The idea of locally made wine remains a head-scratcher to most New Englanders, and to the average visitor it would seem that a vineyard in September surely lacks the authentic regional feel of, say, an apple orchard. And yet grapevines were growing on these shores centuries before the first sweet apples were introduced. In fact, native Vitis labrusca
grapes were so abundant that when early European settlers attempted to establish vineyards of imported Vitis vinifera
grapes for the sole purpose of winemaking, the transplants were quickly ravaged by pests and diseases that had co-evolved with the older grapes. The settlers couldn’t manage to make a decent wine with the local varieties, either–and so beer and cider were the chosen tipples of early America. Growers fared better with sweet table grapes like the Concord, a 19th-century labrusca
cultivar bred by Ephraim Wales Bull in Concord, Massachusetts. But it took time to develop the hardy root stocks, best practices, and chemical countermeasures that enabled New England farmers to grow vinifera
grapes for wine.
Today, you’ll find vineyards all over the region. Take a drive along the southern coasts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in October and, assuming the hard frosts haven’t hit too early, you’ll see glorious golden foliage blanketing the long, straight rows of vines. This is the heart of the Southeastern New England Wine Growing Appellation–which takes in portions of 13 counties–a registered American viticultural area as real as California’s Napa Valley. And there’s no better time to visit than during harvest, when the berries are picked, sorted, pressed, and fermented. Wineries host barbecues, sell pumpkins, and always welcome visitors for tastings. You might, for instance, follow the Coastal Wine Trail, an imaginary line that runs from Truro on Cape Cod to Watch Hill, Rhode Island (coastalwinetrail.com
). These wineries vary in style and quality, but they all share an enviable geography, benefiting from warm air wafting inland from Gulf Stream waters, extending the season and giving the fruit more time to ripen on the vine.
Of particular note: Massachusetts’ Westport Rivers Vineyard & Winery (westportrivers.com
), just a short drive from Horseneck Beach, where two generations of the Russell family produce crisp whites and award-winning sparkling wines. Even their Pinot Noir is a surprise. This varietal seems as though it couldn’t thrive in wintry New England, but in the hands of the Russells it yields a wine that with a bit of breathing offers a French elegance–a refreshing balance of fruit and minerals that makes it a perfect match for local seafood.
A bit north and east, Marco Montez plays host at New Bedford’s least-expected tourist hotspot: an urban winery called Travessia (travessiawine.com
), a Portuguese word for “journey” or “passage.” Raised in northern Portugal, Montez learned winemaking through osmosis, and later through independent study and trial-and-error. His white wines (Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc) are from grapes he purchases from local growers. A vineyard culture is finally gaining momentum here in New England … and it took only about 400 years to get there.