Hot Wines, Cold Climate

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A look at New Hampshire’s chilly but growing wine industry

courtesy the Hippo

October, 2011
By Angel Roy

“I’m in love with this wine,” Amy LaBelle said, taking a sip from a thimble-sized glass of her latest release, Americus, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Noiret grapes grown in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The big bold Bordeaux-style red itself was produced in a small barn behind LaBelle’s Amherst home (yes, Amherst, New Hampshire), filling a gap in her line of Granite State-made award-winning wines.

“I think it’s important for people to know there is world-class wine right here in New Hampshire,” LaBelle said. “Wineries have really blazed the path here; they make good wine and have put themselves on the map.”

While the grapes may not always be grown here, the art and science of wine-making are alive in the Granite State and the interest continues to increase statewide. Jon Carnevale, sommelier and general manager of the Bedford Village Inn in Bedford, noted that while some New Hampshire wineries are still finding their identities, many have started to come into their own.

“Keep with ’em and keep looking; [they are] certainly going to improve … the wine trade in New Hampshire is relatively very young compared to other places in the world,” he said. “Rome was not built in a day.”

Nor was the Roman tradition of wine-making. But even though New Hampshire is considerably colder than Napa, the Granite State can claim to have an increasing bit of its own wine country.

An industry uncorked

Peter Oldak, president of the New Hampshire Wine Association and owner of Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton, the state’s first winery, attributed the increase in New Hampshire wineries (there are now more than 23 licensed wine manufacturers in the state) to the acceptance of local wines by supermarkets and restaurants.

“They have started to carry local wines because the quality of New Hampshire wines is quite good,” he said. “I do believe the quality has improved and judging by the number of awards various [New Hampshire] wineries have received at international competitions, they have been judged by impartial groups as being incredible.”

The association, Oldak said, adds five members a year on average. He noted that only half of the wineries in the state grow their own grapes. Oldak has always grown his own grapes at Jewell Towne.

The state wine industry has been working to inform the public about local vino offerings.

“What we’re looking forward to is people selecting New Hampshire wines rather than wines from California, Australia, New Zealand and France, where the wines have a big footprint getting here,” Oldak said. “Local wines have a small [environmental] footprint in terms of getting to market.”

“Since a lot of people do drink wine, we want them to start drinking local,” he said.

Farmers markets have become good venues for local winemakers. They sell directly to the consumer and draw attention to the fact that wine is really an agricultural product, Oldak said.

“It’s grown and it can be grown locally just like carrots, beats, lettuce and corn … it’s important to think of wine as being agricultural,” he said.

A vino veteran

One a recent morning, a team of wine bottlers was working hard in the barn behind Amy LaBelle’s Amherst home. The assembly line-like group washed, rinsed and dried the bottles before leaving them to sit under an auto-bottler that fills seven bottles at a time. The full bottles were quickly passed along to be corked, foiled, labeled and boxed.

“The crew has it down to a science,” LaBelle said. “They can do 200 cases a day by hand.”

LaBelle’s first commercial fermentation happened in the fall of 2005, so she is now getting ready to enter her seventh season. Her husband, Cesar, manages the winery full-time while LaBelle works as a lawyer at Fidelity Investments. She studied winemaking through University of California Davis, a school known for its vintner education.

“Wine-making is half science and half art,” LaBelle said. “The art side came natural to me.”

LaBelle has watched her winery grow from producing three apple wines at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, where she still gets all of the apples for her apple wines, to the point where she is gearing up to build a new 20,000-square-foot facility in October, with her sights set on a June opening. For now, all production is done in her 1,200-square-foot barn.

“We really need the expansion, obviously,” LaBelle said gesturing to the current winery, the production taking over every ounce of space. “”It’s a good problem to have.”

The new facility will allow LaBelle to produce 60,000-gallon batches, up significantly from the 14,000 she is able to produce now. “Our goal is to take the brand national,” she said. The new facility will allow for 1,700 bottles to be filled hourly.

