Finding a variety of wines off the beaten path
To get the most out of a visit to Connecticut’s wine trail, bring a discerning palate and a GPS. The 23 member wineries, clustered into an eastern and western loop, are well off the beaten path, but it’s the isolated rural settings, linked by country roads overhung with canopies of old trees, that make them so appealing.
Just ask Mary and Jerry Marrandino. The Connecticut couple has visited wineries in California, France, Italy, and Germany. This year, Mary Marrandino said, they decided to look in their own backyard. “I love the settings and the ambience,’’ she said at DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield. Larry and Pamela Gordon, Connecticut residents who used to live in Winchester, Mass., spend several weekends a year checking out local wineries. They have been so impressed that they now buy only wines produced in New England, including several favorites at Jerram Winery in New Hartford.
Wineries have thrived in Connecticut for two reasons, said Jamie Jones, owner of Jones Winery and president of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association, which administers the wine trail. Despite its small size, the state has an enormous variety of agricultural areas, from the maritime-influenced sites along Long Island Sound to the foothills of the Berkshires. Second, the state’s population is large enough to support local wineries. Jones estimates that 250,000 people a year visit Connecticut wineries, with the busiest season between July and October.
We visited 10 of the 23 wineries on the trail, and two nonmember wineries, trying to include the small and (relatively) large, inland and coastal, well established, and brand new. In general we found:
■Running a winery is a passion for most vintners, many of whom left the corporate world to make wine.
■There is a growing interest in wine and food pairings, and local wines play an increasingly important role in the farm-to-table movement.
■Making wine is fundamentally science with a little art thrown in, so the process is pretty much the same from one winery to the next. A winery tour is worth taking once.
■Oaky California chardonnays are out, replaced by lighter, crisper, stainless-steel fermented varieties.
■Rosé wines are making a comeback.
All the wineries offer tastings. While some are free, most wineries charge a nominal fee, usually $5 to $6 for four or five wines. Some wineries specify what you can taste. We preferred the ones that let you choose from the winery’s full list.
Here are two suggested weekend itineraries, one in the eastern half of the state and the other in the western hills:
At Sharpe Hill Winery , the focus is on a total wine and food experience, said Catherine Vollweiler, who has owned the winery with her husband, Steven, for 20 years. The property includes a 1750 house and barn, striking “stake and rider’’ wood fences that zigzag along the driveway, and raised gardens that provide the produce for the winery’s restaurant. (Be sure to make reservations if you want to have lunch here.) Sharpe Hill wines are sold in 18 states and three countries, Vollweiler said. While the floral, semidry white Ballet of Angels ($12) is the best-seller, my favorites were Dry Summer Ros ($15) and Red Seraph ($14), a blend of Merlot and St. Croix.
Enjoy the final tasting of the day and supper at Heritage Trail Winery and Cafe in Lisbon. Television chef and author Harry Schwartz bought the property with his wife, Laura, two years ago, renovated the 1785 house, added a restaurant, and built an event pavilion in the vineyard. Most wines are made with estate-grown Cayuga grapes. The cafe features an artisan cheese plate with Schwartz’s homemade goat cheese and produce, meat, and fish sourced locally.
Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington combines the tastes of California and Connecticut. While all the wines are made on site, the Napa wines begin the crush in California and finish here. A tasting lets you compare the two. One of the larger wineries, Jonathan Edwards has 20 acres under cultivation and produces about 12,000 cases a year. My favorite here was a 2008 Estate Connecticut Cabernet Franc ($21).
One of the most visually striking wineries is Saltwater Farm Vineyard in Stonington, housed in a 1930s airplane hangar with a vaulting roof, milled aluminum exterior, original wood sheathing, and massive timber trusses dominating the interior. Owner Michael Connery, who describes himself as “a recovering lawyer,’’ bought the property in 2001, and opened it for tasting this year. Saltwater makes four wines — cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc — all from grapes grown on site.
With Dr. Paul DiGrazia at the helm, it shouldn’t be surprising that DiGrazia Vineyards in Brookfield specializes in antioxidant wines. Wild Blue ($25), a blueberry wine with brandy added, and Paragran ($19), a blend of pomegranate and pear, are highest in antioxidants, said Barbara DiGrazia. Guests can taste by a waterfall at a pretty outdoor patio. My favorite was Wind Ridge ($16), a semidry Seyval Blanc with a crisp finish.
White Silo in Sherman specializes in fruit wines: rhubarb, blackberry, raspberry, and black currant. The idea that fruit-based wines are always sweet is a misconception, said winemaker Eric Gorman, who added that the farm is just beginning to grow white Cayuga and red Frontenac grapes for wine making. Dry Rhubarb ($12) wine and the house Sangria, made with Dry Rhubarb and Sweet Blackberry, are the biggest sellers.
With 30 acres of vines, Hopkins produces up to 9,000 cases of wine a year, including the state’s only sparkling wines (not available for tasting). My favorite was Sachem’s Picnic ($12), a sangria-like semisweet red.
Haight-Brown Vineyard in Litchfield is Connecticut’s oldest winery, established in 1975. Haight-Brown ups the ante with a choice of wine and cheese pairings or wine and chocolate pairings. It also has an outdoor deck overlooking the 16 acres of vineyards. My favorite here was Railway White ($15), an unoaked dry white estate wine with citrus overtones.
The tasting room at Jerram Winery in New Hartford is a sunny yellow former buttery decorated with movie posters reflecting the interests of owners Jim and Catherine Jerram. Jim Jerram harvested his first grapes in 1986 and from there, the family winery “grew like Topsy,’’ his wife said. With a little over 5 acres under cultivation, the winery is approaching 1,000 cases a year. My favorites were Gentle Shepherd ($15), a white table wine, and Our Sweet Rose ($13/375 ml), a slightly sweet rosé.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.