When we reached the vineyard, the rain that had been pouring throughout our entire trip stopped and gave way to a glowing rainbow. Louis greeted us with a large smile. “I ordered it for you,” he said. Well, he obviously didn't, but maybe this is a good metaphor for what is happening in New Jersey viticulture.
Ask anyone about New Jersey wines and you’ll get a blank face for an answer. New Jersey is about the chemical industry, pollution, urban sprawl, the Devils Hockey team, but certainly not wine. That’s why we were surprised when a good friend told us: “You should go there, you’ll be surprised.” Indeed we were.
New Jersey's first vines were planted by colonists during the 18th century. The earliest testimony to winemaking can be found in 1767, when London’s Royal Society of the Arts recognized two New Jersey vintners for their success in producing the first bottles of quality wine. Charles Thomson and Edward Antill wrote in an essay that “the general climate of North America, the soil, the seasons, the serenity and dryness of the air (...) are fit for making the best and richest wines of every kind.” They recommended for New Jersey “the Chasselas blanc, the Malvois, the grey Frontiniac, the red Frontiniac, the black Lisbon, the white Lisbon, the Chasselas noir” as the most suited vines to the climate. But transplanting vitis vinifera from Europe turned out to be a failure as the vines succumbed to phylloxera, black rot and mildew. Subsequently, American vines were planted and studied. The New Jersey vineyard expanded. The oldest winery still existing today, the Renault winery, was established in 1864. In 1876, the nickname “Garden State" started to be used for New Jersey, because farming was the major activity, but Prohibition (1919-1933) put a hold on the development of wineries in New Jersey (and indeed, elsewhere in the US).
After the war, while California took up vine growing once again, New Jersey lagged behind because of laws limiting shipping and the number of farms. It was not until the early 20th century that things started again. A handful of vintners - some of them with an heritage of several generations, others newcomers - realised that the terroir had huge potential.
To explain the benefits of the New Jersey terroir, Louis started with a joke. He pulled out two maps, one from New Jersey, one from Bordeaux. He twisted the French map and placed it over the New Jersey map: they matched! This coincidence is a hint, according to Louis, about New Jersey's potential. Situated along the Atlantic Ocean, it is divided into four different geological regions, of which three produce quality wine. The major region, Outer Coastal Plain AVA, is the area along the Jersey shore, comprising a thick bed of sediments deposited during the Cretaceous period. It is relatively flat and mostly covered by pineland. The other two - Central Delaware Valley AVA and Warren Hills AVA - are respectively in the foothills and the highlands of the Appalachian mountains.
In the Outer Coastal Plains, the soil consists of gravel mounds with underlying layers of clay and sand. The vine roots can go deep into the lower layers without restrictions. This is the same type of soil as found in Bordeaux; the climate is mid-Atlantic. The ocean and the river Delaware contribute to smoothen the hardness of the continental climate from the Appalachians. The growing season on average has 190 to 220 freeze-free days per year. These similarities with Bordeaux are an inspiration for the vintners. In 2010 they organized a symposium entitled "Bordeaux - An Old World Terroir with Lessons for New Jersey" which concluded that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot are the best varieties from which to craft fine and complex wines. We also found interesting wines in our tastings made from Chambourcin and Chardonnay. Wineries have worked with a large number of grape varieties and can now focus on those that are best suited - and forget those that do not thrive in this climate, such as Syrah.
In January 2012, a new bill was passed that allows small New Jersey wineries to keep their tasting rooms open as well as to ship their wine directly to consumers inside and outside the state, without going through the tier system which controls the USA wine distribution. This is a decisive move for the wine industry.
We visited some of the most significant wineries in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA. They are located among pineland and habitations. Most of them are former orchard farms transformed into vineyards, a few of which were created from scratch. They are all family operated. A number of farms specialise in grape growing; the most famous and significant of these is that of Larry Coia, a retired physician, who reconverted to agriculture. He sells his grapes to selected winemakers.
Almathea Cellars : Louis is a non-conformist. On the wall of his cellar you can see a sign from the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, where the revolutionaries gathered in 1761 to drink coffee (not tea) and made history: “It's free speech here. You can say banned things.” After a long career in the food industry, local boy Louis decided to settle on the farm he purchased in 1976 and to show the world the kind of wine it was possible to make in Atco NJ. His conviction and talent as a winemaker continue to pave the way for others.
Bellview Winery : The name is probably a typo from the French bellevue, meaning “nice view.” The winery was founded in 1914 and Jim represents the fourth generation. Located on rather flat land, the property is 150 acres (around 60 hectares) large and dedicated to vine growing since 2003. This is effectively a grape variety conservatory, featuring 20 different cultivars. In 2006 they were big enough to produce wines from their own grapes. Part of their harvest is sold to other local vintners.
Sharott Winery : Newcomers to the region, Larry Sharrott spent most of his professional life in corporate America, in the IT sector. A few years ago, he decided he had had enough, and became an entrepreneur, together with his son. One business plan later, they built a brand new cellar with modern equipment on top of a mound that dominates their vineyard. They are testimony to the rebirth of the vineyard.
