Wineries of New England: Connecticut Winery Trail
I was back and forth on this post for a while. One one side, an experience is an experience, and it is worth sharing in the blog, as this is what it is for. On another side, what if the experience was not on par? Not on par with your expectations, not on par with what you thought it should’ve been – is that something worth sharing? Or is it not? I’m talking about an experience which was not bad – in general, bad experiences are worth sharing as you might help others to avoid repeating them, or at least you can shout to the world and feel better. The tough case is when the experience was simply mediocre, just an okay type – what do you do then?
Well, I only have two options here – keep the internal debate going, or write the post and share the experience for what it was. Considering that you are reading this post, you already know what route I took, so let’s get to it.
I live in Connecticut for more than 20 years. I’ve caught the wine bug at least 12 years ago. All these years, while I knew that wines are made in Connecticut, I never visited a Connecticut winery – and was actually kind of ashamed of it. During the summer of 2014, the opportunity presented itself, and I was very happy to finally get acquainted with the Connecticut wines at the source.
It appears that modern winemaking started in Connecticut in 1975. Haight Vineyards, now known as Haight-Brown Vineyards, was the first winery to open, and the first vineyard in Connecticut to successfully grow Chardonnay and Riesling. From there, the industry had grown to about 37 wineries in the state in 2014. While Connecticut is not a large state by all means, the wineries are located all over it, so you can only visit a handful of wineries in one day.
Before we talk about wines and wineries, I want to mention an interesting program, called “Passport to Connecticut Farm Wineries”, which is a very smart way to get people interested in visiting more wineries than they otherwise would. The Passport is a small booklet which lists participating Connecticut wineries and allows you to collect special stamps from all the wineries you visited. In case you are wondering, this Passport booklet can be picked up at any participating winery. New “Passport” is issued every year, and it is sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. However, it is worth noting that to be listed in the Passport, each winery have to pay an X amount of money ($2,400 in 2014), and some of the wineries simply skip on participation as they don’t find that worthwhile.
As you collect the stamps at the wineries you visit, you have an option to turn the Passport in by the certain date (it was November 16th in 2014). If you happened to collect all the stamps in the Passport booklet (i.e., visited all the wineries listed, 33 of them in 2014), you will be entered into a drawing to win a two week long trip for two to Spain. With less than a hundred people accomplishing it every year, your chances of winning are quite high. Also, if you will visit 16-32 wineries, you can still participate in the drawing for many interesting prizes. Prizes are good, of course, but even the sheer idea of collecting the stamps makes people to visit more wineries (works on yours truly as a charm).
Okay, now – let’s talk wineries. We only explored 4 wineries during our trip in August, all located in the north-west corner of the state. As a generic note, most of the wineries in the Northeast grow mostly an American hybrid grapes (Vidal Blanc, Cayuga, Marechal Foch, Chambourcin and so on), with the addition of the traditional staples such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, most of the wineries we visited charge $10 – $12 for the tasting ($12 tasting also includes the winery logo glass), which is not that bad.
Our first stop was Hopkins Vineyard, one of the oldest in the state – it was founded in 1979, as the result of conversion from the dairy farm to the vineyard. I was very excited to start my discovery of the Connecticut vineyards – but somehow, that enthusiasm was quickly extinguished with the cold and indifferent demeanor of our host. The guy who was running the tasting for us, couldn’t care less about the group. He was not interested in conversation. He barely answered questions, with his whole attitude been “I’m so tired of you people”. And the wines themselves were not helping. For what is worth, below are my brief notes:
2011 Hopkins Vineyard Duet Estate Bottled ($14.99, Chardonnay/Vidal Blanc) – nice acidity, good white fruit, medium-long finish. Drinkability: 7
2012 Hopkins Vineyard Vineyard Reserve Estate Bottled ($14.99, Seyval Blanc/Traminette) – nice nose, flat palate. Not recommended.
2013 Hopkins Vineyard Lady Rosé Estate Bottled ($15.99, Dornfelder/Lemberger/Pinot Noir) – nice, strawberries on the nose, crisp, but acidity is overbearing. Not recommended.
