New Hampshire's Vineyards and Wineries
A Harvest Season Trail to New Hampshire's Best Wineries
Wine, one sip of this will bathe the drooping spirits in delight beyond the bliss of dreams. Be wise and taste.
– John Milton
I drink wine. Many people do. We grab a bottle at the store to serve with dinner. We order a glass or two at a restaurant. It's part of life – and so it has been since the magic of fruit fermentation was first discovered.
But think outside the box, or bottle trucked from California: go visit a New Hampshire winery to taste some truly local wines. I did, and this is what I learned.
NH wines are different
They do not taste like wines from the West Coast, Europe or South America. They are made from grapes that grow where summers are short, winters are cold and there is abundant rain and snow. Or, they are made from New Hampshire-grown fruit like apples, blueberries and blackberries. Sometimes they are made with honey. They are made in small batches with limited distribution. They are unique, often delicious and truly worth seeking out.
Hermit Woods Winery is off the beaten path – both geographically and compared to most of the winemaking world. A signpost near the tasting room, in the Lakes Region town of Sanbornton, has arrows pointing to Napa Valley, France, South America and nine other New Hampshire wineries. But inside, owner Bob Manley promises: "You will never have wines like this anywhere else." (WebExtra: Check out a video of Hermit Woods Winery)
Manley, Chuck Lawrence and Ken Hardcastle are three good friends with varied life experience and complementary talents who loved to talk about – and drink – wine together when they decided to open Hermit Woods in 2009. Hardcastle, a geologist by profession, is also a self-taught wizard of winemaking. His complex, dry wines are made with honey from his own bees, orange daylily flowers, local apples and blueberries and wild-foraged fruit like elderberries and rose hips. The very first batch of Hermit Woods' Heirloom Crabapple Wine was made with fruit from the crabapple tree in the front yard of Manley's house, where the winery is located.
My idea of what wine is - and can be – will never be the same after I tasted Hermit Woods' Knot Tomato wine. It begins with five varieties of tomatoes grown locally, fermented whole and gently strained to capture the health benefits and flavor intensity. Rhubarb is blended to balance the tomato sweetness with tang and acidity, explains Hardcastle, as he pours an ounce or so into my glass. He added the invasive perennial Japanese knotweed, which grows wild in his back yard, to provide a boost of healthy resveratrol. This is a very odd wine, but I definitely like it.
Hermit Woods wines are available in a few markets and restaurants – but, like other New Hampshire wines, the widest selection is available at the winery. Learning about the wines directly from the winemaker is another reason to make the trip.
This is the best way. Make it a quest. Or even just a Sunday drive. Sample these wines where they are made, at the wineries. You can try six or more wines at one visit for free or for the cost of a souvenir wine glass. And you may be able to walk through the very vineyard where the grapes were grown, or at least enjoy the view.
Dr. Oldak is a pioneer of growing wine grapes in New Hampshire. He and his wife Brenda moved to a 12-acre farm in South Hampton in 1977. He planted six individual grapevines in 1982; by 1990, his vineyard was blossoming (and fruiting) with 60 different varieties. He experimented and learned, narrowing his focus to the 20 most successful grapes, while refining his winemaking skills.
Jewell Towne Vineyards was established in 1990; it is the oldest winery in New Hampshire. Like most New Hampshire wineries, it's a family affair. Brenda Oldak designed the labels and participates in every aspect of the business, along with the Oldak children Tenley and Trevor. Brenda's paintings are showcased in the balcony gallery inside the post-and-beam winery in the midst of the verdant vineyard.
Established just a few months after Jewell Towne, Flag Hill Winery is located in Lee, edging the populous Seacoast region. Twenty acres are planted with vines and a total of 114 acres are protected as conservation land, including undeveloped frontage on two rivers. (WebExtra: Check out a video of Flag Hill Winery)
If you need another reason to visit a New Hampshire winery and "drink local," remember: wineries help keep New Hampshire green.
"When you buy a bottle directly from a local winery, the better part of the cost is going to a local agricultural business," says Heather Houle, marketing director at Flag Hill.
The day I visited with a couple of family members and a friend, we could choose our tastings from four fruit wines, five white wines, six reds and 10 varieties of liqueurs and hard liquors. (Flag Hill has added a distillery, where they make, among other potent concoctions, John Stark Vodka from New Hampshire-grown apples.)
Grapes for the wines are grown on site. Tours are held at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. We walked among trellised grapevines and clusters of ripening grapes, and then we entered the processing rooms with fermentation tanks and oak barrels, and learned a little bit about how wine is made.
