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Connecticut wines: A tale of revolution and evolution

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Hopkins Vineyard recently held its Wine Festival, part wine party, part debut of its 2010 vintage, and all celebration of Connecticut viticulture. Hopkins' renown, its location, and the simple but solid show it puts on every year compelled about 300 friends of the vineyard, wine fans, and others just satisfying their curiosity to slog up to New Preston on a rainy day when even the fish in Lake Waramaug went looking for cover.

Those who showed up shelled out $32 per person for the privilege of tasting 11 of Hopkins' wines, enjoying a beautiful spread of rustic cheeses, pates, vegetable terrines and learning about wine from owner Bill Hopkins and winemaker James Baker. Hopkins' visitor center was also open for a brisk business in bottles and cases of wine. In the center's gift shop, husband and wife Eric Lehman and Amy Nawrocki, lecturers at the University of Bridgeport and authors of the brand-new "A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in your Backyard," were on hand to sign copies of their excellent, well-researched, easy-to-digest, 120-page sprite on viticulture in the Nutmeg State.

I am periodically asked "So, how are Connecticut wines?" From most customers, it is a rhetorical question, a time-filler as we pass by the end-cap in the store that features those wines and move on to the "exciting" fighting varietals that are vinified to formula from soulless grapes raised on multiple, mostly anonymous plots in a roasting California sun and pasted with a label whose ability to spark recognition and interest among consumers was won by relentless advertising in the wine-trade magazines and well-timed promotional programs from distributors. Thankfully, this silliness is coming to an end. I would never suggest that Connecticut wines are "world-class," if by that it means that they will rival Hermitage, Piedmont, Rioja, the Mosel or the Rutherford Bench for complexity. Then again, while I would never pass up an invitation to dine at Jean-Georges, neither would I tell a friend who is offering me a perfectly-grilled steak with spring corn and a baked potato, "Sorry, chum, but tonight, it's fast-food for me. The price is right, the service is in-and-out, and I won't waste time savoring the experience afterwards."

In other words, it is downright ignorant to overlook Connecticut wines while simultaneously reaching for over-processed grape syrup on toast of the $12 to $15 ilk. There are few, if any, downright unpalatable wines made anymore in Connecticut. Moreover, the wines have a freshness that is only found in locally made products. And Connecticut wines seize the imagination, because they bring us closer to the winemaking process. These are wines one could imagine being able to make, if one had the talent, time and capital. I could never imagine making Hermitage, since that is a multi-generational, perhaps even a multi-century, proposition. Nor could I imagine making soulless wine, since that would assume I had favored Dr. Frankenstein's Faustian bargain over the expression of nature. But I can appreciate Connecticut wines in their time and place just as I frankly appreciate a home-made meal every day more than I would a three-star restaurant on the same daily basis.

It is also important not to ignore Connecticut's signs of greatness, or stay satisfied with "good-enough." Sadly, I never have tasted Larry McCulloch's now legendary 2001 Chardonnay when he was at Chamard Vineyards, the wine that Hugh Johnson gave such praise to. But I have tasted the Pinot Gris that he makes with Jamie Jones at Jones Family Vineyard, and I would put it up against any Pinot Gris in the world, including those of Alsace, Trentino and Oregon. It is magical. Similarly, Gary Crump and Gloria Priam's Rieslings, at Priam Vineyards, are outstanding; their efforts at finding the right grapes for Connecticut and establishing Connecticut's terroir are tireless. It is the kind of dedication that abounds in Connecticut, and the combination of conscience and discipline that creates great wine regions. Connecticut can now consider itself an established wine region. Signs of this are everywhere. At Hopkins, I saw some guests who were re-living a 1960s back-to-the-farm nostalgia, but there was also a large group of people under 30 who considered the festival a learning experience as much as a good time. Bill Hopkins' emphasis on offering a barrel-tasting to compare with the same wines from other vintages was a subtle nod to educating the public's palate. It was the highlight of the show.

Most of Connecticut's wineries are on solid financial footing, and new wineries are sprouting in the state, which has consistently supported viticulture in a way that retailers and consumers of retail wines can only dream about. The state also established a viticultural research station in Hamden a number of years ago which is funded by the wineries and uses few tax dollars. More importantly, its mission is tightly focused on finding the right grapes and clones for Connecticut and learning as much as possible about the soil and climate that would make top wines in Connecticut.

