Passport to Connecticut Wine Country

Decades Magazine - Spring 2006


That Connecticut makes first class wines is not a hidden secret. I first tasted Connecticut wines nearly twenty years ago during an extended autumn leaf-peeping trip when I escaped the confines of New York City where I was living. I found the wines to be passable, but rather pricey, and for several years I did not find an excuse to try them again. Then, when I moved from the sophisticated environs of Manhattan, to rural America, I began re-tasting wines from the northeast. One winery I visited was Chamard in Clinton, and I particularly remembered a 1995 Chardonnay. It’s crisp yet subtle lemon and green apple scented nose, and rich, oak nuanced profile reminded me of Premier cru wine from Frances’ re-knowned Burgundy region. It seemed age-worthy, so I bought a case. I’m down to my last 2 bottles. The wines are still remarkably fresh, and the wine has taken on that formidable patina that old white Burgundies possess.

Humble Beginnings

The wine industry in Connecticut began at Haight Vineyards in 1975, when Sherman Haight, inspired by the legendary Dr. Konstantin Frank who had successfully grown grapes in the Finger Lakes in New York State, decided to plant vines at his 165 hobby farm in Litchfield. He was instrumental in the Connecticut State legislature passing a farm winery law in 1978 and things have never looked back since. When I visited the winery in 2000 to research an article on Connecticut wineries I couldn’t help but notice a fading framed article from the New York Times from 19th December 1984 on a wall of the tasting room. The article describes the uncorking of Connecticut’s first bubbly wine, and lists the Connecticut vineyards that were making wine back then. There was Di-grazia at Brookfield Center and Hopkins Vineyards at Warren. But the two vineyards from Stonington, Clarke Vineyards and Stone Crop Vineyards, Crosswood Vineyards from North Stonington and Hamlet Hill Vineyards from Pomfret no longer exist. Since those pioneering days things have changed.  Now, there are sixteen vineyards comprising the present Connecticut Wine Trail. Most make wine from grapes, but several make wine from the abundant local fruit such as apples and pears. And as wineries have disappeared, new luminaries have appeared like Chamard in Clinton, Jonathan Edwards in Stonington, and the newest, and exciting Kid on the Block, Priam Vineyards in Colchester. They have consolidated and made Connecticut’s wines world class.

A Wine Trail

As the weather, and the earth, warms, and buds begin to split and break out on the vines, I’ll start visiting the wineries to sample their new offerings. As the season progresses and the grapes fill out and ripen, and the harvest begins, this is a trail I’ll continue. And I suggest you should take it too. An added bonus is that at your first winery, pick up the Connecticut Wine Trail Passport. Get it stamped at each of the sixteen wineries and you become eligible for a drawing for an exotic trip to explore other wine regions in America and Europe.

World Class Wines – On Our Doorstep.

Since those pioneering days of the 1970’s the wine industry in Connecticut has made great strides. Great wines of course, begin in the vineyard and vineyard husbandry has improved considerably. Wineries are identifying the best locations, and best grape types and grape clones to use. In the cellars, along with modern equipment, there is state-of-the-art information on how to best transform grapes into wine, with such devices as controlled fermentation using special yeasts, and the use of American and European oak. As a result of research and development there’s an even better understanding of what works here in the northeast.

White wine has always been the most recognized and appreciated wine made in the northeast. Haight’s first vines were Chardonnay and Riesling.  And these varieties have proved themselves in many of Connecticut’s vineyards. Everyone knows Chardonnay, and the signature crisp apple and pear toned wines made by Chamard Vineyards, Stonington Vineyard, Sharpe Hill Vineyards, and Hopkins Vineyard have become Connecticut’s signature white wine. They’ve garnered many accolades in international tasting competitions. But increased awareness of Riesling and Gurwutrtraminer, along with the always faithful Vidal Blanc and Cayuga, provide exciting alternatives to Chardonnay. These whites are stylishly akin to the bright Burgundies of France’s Chablis and Cote de Beaune regions, and the crisp wines from the Loire valley.