Flag Hill is scenic, with its open, rolling vineyards. The land was once a dairy farm. Some vineyards, like Hermit Woods and Zorvino in Sandown, are nestled in woods. Others, like Walpole Mountain View Winery in Walpole and Haunting Whisper Vineyards in Danbury, are on steep hillsides with distant views.
At Haunting Whisper Vineyards, we drove up a steep driveway to the tasting room overlooking acres of grapes and a small lake tucked among hills. (WebExtra: Check out a video of Haunting Whisper Vineyards)
As we tasted wines made from grapes with curious, evocative names like Edelweiss, Aurore, Vignoles and Marechal Foch, owner and winemaker Eric Wiswall explained how he and his wife Erin chose the name Haunting Whisper. "It's windy in the winter, and sometimes the clouds roll in below us instead of above us. You can see the full moon and the bare oak trees. It's spooky."
Fulchino Vineyard in Hollis is right next door to metropolitan Nashua. The grapes are closely planted on three-and-a-half acres of rich, old river-bottom land, in a neighborhood that is borderline suburban. "People come out here at lunch sometimes just to relax and watch the grapes grow," says owner and winemaker Al Fulchino.
They also go there to try (and to buy) the wine, of course. There are 25 different kinds, with names like Mirabella, Bianco, Vivace and Vivere. Fulchino learned winemaking from his Italian grandfather.
"Wine to me is a food not a beverage," he says, as we squeeze into the tiny tasting room. He is deeply tanned and wears a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He talks about his philosophy of winemaking, accompanied by a background soundtrack of Italian music.
"I make what I like to drink. I don't enter contests," he says. Most of his wines are blends; some of the grapes are imported.
Fulchino is building a new Italian villa-style winery himself, in his spare time, next to the current building. He tends his grapes, harvests them and makes the wines, inviting natural "New Hampshire" yeast to aid the process through open-air fermentation.
I especially like his full-bodied reds. The Vivace is lively, the Mirabella velvety and smooth, the Cenare spicy and rich. I imagine the many good meals they could enhance. The chance to taste before you buy is also a great reason to visit a winery. I go home with a bottle of Classico.
Wine enhances appetite – plan ahead
At Zorvino Vineyards in Sandown, I tasted an apple wine that is like biting into a thirst-quenching green apple. The luscious aroma and flavor of the strawberry wine I sipped at WindRoc Vineyard in Newfields reminded me of picking ripe strawberries in sunny fields. (WebExtra: Check out a video of Zorvino Vineyards)
At Hermit Woods, I was told that the Heirloom Apple wine has synergy with seafood. Al Fulchino suggested pairing his sangria-like Provence wine, with cherry and raspberry flavors, with grilled meat.
Drinking wine, I couldn't help but think of food.
Many tasting rooms have a bowl of crackers at the bar. Walpole Mountain View Winery serves local cheeses with your wine samples, on a new tasting room overlooking the Connecticut River Valley and the mountains beyond.
Gilmanton Winery has a restaurant that serves a five-course Sunday brunch. Tastings are held on the front porch of their farmhouse where, in 1954, Grace Metalious wrote the popular novel "Peyton Place" about the scandalous secrets of a small New England town. (WebExtra: Check out a video of Gilmanton Winery)
The winery hosts frequent special dinners and events open to the community, like a Jazz Dinner and a Girls' Night Out. The owners, Marshall and Sunny Bishop, have a personal hand in everything that goes on at the winery, which is also a working farm with a friendly herd of alpacas.
Call ahead and Gilmanton Winery will prepare a lunch, dinner or snack with a blanket and bottle of wine of your choice. Then hop on the golf cart and find the perfect spot on the farm for a picnic.
"Spicy Asian." At Candia Vineyards, that was owner and winemaker Bob Dabrowski's recommendation for the perfect meal to accompany his aromatic, off-dry Diamond white wine. (WebExtra: Check out a video of Candia Vineyards)
The tasting room at Candia Vineyards is down half a flight of stairs at one side of an ordinary-looking house on Rte. 27. Inside is a massive old bank vault door, protecting the wine cellar. It's a nod to Dabrowski's past as a financial analyst, and it signifies that there are treasures within.
Dabrowski grows most of the French hybrid grapes that thrive in New Hampshire. All of his red wines are "traditional," with no sugar added. He is perhaps best known for his Black Ice and Ice Storm wines, among the world's most awarded "twin" dessert wines (red and white). He has won more medals for his red Noiret than any other winemaker in the US.