“I look forward to the time where we have the unfettered ability to produced as much and as many kinds of wine as we want,” LaBelle said, adding that she will wait to see how the new space develops before she plans for planting on the property. She hopes to develop two acres of vineyards in the first phase and another two in the second. She also plans to leave space for planting the tomatoes, onions and jalapeños used in some of her offerings.

LaBelle said she wants to make wines that represent New England, so rather than attempt to produce a Cabernet or a Chardonnay, she may opt to grow Seyval Blanc, a frost-hardy white grape.
“I’m pretty excited. I can’t wait to plant,” LaBelle said.

New vines on the block

Dawn Appolo bought more than three acres of property in Derry, formerly a cattle farm, 10 years ago. Other than a few apple trees on the land, the parcel was run down and overgrown until she and her family cleared it out upon moving in. Their first thoughts were to revitalize the property as a fruit orchard but having just gotten into wine the Appolos decided instead to plant nearly 300 vines to see how things would play out.

“We said let’s try to make wine and see how it goes,” Appolo said noting that her interest in wine grew after she lived in Europe for some time.

The Derry vineyard has 1,600 vines in the ground now including Cayuga (a fruity light-bodied white), Frontanac (a versatile red grape), Marechal Foch (a medium-bodied red), Orion (a smooth German white) and Prairie Star (a lightly floral white).

“I can do a 360 of the vineyard and know where everything is,” Appolo said.

Appolo and her husband opted to join the New Hampshire Winery Association a few years ago as associate members. They spent time volunteering at Flag Hill Winery in Lee and toured vineyards in the Granite State, Pennsylvania and New York.

“We decided it would be fun because we didn’t have hundreds of acres involved,” Appolo said. The business was incorporated as Appolo Vineyards last fall and Appolo is waiting to receive her license from the state. She hopes to be able to sell wines produced from this season’s harvest.

The Appolos purchased the vines they planted from vineyards in New York and Oregon, as seeds are really only pollinated by other grapes.

“We would not get the same varietals if we used the seed,” Appolo said. Appolo uses an Italian crusher/de-stemmer and German bladder press to squeeze the juice from the grapes. The juice is fermented in stainless steel vats. The length of the aging process, she said, is contingent on the varietal. While touring South American wineries, Appolo said, she was told to age chardonnay for a year, but she has learned it can be kept for less, if protected properly.

“If no oxygen gets to it, there is no need to rush unless you need the equipment for next year’s harvest,” she said. “The reds need to age a little bit longer.”

Appolo uses an Englomatic filter filler that allows her to fill only one wine bottle one at a time. She once attempted to bottle 15 gallons, or 10 cases, by herself and spent an estimated seven hours washing sanitizing, bottles, corking, capsulating and labeling. “It probably wasn’t that long but it seemed like it,” she said.
While Appolo has oaked some of her red wines in the past, she has opted to discontinue the process in favor of enjoying the fruit flavors brought out in some wines. As she does not use oak barrels, Appolo would fill metal cylinders with oak chips and hang them into the vats. “If I missed a day and over-oaked the wine it would ruin the flavor,” she said. “I called it the ‘oak monster,’ and I don’t like oak monsters.”

“My theory on that is ‘why bother?’ If there is a possibility of ruining it in one day, why bother?” Appolo said.
Appolo said red wine-making has been a learning process and that she is still leaning on the Winery Association for production advice and information.

When she receives her state license, Appolo plans to set up an outdoor tasting area using the picnic tables in the middle of the vineyard: “That is the vision of what I want to do here,” she said.

Hobby gone mad

Jerry Hillard, owner of WindRoc Winery in Newfields, calls wine a hobby that went awry. A construction worker, Hillard had always had an interest in wine but never thought he would pursue it as a career. One visit to nearby Jewell Towne Vineyards resulted in a two-year voluntary internship.

