New Jersey Wine Has 300 Years of History, But not a Lot of Wine Cred–yet
By David Perry
Well played, Renault Winery. When that blueberry champagne was poured in front of me, I was certain it was just code for cavity-inducing sugar shock. I proceeded, but by the book.
First, I breathed deeply with the flute close. Made with the Chambourcin grapes favored in this part of New Jersey, the bubbly had a nose including violets and vanilla, carried by a swirl of pale gold effervescence. And then I sipped… very good champagne.
Off Dry Bubbly
Rather than the sickening sweetness most “flavored wines” melt into, this semi-sweet, off-dry bubbly had a palate of lingering cranberry and toasted almond. But before, either was a tantalizing forward-yet-emphemeral bite.
It was the blueberry. I would not have pinned it if I had not known what it was beforehand. It was subtle and sublimely balanced. It made me want more — Back up. New Jersey?
Wine in “Jerz” has more facets than a jewel in Sims 4. It has a 400-year history, an impressive pedigree (Renault can legally make “champagne”), an excellent terroir, a slew of varieties and grape species to work with the climate.
And a reputation even a phoenix could not revive, not because of the wine, but because it’s New Jersey. You know what I am talking about.
And then I took the turnpike beyond the grim, industrialized north of the state and headed south for the Outer Coastal Plain, a Norman Rockwell landscape of farms giving “the Garden State” its name.
Warehouses and Superfund sites swiftly vanished. And amidst the cornrows and cow pastures, I saw them: vineyards.
The come-to-Jesus moment should have been in 2007, when, under the eye of respected wine icon George Taber — he’s a big deal in the booze biz — Amalthea Cellars handily beat both French and Napa wines in a blind tasting.
This was a defining moment when the Outer Coastal Plain could stand shoulder to shoulder with other wine power-regions.
Moreover, it was a wake-up call to the industry that New Jersey had “arrived.” And yet, aside from a few random articles, barely a ripple was made.
It certainly wasn’t the fault of Amalthea; founder Louis Caracciolo cut his teeth in the Bordeaux region of France, whose climate is not unlike that of southern Jersey.
I tried one of those winners, Europe III, which is a direct descendant of the classic French style of winemaking. Over my palate came a dry, velvety red with spice.
It was subtle, gentle, with a lasting finish. This was a praiseworthy wine, and I asked for clarification from Caracciolo and assistant winemaker Tori Reader (the most forward face of New Jersey’s thriving community of women in wine).
I got the impression the wine world, its writers, makers, and judges, were so butthurt a Jersey winery beat the big boys that Amalthea’s victory was treated as a fluke.
It was the classic underdog story running head-on into a Rodney Dangerfield routine. What happened next is so New Jersey.
For Garden State vintners, being permanently friendzoned by the critics created a resounding “screw you” attitude that freed up wine houses to focus on the product and public, not the prizes or prestige.
Producers began to play with their wines and in doing so, created an experience, from vine to tasting room, that is unique to New Jersey.
It’s like when I was at the Bellview Winery enjoying a 2019 Coeur d’Est, a red blend made only in the Outer Coastal Plain and fell into conversation with a former Atlantic City showgirl. Eat your heart out, Napa.
Coeur d’Est is a tour-de-force of New Jersey vines: Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes made the blend, and acres of them now call the Outer Coastal Plain home.
The 159-year-old Renault may be the godfather of the region, but the “family” has proliferated since the 1970s; Amalthea Cellars was in 1976, Bellview founder Jim Quarella planted his vines in 2000.
Auburn Road Vineyards appeared in 2003. The place is so unpretentious they keep their awards in a brown paper bag they use as a doorstop; it’s all about the wine in these parts.
Founded by two Philadelphia lawyers who knew nothing about viticulture at the start, the winery angles to be the onramp to a budding oenophile’s first step on the yellow brick road to the wonderful wizard of wine.
It’s a good strategy: with titles like “Good Karma” and the playfully-named “Vintage Ruby” (#worth!) — Auburn Road made such a stir that tasting rooms in Italy jammed their in-box demanding bottles. That’s the kind of real-world praise the Outer Coastal Plain gets.
I ended my wine wandering with a trio from the Sharrott Winery: first the Brut, then Piquette Blaufrankisch (as Coeur d’Est is quickly becoming the Outer Coastal Plain’s signature wine, Blaufrankisch is considered to be the signature grape), and finally Wicked, a rich port-style dessert wine with a warning on the label not to drink it lest something salacious happen.
A musician strummed tunes in the tasting room and the vibe was astonishingly, refreshingly…chummy.
“Chummy” is what I use to describe the Outer Coastal Plain wineries.
Enclosed as it is by cold-shouldered pundits in a state with a dismal reputation several years out of date, a sense of unity I don’t see in other wine regions rose up; as it was put to me at Sharrott, a hide tide raises all ships.
It’s probably why every vineyard I went to was so freakin’ friendly. It’s not just a good business model; it’s the business culture you get when everyone is united by a common thread.
Oh, and hope springs eternal: Warnings be damned; I killed that bottle of Wicked in record time.
New Jersey Wine Travel Tips
A good tour of Outer Coastal Plain wineries takes two days. The Courtyard Marriott in Glassboro is an excellent HQ, and you can while away the mornings (when the vineyards are closed) in nearby Mullica Hill at the Blue Plate and Harrison House Diner for classic American breakfasts.
With work in the BBC and Travelsquire, David Perry has danced with the dead in Japan, raced across the deserts in Egypt, and gotten into snowball fights with Siberians. That last one is a fool’s game…