Even two years ago, I would not have predicted such good things for Connecticut's wines. Marketing and sales channels were limited. Most wine was sold at the wineries themselves. But the Passport Program, which offers entry into a raffle for a trip to a European wine region provided the bearer gets a stamp at every winery in the state and which provides for better penetration of the retail market through Connecticut's distributors, has expanded consumer exposure to the wines. Website and brochure production values are far stronger than they were just a while ago. And events such as the Hopkins Festival or the Miranda Vineyard Pig Roast are big attractions that get people talking to their neighbors about Connecticut wine. The Nutmeg Wine Revolution has been underway for some time, and is now finally gaining traction among the public-at-large. Within the Connecticut wine trade, the revolution has been known for some time to those who were curious. But with the appearance of Lehman and Nawrocki's "History of Connecticut Wine," we now have a reference record for Connecticut wine. The book's chapter on the `Wine Yankees' is ground-breaking, since it describes the wine industry in Connecticut as it existed from Colonial times to Prohibition. It is a history that would surprise most of us -- and the surprises don't stop there. The book talks about how many wineries there are in Connecticut, the leaps of faith and imagination that winery owners have made, their toil, their business sense and savvy, and the search for the right grapes for Connecticut, including a discussion of the state-of-the-art in grape science and the efforts of the Hamden Viticultural Station.

I tasted all eleven wines on offer at Hopkins. Most instructive was the comparison between the 2010 Chardonnay, still in barrel, and the 2008 Chardonnay in bottle, as well as the 2010 barrel "Red Barn Red" and its bottled counterpart. The barrel tastings showed great primary fruit flavors of apple and pineapple in the Chardonnay and cherry in the red wine. There was an expected haze in the barrel samples, since they had not yet been filtered, which lent a vague, and appealing, creaminess to the wines. Bill Hopkins informed me that the Marechal Foch hybrid used in previous vintages has been replaced as of 2010 with Corette Noire, a hybrid developed at the Cornell University Viticultural Station. It is a wise use of heirloom and hybrid selection, since it lends the wine more acidity, suppleness and flavor. All four wines were fresh, but the bottle samples were more nuanced and were developing some signs of secondary (aging) flavors. The 2009 Duet is a big crowd-pleaser, a sweet, medium-bodied white wine with loads of fresh, primary fruit. There is very little oak, and the wine relies on the fruit. The estate-bottled Vineyard Reserve Seyval Blanc was sweet, at Spaetlese levels. This seems to be the normal mode for Seyval Blanc in most wineries that make it. Acidity came on nicely later, and it was a nice wine. I was also impressed by the Lady Rose 2009, with its slight red candy nose, because of the imaginative inclusion of grapes one almost never sees in America, and certainly not in Connecticut: Dornfelder and Lemberger (with a Pinot admixture). These are German and Austrian specialties, and since the weather here is even cooler than in middle Europe, one would expect a bright future for these grapes in Connecticut.

I was less impressed by the Cabernet Franc, which showed big green pepper on the nose, and shows an injudicious use of oak. The wine was by no means unpalatable, but its elements were not well-integrated, and it had no discernible tannin. (Not a fault in Cabernet Franc necessarily, but I really felt there was too little tannin.)

The last three wines were sweet blockbusters. The Sachem's Picnic is another crowd-pleaser, with big fresh cherry fruit and huge sweetness on the palate. It is a sugary wine, but it had surprisingly decent acidity. The Woodwind also had big sugar, but an appealing prickle of carbonation left in by the winemaker. It had some complexity, with green apples dominant, but also some crème brulee flavors. It had good acidity and was the freshest wine of the many fresh wines on offer. Finally, the Night Owl is an Auslese-level sweet dessert wine. It is very tart, which is necessary in such a sweet wine, and also very viscous, with a heavy body. The wine was complex, with initial flavors of tart apple, baked apple, and juicy Comice pear. The nose and palate also offered an intriguing tangerine flavor that my nose initially identified as botrytis, but realized was an orange flavor on the palate.

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