He shares advice for pairing wines with food. "Lobster with the La Crescent." (My stomach rumbles.)
Wine tastings do pair well with visits to local restaurants. Plan ahead or ask at the winery. At the advice of Eric Wiswall at Haunting Whisper, we stopped at Kathleen's Cottage Irish Pub in Bristol. The Inn at Newfound Lake is also a great spot to dine with just a slight route deviation between Haunting Whisper and Hermit Woods.
A ride between Seacoast wineries can easily accommodate a stop in Exeter at the superb Epoch Restaurant and Bar or Bontá in Hampton, just off of I-95. The restaurants of Portsmouth are about half an hour away from Flag Hill.
Zorvino has a bocce ball court next to the vineyards. Next time I go, I will bring a picnic and some friends.
Don't be shy
See, swirl, sniff, sip and savor. According to "The Wine Bible," these are the five basic steps involved in wine tasting: Note the color, oxygenate the wine with a swirl before lifting the glass to your nose, inhale and then sip – amen.
In a tasting room there will be someone to lead you through the process, answer questions and make suggestions.
Jane and her husband Peter make 13 wines from their own grapes including Marechal Foch, Cayuga, Seyval and Leon Millot. Their new Winnipesaukee White is made from Niagara grapes, which are native to North America. It tastes like a bunch of green grapes you ate on the front porch in summertime as a kid.
New Hampshire now has enough wineries that there are several "wine trails" being published (click here for a couple of options). But even in the Seacoast region, where a quartet of wineries runs north to south and two more are just inland, I found it impractical to visit more than two in one day. I could do three, but that would be the limit, and still I'd be hurrying to get to the next one before closing.
Also, there is only so much you can imbibe, even when you are not the driver. Your six (at least) servings are generally an ounce each, and legally up to two ounces. Don't rush: linger over your glass; enjoy the wine and the moment. For you never know what the road ahead will bring.
In our explorations we took the wine "trail" concept a little too seriously when we took a wrong turn onto a Class 6 road near Hermit Woods. We were in the woods both literally and psychologically as the road narrowed, got steeper, turned to dirt and became rutted and full of actual rocks. In a situation like this, the most important thing to do is to secure the bottles of wine you have already purchased. My traveling companion, my wine-loving stepmother Julie, who was visiting from Pennsylvania, is always up for an adventure. Still, as the road got rougher, I tried to strike a positive note: "If we break down, at least we have wine to drink while we wait for help." (Wine with a spooky owl on the label, from Haunting Whisper.)
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in NH
There are a lot of creative, energetic people getting into winemaking now, according to Dr. Oldak. "These people are disenchanted with corporate America. They're looking for a change; they want to get back to the earth. They're looking for ways to express their individual creativity."
Oldak has shared his knowledge with a new generation of enthusiastic wine makers. He founded the New Hampshire Winery Association in 2006. There is now at least one winery in every county in the state. "I joke that I have mentored my competition," he says.
Sweet Baby Vineyards owners Lewis and Stacey Eaton are excited to be moving their tasting room and winemaking equipment from their home in the Seacoast town of Kensington to a new, much larger building in neighboring East Kingston this month.
LaBelle Winery is opening a new 11-acre winery on Rte. 101 in Amherst that will allow quadruple the amount of wine to be produced. Facilities include a Celebration Hall with a vaulted ceiling for functions of up to 200 people, an outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyard and an intimate Vintage Room. The tasting room will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with 22 varieties of LaBelle wine on hand to sample. Amy LaBelle was a corporate attorney before she opened LaBelle Winery and began making wine to showcase New England grown fruit.
Eric Wiswall was an engineer and Erin Wiswall a senior scientist in Massachusetts when they decided to put down roots in New Hampshire. They bought 75 acres and planted the vineyards at Haunting Whisper in 2005. Like many of New Hampshire's winemakers, the Wiswalls' experience has been full of hard work, trial and error. But today they have 12 varieties of cold-hardy grapes and their wines are starting to win awards.
But the rewards of making wine need not wait for such recognition. As they write on their website, "What better way to end a work day than with a glass containing the tasty nectar from fermented fruits of our own labor." NH
Click here for more information about the New Hampshire Winery Association and upcoming events. You can taste many local wines at the Wicked Wine and Brew Fest on Sept. 8 in Litchfield. Click here for tickets and more information.