“He just kept showing up,” said Rich Collins, who worked for Jewell Towne at the time and is now assisting Hillard with his venture. “He told us he wanted to get involved in the local wine scene — we’ve been told that by a hundred people, but Jerry actually did it.”

“He was the employee Pete [Oldak] forgot to pay,” Collins joked.

When Collins left Jewell Towne, he encouraged Hillard to take his know-how and go for it.

“I didn’t want to do construction all my life, so I thought this could be the next chapter,” Hillard said. He received his state manufacturing license on Aug. 31.

Hillard spent much of last year restoring his 1794 farmhouse, and in the spring he planted 16 cold-hardy varietals — 420 grapevines — in his half-acre vineyard: Cayuga, Marechal Foch, Petit Ami, Marquette, Valvin Muscat, Traminette and Lando Noir, to name just a few. He receives his vine cuttings from local vineyards as well as from Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes region of New York.

“Some people say to take four varietals and go with that, but I wanted to learn what works and what doesn’t for me,” Hillard said.

Growing his own grapes had not been part of Hillard’s plan when he first thought of opening a winery of his own, but he learned to enjoy the art of cultivation and harvesting during his internship.

“It’s fun to be out in a mature vineyard with a full canopy of grapes hanging,” he said. “It’s almost a romantic part about the whole thing.”

He intends to try his hand at fruit wines and has laid out plans to produce strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, apple and pear varieties.

Once Hillard better learns his terroir (a French term used to describe the characteristics of the land a grape is grown on), he will likely narrow down the number of varietals he produces.

Two of his 16 varietals, NY 81 (red) and NY 95 (white) remain unnamed as they are still in development at Cornell. Hillard was able to pay royalties to obtain the hybrid grapes.

“I thought it would be cool because it they work out I would be one of the first in the area to have whatever they end up being named,” he said. “Until then, I will blend with them.”

Hillard is most looking forward to the challenge of growing his full-bodied baby, Cabernet Franc, which is roped off and tied up close to a stone wall at the start of Hillard’s vineyard.

Cabernet Franc is borderline cold-hardy, Hillard said.

“In New Hampshire it may not survive the cold weather,” he said. The fear is that the buds of the grapes will break early — Cabernet Franc takes longer to ripen than most of his varietals — should the vineyard see a late spring frost. Hillard said last year he saw a frost as late as May 11.

“Other vineyard owners might laugh when they hear I’m growing Cabernet Franc,” Hillard said.

“Everyone has their own opinion on what grows,” Collins said.

“What I have to work with, for someone five miles away it might not,” Hillard said.

All of his wines will be aged in steel tanks and Hillard said he will add oak adjuncts as he sees fit.

“Eventually I would like to try using oak barrels once I get the ball rolling,” he said.

A 150-year-old barn on the property, renovated by Hillard, will serve as production space and tasting room. He plans to build a deck for outdoor tastings.

“I want it to be a fun place that people can come that is not snooty … and hopefully they will like the wine,” Hillard said.

Hillard will likely open his winery for the holidays to get his feet wet and open officially to the public in the spring. He is still awaiting approval for his labels.

Let’s make some wine

For now, LaBelle has the grapes she uses in her wines (still on the vines, stems and all) shipped from a 600-acre vineyard in the Finger Lakes Region of New York in the fall.

“We get our pick of the litter and it’s another family-owned business — we like that,” LaBelle said. During harvest season, the vineyard owner calls LaBelle every other day to discuss the sugar and acid levels of the grape crops growing in her selected lot and ask her when she would like it picked. Each day grapes are left on the vine, the sugar increases, and when sugar goes up, acidity goes down. “When there is too much sugar and not enough acid it results in a flat wine,” LaBelle said. “You want to watch both on a sliding scale.”

The vineyard owner then picks a few grapes from around the entire half acre, crushing and sampling them to see if they are ready. When LaBelle gives the go-ahead, three to four palettes of harvested grape clusters on their stems are shipped to Amherst the very same day. The grapes are then put through the crusher/de-stemmer, allowing the juice to fall into the stainless steel tank, where it is inoculated with yeast.

