 1980s has revived a modern winemaking renaissance in New Jersey. There’s an abundance of fertile soil ripe for the planting and a wave of innovative winemakers, both older and younger, experimenting with varieties and techniques that would beckon to make the national and international wine industry pay attention to this underrated Northeast state. It’s a young region in the throes of discovering its true potential—where the possibilities are endless. 

A Varietal Playground

Mitchell of Cape May Winery on the Cape May Peninsula knows that a lot of this excitement comes from discovering which grapes thrive in New Jersey’s soils and microclimates. “We are still young and figuring which are best suited to our specific sites and conditions.” Some of those proving successful are hybrid grapes. Hybrid grapes, or crossings of two or more Vitis species, have garnered a negative reputation as they tend to be artificially created. But Mitchell and others are looking to educate the masses on their potential, especially in North America, where Vitis species are abundant. “We have had great success with hybrid varieties such as Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc. Vidal Blanc is one of my favorites to work with as I find it extremely versatile and unique in different stages of ripeness. We pick with lower sugar and high acid to produce a light, refreshing, dry white. We can push it to high Brix levels, at which point some beautiful apricot notes emerge, to produce complex late-harvest wine.” 

Harvest at Cedar Rose Vineyard | Photo credit: Cedar Rose Vineyards

And it may not be the hybrids you’ve even heard of. Made in Italy in 1993, the San Marco grape is a crossing of Teroldego and Lagrein, two northern Italian varieties. It was then planted in 2015 in New Jersey at the Rutgers Agricultural Experimental station. The vines were then distributed to a handful of wineries in the state, and Bellview’s first vintage from 2020 is slated for tastings and then release. The black-fruited nature of this grape variety and its hardiness in the soils of the southern part of the state are exciting for vintners who may have discovered a gem that wine consumers may have never tried before. It’s all about education and open-mindedness. 

Mitchell continues, “Some in the industry may look down upon this. I, however, believe that these varieties are going to play a big part in the future of not only New Jersey winemaking, but winemaking throughout the country.”

Unlikely Suspects

There is an abundance of varieties being grown in New Jersey, and some wineries are turning their efforts toward some unlikely suspects. International varieties, like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, thrive in certain areas here. But the Spanish Albariño is one of the top white grapes, proving well-suited to Coastal Plains sandy loam soils and a top wine for Hawk Haven Vineyard in Cape May Peninsula. It is also highly acclaimed at the White Horse Winery. Winemaker Seferino Cotzojay has been working with Albariño and now Cabernet Franc. Two varieties that Dustin Tarpine also works with at Cedar Rose Vineyards. He says, “I think Cabernet Franc we’ve honed-in on throughout the state. In the south, it’s a bit fuller and heavier; in the North, it’s similar to Chinon in the Loire Valley. The grape here is bright.” He’s also excited about the rows of Albariño he’ll be able to work with in the upcoming vintages. 

But it’s also Austrian varieties that have been quite effective. Another white grape worth watching is Gruner Veltliner, made at multiple wineries, including Bellview and Mount Salem Vineyards. Peter Leitner, of Austrian heritage, at Mount Salem Vineyards, was one of the first to grow the grape close to 17 years ago. The climate where the winery is located straddles a Continental and Maritime climate with a shorter growing season, hot summers, and cold winters—similar to where the grape thrives in Austria. 

A tasting at Mount Salem Vineyards | Photo credit: Kristen Nordmeyer of Mount Salem Vineyards

But it’s the cool-climate red variety Blaufränkisch that is proving a frontrunner in determining what could put New Jersey on the map. The grape is known for being late-ripening, and its wines are full of black fruit and pepper spice with lively acidity and firm tannin. Mike Beneduce of Beneduce Vineyards makes a Blue 2 bottling, the winery’s flagship wine, and a dry rosé from the variety. “Some of the northern European varieties we’re growing have adapted really well here because we have similar climates to the regions, they’re native to. A variety like Blaufränkisch is especially exciting because it does well throughout the state, so it could potentially be something New Jersey becomes known for outside our borders.”

Tarpine agrees, “The Blaufränkisch here tends to be good and consistent, which we need because the weather here is so variable. It’s picked early, which is great for us, but consumers like it as well. They find it interesting. We grow Cabernet Sauvignon well too, but we’re never going to compete with Napa, but with [Blaufränkisch], we may be able to find our capstone.”

All Sorts of Bubbles

Naturally, with a climate that serves various grape varieties, it was only a matter of time when grapes would be cultivated for sparkling wines. William Heritage Wines has garnered many accolades for its Vintage Brut and Brut Rosé traditional method sparkling wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But Pinot Noir can be a tricky grape in the state’s maritime climate. So, winemakers have turned to some other methods of sparkling production. 

William Heritage produces a variety of pét-nats and spritzy Piquette wines. Piquette, made from rehydrated grape skins, produces a rustic, fruity wine. The winery uses a multitude of grapes like Syrah, Chenin Blanc, and blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. At Hawk Haven Vineyards in Cape May, where the Pinot Noir is tough to cultivate, they’ve used it for their pét-nats, a refreshing, fruit, and quaffable alternative. Tomasello Winery in Hammonton has also used the Georgian variety Rkatsiteli to make their sparkling wine if you’re feeling adventurous. 

Grape sorting at William Heritage Winery | Photo credit: William Heritage Winery

Skins & Eggs

If playing around with varieties didn’t provide enough to choose from, winemakers have been getting innovative inside the winery as well. Asking Tarpine about an experiment he’s excited about, he mentions a skin-contact Traminette that he’s been waiting to release. “We did a full two-week fermentation on the skins, with punch-downs, open-air container. And the aromatics are intense.” He continues about how these types of wines may not keep the lights on but tapping into a consumer base that may be looking for out-of-the-box wines could help turn eyes to the state.

Mitchell is also working with concrete-egg fermentation, his excitement when it comes to experimentation. He fermented an estate-vineyard field blend from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio, aged on its lees for four months. Mitchell explains, “The wine has nice mineral acidity, enhanced by the concrete and a rich, complex palate as a result of the sur lies aging.” 

New Jersey’s journey and discoveries are exhilarating to follow. The only natural thing to do is to get out of the city, into New Jersey’s wine country to taste and try what these wineries have to offer—and of course, with an open-mind.