Special Event: Barrel Tasting Weekend at Lakes Region Wineries on September 29–30.
Wine grapes in the Granite State
Malbec and merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay – wine drinkers are familiar with many of the grapes used to make the world's most popular wines. But the grapes that grow in New Hampshire are different.
"Wine is place. Every region has its own grapes that do well," says Dr. Peter Oldak, a pioneer of growing wine grapes in the Granite State.
Oldak grows French-American hybrids to make his Jewell Towne Vineyard wines. These hybrids were developed after the blight that decimated the vineyards of France in the 19th century. French botanists crossed European and North American vines, creating disease-resistant, cold-hardy varieties.
Originally, these hybrids were not permitted in professional winemaking, explains Oldak. (After the French wine blight, European winemakers learned to graft European grape vines onto North American rootstock.) But now there are more than 200 varieties, some developed recently at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota. Oldak planted six individual grapevines in 1982; by 1990 his hobby vineyard was blossoming (and fruiting) with 60 different varieties. He experimented and learned, narrowing his focus to the 20 most successful grapes while refining his winemaking skills. Jewell Towne Vineyards opened in 1994. It is the oldest winery in New Hampshire. (Flag Hill in Lee opened a few months later.)
Oldak has shared his knowledge with a new generation of enthusiastic winemakers. He founded the New Hampshire Winery Association in 2006. There is now at least one winery in every county in the state. "I joke that I have mentored my competition," he says.
Notable wine grapes being grown and made into wine in New Hampshire right now.
Marechal Foch – A French-American hybrid hardy to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, this grape makes a medium-bodied red wine of "Burgundian" character. It can be made dry or slightly sweet. Jewell Towne Vineyards' Marechal Foch "Traditional" is a fruity, light-bodied red wine with cherry aromas; $9. Flag Hill's Marechal Foch is a medium-bodied dry red with earthy undertones and well-balanced oak; $12.95.
Leon Millot – A sister grape to Marechal Foch, it too makes a softer red. Sweet Baby Vineyard's Callum's Red is made with Leon Millot grapes; it is an off-dry dark red wine with hints of blackberries; $14. Sweet Baby Vineyard also blends Leon Millot with New Hampshire-grown white peaches to make the semi-sweet Baby's Blush wine; $8.
Chancellor – A French-American hybrid red. Jewell Towne uses the grape to make a sweet Port with intense red berry aroma and hints of chocolate and vanilla; $18. Sweet Baby Vineyard's Chancellor is a medium-bodied, dry red with hints of black cherry and vanilla; $14.
Noiret – Developed and named at Cornell University, this grape makes a rich, full-bodied red. Candia Vineyards' award-winning Noiret is dry, with intense pepper and mocha overtones, $16.
Marquette – Developed in Minnesota, this grape is hardy to minus 30 degrees and is especially disease-resistant, extending the range of grape cultivation. Walpole Mountain View Winery's Marquette is full-bodied with an aroma of spices, blackberries and baked apple, $21.
Aurore – A French-American hybrid grape, it makes a crisp white wine similar to a pinot grigio. Jewell Towne's Aurore has hints of green apple, with a balanced acidity and minerality; $8. Haunting Whisper Vineyards' Aurore has a subtle fruit balance with a semi-dry finish; $12.
Seyval Blanc – A hybrid grape with a citrus aroma and pleasant minerality, Seyval makes a full-bodied wine, dry or sweet, sometimes compared to a French chablis. Gilmanton Winery's Seyval is off-dry; $14.25. Gilmanton Winery's "Grace's" is a blend of Seyval and 32-percent Concord grape; $14.25.
Vidal Blanc – Developed in France in the 1930s to make wine for cognac, this grape is high in acidity and fruitiness. Jewell Towne's Vidal is a full-bodied, off dry, fruity, floral white with pear and grapefruit aromas; $9.
Vignoles – This French-American hybrid makes a semi-sweet, almost honeyed wine, resembling a sauterne. Flag Hill's Vignoles is crisp, with notes of melon and pear; $12.95. Haunting Whisper's Vignoles has a distinct nose and flavor of apricots; $12.
Cayuga – Developed at Cornell University, this hybrid cross between a riesling and Seyval Blanc makes a mild white similar to Aurore. Stone Gate Vineyard's Cayuga is dry with a sweet, citrus aroma; $13.
La Crescent – Developed in Minnesota, it is hardy to minus 30 degrees F. Candia Vineyards' La Crescent has aromas of melon and Muscat; $19.