“Each crush is one batch of wine, so you have to know what you are going to make,” LaBelle said. All tanks must be empty to make way for the new arrivals.

During the first fermentation the yeast eats the sugar, which fuels yeast reproduction. The yeast breaks down the natural sugar found in the grapes into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The carbon dioxide blows off and the alcohol stays, LaBelle said. When the sugar is gone, the yeast dies and is cleared from the batch. Bacteria, similar to that found in yogurt, is added during the second fermentation, also known as the malolactic fermentation (a process not done with all wines).

Depending on the type of wine, the first fermentation process can take up to three weeks, LaBelle said, noting that during that time she still must check on the yeast levels of each batch. If the levels are off, she will add vitamins or oxygen. Temperature control is a very important part of the process and the tank should be kept between 60 and 65 degrees to keep the yeast alive. If the temperature rises above the desired levels, LaBelle said, she can cool a batch down by splitting it or by running cold water through the jacket of the vat. Her new space will have glycol chilling units, which will allow her to set temperatures for each tank.

In addition to keeping up with temperature control, batches need to be punched down two to three times daily to be able to pull out their flavors and colors, LaBelle said.

“I think you have to kind of get to know your wine,” she said. “It’s almost like a relationship for me.”

But aren’t grapes a fruit?

LaBelle ferments her fruit wines in the same style and manner as her traditional grape wines, while some winemakers opt to use a shorter process.

“That is why our fruit wines drink like grape wines,” she said. LaBelle said her dry blueberry wine, which was named “Best in Show” out of entries from 35 countries in a competition, drinks like a merlot.

When making an apple wine LaBelle asks the orchard to send only the fresh-pressed juice as she does not own an apple press, but she works with other fruits, such as blueberries and raspberries, as she would for making any other red wine, the only difference usually being the yeast strain used.

“Blueberries … require a little extra care in terms of making the yeast happy,” she said.

One difference in the process is that since grapes are naturally one of the sweetest fruits based on their pure sugar percentage and yeast needs sugar to transform into alcohol, table sugar will be added to fruit wine to give the yeast more fuel.

Appolo opted to produce grape wines over other types of fruit wines traditionally grown in the Granite State in favor of a consistent product. She came to this decision after making her fruit wine using pears. The first version of her creation was “liquid gold,” Appolo said, but she has not been able to duplicate the product. “I tried to make it drier; it didn’t have the same color, texture or mouth feel.”

“It wasn’t the same and I didn’t like it,” she said. Appolo also attempted to make a peach wine but the flavor was not what she had been trying to achieve. “With grapes, they’re pretty reliable, at least in my experience,” she said.

How to make apple wine, not hard cider

Apple drinks are common in New Hampshire, and often hard apple cider is the drink apple-lovers think of first. Many of the state’s vineyards produce a drink that is a cousin but with more of a wine profile: apple wine.

Hard apple cider is made using a bitter apple profile and cider yeast, LaBelle said. There is no early sugar fed to the yeast, resulting in a purposefully lower alcohol content similar to that of a beer (on average beers boast an alcohol per volume percentage of 6 to 7, whereas wines usually start at around 12 percent). Hard ciders are typically made to be of the sparkling variety by being bottled with residual carbon dioxide or bottled while they are still fermenting.

“In our case we want [our apple wine] to be completely still so we allow for it to sit for six to eight months for it to happen,” LaBelle said. Hard apple cider needs a much shorter aging period than wine, also similar to that of beer.

“Not being a patient woman I might have chosen that instead,” LaBelle joked.

Oh, honey, try something new

Grapes are to wine as honey is to mead.

Michael Fairbrother, owner of Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, said he finds it amusing when people ask how mead compares to grape wine, when the question really should be how grape wine compares to mead.