2010 Hopkins Vineyard Cabernet Franc Estate Bottled ($21.99) – excellent nose, green bell pepper, nice earthiness, good earthy palate. Drinkability: 7+
NV Hopkins Vineyard Red Bard Red ($14.50, Corette Noir and other hybrid grapes) – nice, young, simple, fresh fruit, touch of spices, raspberries and blackberries. In addition to the fact that this was one of the better wines in the tasting, Corette Noir was also a new grape! Drinkability: 7+
NV Hopkins Vineyard Sachem’s Picnic ($14.50, Boca Noir, Dechaunoc) – touch of sweetness, nice for Sangria. Drinkability: 6+
As you can see, this was not a very exciting beginning of the discovery of Connecticut wineries. The actual highlights of this first stop were found outside of the winery in the form of the beautiful sunflowers:
Our next stop was a Haight-Brown Vineyards – the winery I already mentioned as the very first in Connecticut, opening its doors in 1975. The winery was known as the Haight Vineyards until 2007, when it was acquired and renamed into the Haight-Brown Vineyards.
Here we received a better reception, and things started to look up a bit compare to the first visit. Still, no revelations and really no wines which would leave any memory marks. I’m also curious why none of the tasting notes list any vintages for any of the wines. You would think that the notes are reprinted for every new wine, so it shouldn’t be very difficult to add the vintage there – however, none of the wineries we visited had this information on. Another interesting note was a proud mention of the 15% ABV for the Big Red wine (none of the other notes have ABV listed) – it was almost shown as a point of achievement, which was really mind boggling to me. In addition to the wines, you can buy different olive oils at the Haight-Brown tasting room. And, most importantly, Haight-Brown offers meat and cheese boards, which came in very handy as the group was ready to eat. For what it worth, below are the wine notes:
Haight-Brown Vineyards Chardonnay ($16.98) – Chablis nose, restrained, green apple, good acidity. Drinkability: 7+
Haight-Brown Vineyards Railway White ($14.98, Seyval Blanc) – tropical fruit and lychees on the nose, nice creaminess on the palate, ripe golden delicious, good acidity. Drinkability: 7-
Haight-Brown Vineyards Riesling ($16.98) – Finger Lakes fruit. Nice nose, but needs more acidity. Drinkability: 7-
Haight-Brown Vineyards Picnic Red ($15.98, Foch/Dechaunoc) – simple, nice, open grapey nose, the same on the palate. Drinkability: 7
Haight-Brown Vineyards Morning Harvest ($19.98, Ruby Red Cabernet) – green bell pepper nose, classic, light and balanced Cabernet palate with a touch of sweet oak. Drinkability: 7+
Haight-Brown Vineyards Big Red ($19.98, 15% ABV, California Cabernet Sauvignon) – Classic, big flavors, nice green notes, okay balance. Drinkability: 7-
Our next stop was at the Sunset Meadow Vineyards, which probably was the highlight of the day – for sure in the terms of very friendly service. And then the wines were a bit better than at the previous two wineries. Interestingly enough, the Shades of Risqué Sparkling Wine, simple and unassuming, was my personal favorite. Here is what we tasted, with the notes:
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Riesling ($21.99) – interesting, acidic, light. Drinkability: 7
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Cayuga White ($16.99) – beautiful nose of pear and apple, good acidity, good balance. Drinkability: 7+
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Vidal Blanc ($18.99) – nice residual sweetness, good balance. Drinkability: 7+
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Blustery Blend ($16.99, Cayuga/Seyval Blanc/Chardonel) – nice nose, palate too sweet. And new grape – Chardonel! Drinkability: 7
Sunset Meadow Vineyards St. Croix ($24.99, 24 mo in oak) – nice earthy nose, a bit astringent on the palate with some salinity. Drinkability: 7-
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Merlot ($18.99, 24 mo in French oak) – tobacco and green pepper on the palate, overall missing the balance. Drinkability: 6+
2012 Sunset Meadow Vineyards New Dawn ($22.00, Landot Noir/Frontenac/Petit Verdot/Merlot) – astringent, sharp, spicy. Drinkability: 7-
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Shades of Risqué Sparkling Wine ($16.99) – round, simple, good balance. Drinkability: 7+
Sunset Meadow Vineyards Root 63 ($16.99) – nice and round, good balance. Drinkability: 7+
To be entirely honest, we also stopped at the Miranda Vineyards, but – I don’t have any notes to share. I remember tasting the wines (no standouts), and I remember taking the pictures – I even have a stamp in the Passport book – but no notes. So here are a few pictures for you:
There you have it, my friends – my first encounter with the Connecticut wineries. Not a great experience – but still an experience, which will leave a memory mark. I would think that 40 years should be a good time period to figure out what works, what doesn’t, what grows well, and then make interesting wines – but it was not really the case. Yes, there are more wineries in Connecticut, and so there is a hope for the memorable wines to be found close to home. And by the way, if you visited wineries I mentioned, and had a different experience – let me know – may be it was a root day after all. Cheers!