The great red wine hope in this region has been Cabernet Franc. But look out for St. Croix. It is proving to be an ideal grape for our climate. Just taste Sharpe Hill and Priam Vineyards versions of this versatile grape. It’s virtually impossible for Connecticut to make deep hearty reds, or even whites such as those made in sunnier climes like Napa Valley and Australia - except in exceptionally warm years - and who knows, with the planet reputedly warming, we might be able to make deep rich Cabs and Merlots on a regular basis soon! I like to think of Connecticut’s red wines as being on a par with France’s great reds from France’s Loire valley. They are medium bodied and extremely food friendly, with excellent acidity and aromatics.

And don’t overlook the other wines being made. There are excellent sparklers being made at Hopkins Vineyard. And Sharpe Hill’s late harvest Vignole and Riesling blend is world class.

A Restaurant Revolution!

There’s an abundance, and quality, of Connecticut produce, such as the glorious artisan cheeses from the likes of Cato Corner, and the scallops and oysters and fish found off of New England’s coast. Many of Connecticut’s restaurants are utilizing these fine resources, but it irks me that many of these same restaurants do not support Connecticut’s wineries like they should. In every restaurant I visit in Connecticut, I make a point of asking what Connecticut wines are included in their wine list. Restaurants should take the lead from Sherlock’s in Old Lyme. It boasts a wine list serving several wines from the northeast including Stonington Vineyards, Jonathan Edwards, Sharpe  Hill and Chamard Vineyards alongside other excellent New England producers such as Westport Rivers from Westport in Massachusetts and  Wolffer Estate  and the Lieb Family Vineyards in New York’s Long Island.

The Connecticut Wine Trail

Established in 1988, the Connecticut Wine Trail consists of sixteen vineyards. It’s possible to hurry along and visit them all in about two days. But traveling through some of Connecticut’s prettiest and striking landscapes, I’d suggest that instead of hurrying, pass through slowly, and consider lingering. Walk the vineyards, absorb the unique atmosphere of a vineyard. Consider the poetry of the vine! Call me a romantic, but whenever I traverse a vineyard I become aware of an evocative image of the vine as it absorbs the essence of the land, the air, and the sun. This alchemy manifested itself as grapes. Then there’s the mystery of fermentation, the transformation, and the encapsulation. A bottle of wine is a unique statement of the land! It’s the bottled essence of the land.

The Connecticut Wine Trail trail is split into two sections. Each section covers eight vineyards. The eastern section consists of Gouveia Vineyards in Wallingford; Bishop's Orchards Winery in Guilford; Chamard Vineyards in Clinton; Stonington Vineyards in Stonington; Jonathan Edwards in North Stonington; Heritage Trail Vineyards in Lisbon; Priam Vineyards in Colchester and Sharpe Hill in Pomfret.

The western section consists of Jones Winery in Shelton; McLaughlin Vineyard in Sandy Hook; Digrazia Vineyard in Brookfield; White Silo Winery in Sherman; Hopkins Vineyard in New Preston; Haight Vineyard in Litchfield; Land of Nod Winery in Canaan and Jerram Winery in New Hartford.

The Passport

The Connecticut Wine Council is again running a successful promotional event called the Connecticut Wine Trail Passport. In it’s third year, this special passport that’s available free at all the wineries, documents the wine traveler as he or she visits each of the sixteen  Connecticut wineries between May 1st and October 29th. When the traveler has visited each winery they will be eligible for a drawing for one of three prizes supplied by Dolce Heritage. The first prize is six nights accommodation at Dolce Ban Nauheim in Frankfurt, Germany. Second prize is similar accommodation at Dolce Spencer Hall in London, Ontario, Canada and the third prize is a week at Dolce Haynes Mansion in San Jose, California.  All these places are within striking distance of some of the world’s re-knowned wine regions.

A brochure explaining the wineries and trail can be downloaded from the Connecticut Wine Trail website, or a copy can be obtained by phoning 860-267-1399. Each winery has different opening times, so check before you visit. Farm wineries are permitted to open on Sundays making the weekends prime wine hunting days! Happy Hunting!