“Mead is the oldest fermented beverage,” he said. “It was pre-grape wine.”

Fairbrother opened his meadery in May 2010 and has watched his business grow from five- to 500-gallon batches. He sold 20,000 bottles in his first year and is projecting to sell close to 100,000 this year.

Three types of meads have emerged over the years: traditional, melomel and metheglin. Traditional mead is made using only honey, yeast and water but occasionally highly concentrated sugar will be added to achieve a desired level of sweetness.

Jon Carnevale of Bedford Village Inn suggests that his diners pair mead (BVI has Moonlight Meadery’s Utopian, a semi-sweet mead, on its menu) with dishes as sweet as or sweeter than the honey-based beverage or drink it solo as a dessert wine.

Melomels are meads made with fruit added. Fairbrother said whereas both blueberries and sugar would be used when making a blueberry wine, in a mead the honey takes on the role of the sugar; the blueberry gives it additional flavor. Among the melomels made at Moonlight are mango, strawberry, black currant and apple pie, made with apple cider in lieu of water, which has emerged as one of Fairbrother’s most popular offerings.

“I’m sold out of apple pie mead until November,” he said. “I’m making 20,000 bottles this year; I sold out of 6,000 last year.”

Spices are added to the metheglin variety after the primary fermentation is complete. Fairbrother adds vanilla, ginger, habañero and chocolate to his metheglins to complement the honey.

While wine hits the palate with a “real spike of flavor,” Fairbrother noted that the flavor of mead is fuller and longer-lasting. “There is a more complex, wide variety of flavors and you can taste each of the fruits … the flavors really represent themselves quite well,” he said. A 100-gallon vat of mead is made using roughly 25 gallons of honey and 75 of water or juice.

Meads are aged for up to three months, allowing for Fairbrother to release products four times a year.
“Most wineries, because of the way grapes grow, can only make wine once a year,” he said. “We are not bound by the same kind of natural restrictions that produce would have on us.”

One small state, two different growing zones

All winemakers must find the right varietals for their climates, and New Hampshire wine producers are no exception. Growing grapes in the Northeast, however, poses a particular challenge as the temperature can dip well below freezing in the winter. The state has been divided into two different growing zones, one south of Concord and one north.

“Just that one little zone will change a lot,” Appolo said.

Seyval Blanc and Marechal Foch, a white and red respectively, have emerged as the signature grapes for the southern tier of the state, whereas La Crescent (a slightly sweet white with hints of apricot) and Marquette (a full-bodied red), both cold-hardy varietals developed at the University of Minnesota, are the most common grapes grown north of Concord, Oldak said. Both La Crescent and Marquette were designed to withstand temperatures of 30 below zero.

“Climate is a determining factor for what grapes can be grown, and each [grape] has a low temperature at which you start to kill buds and therefore lose fruitfulness,” Oldak said, adding that since most European varieties tend to be more cold-sensitive, hybrids are often made by blending them with traditional American varieties.

Plan ahead for winter

When winter hits, not much can be done to protect vineyards, so it is best to keep each vine healthy during the summer months, keeping disease and insects under control and cropping each vine to allow for a healthy balance of buds. Grapevines are only capable of ripening a certain amount of fruit — if more buds grow on a vine than the crop is able to ripen, then the plant invests more energy in ripening the additional fruit than it does in hardening its winter wood, Oldak said. Winter wood is also often referred to as the “vigor of the vine.”
In the spring, winemakers should typically snip off two clusters per shoot to allow for an appropriate crop load on each vine, Oldak said.

“There is not an exact science to it, but there is a balance point,” he said. “After you have been doing it [long enough] you get a sense of what each vine can bear.”

While local farmers can turn to crops in greenhouses for the winter months, winemakers are not afforded the same luxury because of the excessive growth that comes with grape vines.

“It becomes really unreasonable if you try to do it in a greenhouse,” Oldak said, adding that the high humidity often found in greenhouses could lead to fungal issues in the grapes.

