The Developing New Hampshire Wine Industry
“If you want a big, fat Cabernet, then go to a state liquor store and grab one,” says New Hampshire vintner and viticulturist Amy LaBelle.
But if you want to open your mind — and palate — to something different, something that reflects both the New England terroir and the growing body of local winemaking expertise, “then sit down with a bottle of New Hampshire wine,” she adds emphatically.
While still practicing law in 2005, LaBelle made her first wine, a dry apple one, in a historic barn on the grounds of Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole. From that day, it took her 4,083 more to open her dream winery in Amherst, a five million dollar facility with a state-of-the-art production cellar, tasting room, three acres of vineyard, a bistro restaurant and 200-seat wedding venue.
While not all operating at the same scale as LaBelle, there are twenty- one licensed wineries and six amateur winemakers who comprise the New Hampshire Winery Association (NHWA), says the group’s current president Lewis Eaton, owner and self-taught winemaker at Sweet Baby Vineyard. Eaton, a former bridge builder, recently relocated his eight-year-old operation to an eight-acre location in Hampstead where the south-facing, well-drained, sandy loam-filled land is well suited for grape vines.
From the group’s membership, literally hundreds of types of wines — many of them garnering public accolades, industry medals and good reputations — and hundreds of thousands of bottles are produced annually. The NHWA currently plays mainly a marketing role, promoting the New Hampshire Wine Trail Passport program which encourages tasters to visit all members’ tasting rooms and lobbies to streamline regulations dictating how wine is taxed and sold in the state. Eaton hopes to expand the NHWA’s mission to be more of a cooperative purchasing group and a mechanism for vintners to buy excess grapes from each other.
The developing New Hampshire wine industry is fighting an uphill battle on both nature and nurture fronts. On the nature front, there is the historically cold, but ever changing, climate. On the nurture front, commercial wines have only been made in the state for less than 30 years, so the craft is in its relative infancy compared to other winemaking regions around the world.
New Hampshire winemakers are more excited by these challenges than daunted by them.
“What other winemakers refer to as the problems of making wine in colder regions we see as the benefits of making wines here in New Hampshire,” says Brian Ferguson, a 28-year-old distiller and winemaker who purchased Flag Hill Winery and Distillery in Lee two years ago from founders Frank and Linda Reinhold. They began cultivating grapes and making wine in the 1990s on the land Frank’s family used to operate a dairy farm, and subsequently grew the vineyard to be one of the largest in the state.
Like every dish offered at any farm-to-table restaurant, each bottle of New Hampshire wine has its own back story. Many are fruit wines fermented from heirloom apple and cranberry mash, a bumper crop of raspberries, or a particularly good pear or blueberry harvest. Others are meads made from local honey.
More are made with grapes grown on winery grounds on vines that have been agriculturally hybridized, either in northern France, in French-speaking Canada, or, more recently, at one of the bigger American agronomic schools like Cornell or the Universities of Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa State. This allows the grapes to thrive in climates where wintertime temperatures dip to well below zero (as low as -20 degrees F), resist disease prevalent in those climes, and bear useable fruit during shorter growing seasons than those required for warmer-climate vinifera grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir and Tempranillo.
Northern grape cultivars thriving in New Hampshire have names like Aurore, Cayuga, Diamond, Frontenac Gris, LaCrosse, La Crescent, Niagara, Seyval Blanc and Vignoles for white wines, and Chancellor, De Chaunac, Frontenac, Leon Millot, Noiret, Marechal Foch, Marquette, St. Croix and Valiant for reds.
In other cases, as local wineries work to expand their own acreage of mature vines to meet the mounting market appreciation for local wine, and vineyard managers deal with fluctuating grape yields amidst some of the wackier weather patterns in recent history that have included January thaws, February deep freezes, May frosts and soggy Augusts (none of which make grape vines happy), many other New Hampshire wines are made with grapes sourced from further afield. They are generally still northern varieties and are grown at equal latitude to ours, such as in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
Wines made from these grapes – whether grown on site our purchased elsewhere – will all be fruit forward, low in tannins and high in acidity, explains Peter Oldak, a medical doctor by training, who often is referred to as the grandfather of the New Hampshire wine industry because he operates the state’s oldest operating vineyard, Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton just over the Massachusetts border.
“And all of those characteristics make any wine very food friendly,” says Oldak. He recommends pairing his standard Aurore, a dry white containing hints of apple, with simply prepared white fish like cod or haddock; his 2014 Seyval, an off-dry, medium bodied white wine rich in citrus and peach with salmon; and his newly bottled 2015 Vignole, a full-bodied white, rich in honey and pineapple with lobster. See recipes for more New Hampshire wine pairings.
While the base characteristics of wines made from northern grapes are set in the climate and the basic winemaking steps – crushing the fruit, adding yeast, fermenting, and aging and bottling the wine — the winemakers set their products apart from each other by how they handle each step stylistically, says Oldak.
Winemakers get cagey about explaining their stylistic choices publicly, but loosely they involve how quickly the grapes travel from the vine to the crusher, the temperature and length of time the fermentation process takes and/or the introduction of either sulfites or oak to the mix.
As a region, Flag Hill’s Ferguson says, “we knock the semi-sweet, off-dry whites out of the park.”
And the reds are slowly getting bigger and bolder via trial and error. “The white wines we know we have to treat very delicately to get the right balance of sweetness and acid,” says Ferguson. “And we’re learning quickly that we can really be a lot meaner to the red grapes.”
For example, Ferguson points to the fact that the De Chaunac grape offers up a vibrantly colored wine that has very little body. The Flag Hill yield from the 2015 De Chaunac vines was very small, so he opted to experiment with the grapes. He handled these typically red wine grapes like he would white wine grapes and made a rose. “Off the crush, we got some really tannic skins which we then used to bulk up some other reds as another experiment,” says Ferguson.
Blending wines — taking the strengths of one wine and using it to plug the holes in another — is where the fun lies for LaBelle. “It’s such an experimental craft. If you mix two wines, you don’t end up tasting all the flavors of one plus all the flavors of another. You end up tasting something entirely new,” she says, arguing that those resulting wines push the New Hampshire wine industry in exciting new directions.
Both LaBelle and Ferguson admit to ending up with some less than great tasting wine after some of their experimentation. But the distiller in Ferguson was quick to point out that “many a bad wine has gone on to be a great brandy.”