Tomasello Winery : Grandfather Tomasello was one of the first people to be granted the newly released government license for winemaking in 1933, after Prohibition was repealed. Charlie, who runs the estate with his brother Jackie, explains that he was very determined to get the precious paper without delay. He headed to the administration office with his truck, despite heavy snowstorms on that day, and he is the proud possessor of National License number 3. Today, Tomasello produces an incredible variety of wines, including fruit wines, a tradition in the area.
Renault Winery : Renault, the oldest winery in the state, went through Prohibition adapting their production to the Volstead Act, namely producing wine-based tonics including peptone additives for stomach ailments that were sold in pharmacies to cure various diseases.The Milza Family has owned the estate since the late 1970s; they invested in a golf resort as a solution to the difficulties they faced shipping their wines, due to regulatory constraints. Tourism and wine is a powerful alliance; the new bill giving authorisation to ship wine to customers will unleash their energy in winemaking and probably boost the quality of their wines.
The Heritage Vineyards & Winery : Bill and Penni Heritage started to produce wine on their land in 1999. Seeing the potential of the vineyard, they decided to convert the 150 acres (60 hectares) of their orchard.The fields have various expositions dominated by a hummock. Sean Cominos is their winemaker.
We were really impressed by the wine tasting. This handful of determined vintners are clearly on the path to revealing new terroir, pioneer-fashion. Nowadays, pioneers are pushing the boundaries from within, thanks to their knowledge of their land, of their terroir. They work in depth, taking time to understand nature and the best way to reveal its fruits. Backed up by geography, geology and ampelography, they take immense risks to prove they are right and give the best to their clients. It takes time to discover which grape variety is best suited, which process will best enhance its characteristics. The vines' vigour has to be mastered, the yield kept under control, the best varieties have to be promoted. Other vineyards have already travelled this path. In France, Provence for example had to recreate a whole wine culture after the crisis of the 1920s. With the sequels of Prohibition laws vanishing, we are prepared to bet that the region will grow in maturity and soon offer serious wines.
By Emmanuel de Lanversin
Our picks from Outer Coastal Plain
90/100 Amalthea Cellars 2007
90/100 Tomasello Winery 2007
89/100 Renault Winery Estate Reserve 2009
89/100 Amalthea Cellars 2005
89/100 Amalthea Cellars Limited Edition 2006
89/100 Tomasello Winery 2007
89/100 Tomasello Winery 2007
89/100 Ventimiglia Vineyard 2009
88/100 Cape May Winery 2009
88/100 Cape May Winery 2008
88/100 Heritage Vineyards Estate 2010
88/100 Sharrott Winery 2010
88/100 Amalthea Cellars 2008
88/100 Amalthea Cellars Reserve 2006
88/100 Bellview Winery 2009
88/100 Tomasello Winery 2007
88/100 Ventimiglia Vineyard 2010
87/100 Cape May Winery 2010
87/100 Heritage Vineyards Estate Reserve 2010
87/100 Amalthea Cellars 2007
86/100 Sharrott Winery 2010
86/100 Amalthea Cellars 2008
86/100 Amalthea Cellars 2004
86/100 Amalthea Cellars 2005
86/100 Auburn Road vineyards 2007
85/100 Renault Winery Reserve 2009
85/100 Heritage Vineyards Estate Reserve 2009
85/100 Sharrott Winery 2010
85/100 Bellview Winery 2008
85/100 Ventimiglia Vineyard 2009
84/100 Bellview Winery 2008
84/100 Ventimiglia Vineyard 2009
83/100 Heritage Vineyards Estate Reserve 2010
83/100 Sharrott Winery 2010
83/100 Sharrott Winery 2010
82/100 Bellview Winery 2008
80/100 Auburn Road vineyards 2008
75/100 Amalthea Cellars 2008
Dry white wines
89/100 Amalthea Cellars 2008
87/100 Unionville Vineyards 2010
87/100 Cape May Winery 2010
87/100 Cape May Winery 2010
87/100 Cape May Winery 2009
87/100 Sharrott Winery Barrel Reserve 2010
86/100 Amalthea Cellars 2009
86/100 Auburn Road vineyards 2010
86/100 Bellview Winery 2010
86/100 Ventimiglia Vineyard 2010
85/100 Heritage Vineyards Estate Reserve 2010
84/100 Sharrott Winery 2010
82/100 Heritage Vineyards
80/100 Auburn Road vineyards 2010
78/100 Bellview Winery 2010
80/100 Renault Winery 2009
225 White Horse Pike
Hammonton, New Jersey 08037
Tel. +1 (800) 666 9463
209 Vineyard Road
Atco, NJ 08004
Tel. +1 856 768 8585
72 N Bremen Ave Egg Harbor City,
Tel. +1 (609) 965-2111
Heritage Vineyards & Winery
480 Mullica Hill Rd.
Mullica Hill, NJ 08062
Tel. +1 856 589 4474
370 South Egg Harbor Road
Blue Anchor, NJ 08037
Tel. +1 609 567 9463
150 Atlantic Street
Landisville, NJ 08326
Tel. +1 856-697-7172