A Jewell of a Wine

You have to admire those brave souls who go ahead and do things that everyone else knows simply can’t be done. When wineries are mentioned, most connoisseurs think of French chateaux or California vineyards. But growing grapes in New Hampshire cold climate? It can be done if you know which grapes do best in that weather.

Connoisseurs see the popularity of a handful of wine varieties like Chardonnay as one more step toward the global standardization of food. Why, wine lovers ask, would residents of New Hampshire buy a Chardonnay from an industrialized vineyard in Australia, where rows of vines stretch over the horizon and satellite-controlled harvesters pick eight rows of grapes at a time, when they could buy a flavorful Cayuga handcrafted from New Hampshire soil by their neighbors?

One reason, of course, is that these local wines are still produced in fairly small quantities, and are available at relatively few outlets. But many people who have had the chance to try New Hampshire wines are surprised — first by the fact that they exist, then by the fact that they are so good.

No one expects that New Hampshire will become the next Napa Valley — or even the Finger Lakes. But that’s not really a problem; it’s an advantage. When you visit a wine-growing region, you want to taste the local specialty. And New Hampshire is developing its own with fine wines from the grapes they are growing.

Jewell Towne Vineyards is one of only a handful of commercial growers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and consistently earns high praise in national competition. Located on the Powow River in South Hampton, the vineyard has been producing wine commercially since 1994. It’s come a long way from only 40 cases in its first season to more than 2,000 today. Jewell Towne’s wines, including Seyval, Chardonnay, Maréchal Foch and Vidal Ice Wine have won acclaim from consumers and critics alike.

In 1977, Peter Oldak, an emergency room physician, and his wife Brenda moved to a 12-acre farm in South Hampton. In 1982, Dr. Oldak planted six grapevines in his garden. Four years later, he began making wine. Each year, more vines and varieties were planted to determine which would do best in the New Hampshire climate and soil, and which varieties would produce good wine.

By 1990, there were more than 60 varieties of American, European and French hybrid grapes in the ground; it soon became evident that the Oldak’s vineyard, with its southward facing slopes, possessed an ideal micro-climate for wine growing.

In 1990, the vineyard was established and named for the Jewell Towne Historic District of South Hampton, where it is located. Over time, Dr. Oldak narrowed the focus of his grape growing to some 20 varieties and worked on improving his viniculture skills.

At first, wine was produced in the cellar of the Oldak’s home. Due to increasing production and limited space, the Oldaks decided to build an 18th-century reproduction, New England-style, post-and-beam barn in the middle of the vineyard.

But it’s the wines that people come for, not the barn where it’s made. The Maréchal Foch/Private Reserve and Maréchal Foch/Vintner’s Select are both loaded with fruit and rich in tannins. The same can be said for the 2002 Leon Millot, Chancellor, Landot Noir and the South Hampton Red. In addition to their vintage Ice Wine, Jewell Towne offers a non-vintage Ice Wine under the label “Rhapsody in Blue.” The vineyard has recently released a new grape variety — Traminette — a hybrid, which includes Gewürztraminer in its parentage. It produces an off-dry German-style white wine that possesses a floral bouquet.

N.H.’s Wine Country: When You Go

Jewell Towne Winery is open for wine tastings, tours and sales Saturdays and Sundays from noon-5 p.m, May through December and by arrangement at other times. A comprehensive winery tour takes you through the winemaking process, from the crushing of the grapes through the fermentation and aging process to the bottling. During the tour you’ll sample some of the winery’s selected vintages, and you’ll also have the opportunity to purchase bottles or cases that are to your liking.

While you’re on the seacoast, you might also want to visit New Hampshire’s other vineyard, Flag Hill Winery in Lee. The tasting room and winery gift shop are open from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

Some of the people who visit wine-tasting rooms know their way around fine wines. They are the ones who look like they know what they are doing when they sniff a glass of wine, swirl it around in their mouths and then spit it out, ready to try the next vintage. There are also neophytes among the visitors, people stopping by out of curiosity. They needn’t be self-conscious about their limited knowledge of viniculture. The people who work in the tasting rooms are just as friendly to folks who are accustomed to wine that comes in a bottle with a screw-on top as they are to those with fussy palates.

Before setting out on a New Hampshire winery tour, eat a hearty breakfast. Even those who expectorate all of what they sample will still absorb some alcohol. If you taste and spit 20 wines, before too long you’ll feel the effects of the alcohol. It’s wise to start the day with proteins that buffer the effects of residual alcohol.

Wine tasting is supposed to be fun. Like the rest of the state, New Hampshire wine — and the folks who make it — hark back to a simpler, more genuine time. Enjoy. NH