Watching the industry from Concord

Over the years, the wine industry in New Hampshire has expanded from traditional grape wines into fruit and honey wines.

“People are doing some really interesting things to make their wines, and in the process many of them are using locally grown things, which is great,” said Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of agricultural development at the state department of agriculture, markets & food.

Wineries are allowed to sell their products at farmers markets thanks to recent legislation, but the local town must also approve of the sale. McWilliam Jellie noted that farmers markets have been helpful in growing the industry as, for the most part, New Hampshire wineries are not permitted to directly sell their products anywhere other than where the wine is produced.

The state department of agriculture, markets and food works directly with the New Hampshire Wine Association and often partners with the organization on promotional projects and doles out grants to the group. When interested winemakers come to the department with questions about how to get started, they are directed to the association. The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension has also served as a great resource for those interested in wine production, McWilliam Jellie said.

In 2007, the state department of agriculture partnered with the New Hampshire Wine Association to create a Wine and Cheese Trail brochure that features 13 wineries and nine farms that specialize in making cheese. In its third printing, the map is the one of the most popular downloads on the state’s department of tourism website.

“You can make a weeklong vacation of traveling to all of those locations … wine tasting is popular across the nation and people are looking for that kind of opportunity,” McWilliam Jellie said.

State Liquor Commissioner Joseph Mollica noted that tourism in the state plays a role in the success of local wineries as visitors often want to take something New Hampshire-made home with them.

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission has thrown its support behind the state’s wineries and has recently updated and upgraded its selection of Granite State wines in all the larger liquor & wine outlets it oversees: “We’ve given them some premier shelf space in our stores as well as their own signage,” Mollica said. New Hampshire wines are not required to be tested in the outlets for a period of time before they make it to the shelves as a regular part of the store’s inventory. “We’ve pretty much given them a free pass … we’re very aware of New Hampshire businesses and we want New Hampshire business to succeed and we’re all about helping them promote their products,” Mollica said.

The steps to selling your own

The rules and regulations of winemaking are invoked when a winemaker intends to distribute his product in the state.

Eddie Edwards, chief of enforcement of the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission, said that unlike with beer, there is no limit to the amount of wine that can be made for personal use but it cannot be sold without obtaining the proper license. Beer brewers are allowed to make only 100 gallons per person if they are not planning to distribute it.

“Wine does not have the same stipulation because it is a different market … it is directly controlled by the state,” Edwards said.

The amount of time it takes to procure a wine manufacturing license is contingent on preparation done by the applicant, Edwards said, adding that the process can be done in as little as a week or as along as three months. To speed up the process, applicants — ages 21 and up only — should have a facility identified, obtain the proper equipment and storage needs and register their business with the state.

There is an annual licensing fee of $100 for wine manufacturers producing less than 1,000 cases. Manufacturers producing more than 1,000 cases pay an annual fee of $1,140.

“The ultimate goal is to be fair to the very small producers as well as the large producers,” Edwards said.

Is the wine really New Hampshire-made?

The commission, Mollica said, is working with the New Hampshire Winery Association to define what makes a New Hampshire wine.

“We’re trying to find common ground on what they feel a New Hampshire wine is and how we feel it should be represented to our consumers,” Mollica said.

Edwards said there have been discussions about whether a minimum percentage of the grapes or fruit used in local wines should be required to be local for the product to qualify as being made in New Hampshire. “That would make it very difficult for someone to maintain a winery in the state,” Edwards said. “We look at some people that have their grapes shipped in or have their juices shipped in but the wine is fermented and blended here in this state.”

That is why the license is called a wine manufacturing license rather than a winery license, he said.

“The focus is to try to grow the industry and make New Hampshire brands more marketable and available for people,” Edwards said.

Pour yourself another glass

As the quality of wine produced in the state continues to improve, and the palates of wine drinkers expand, Mollica said he is certain that the industry will continue to grow.

“We’re happy to see there is a certain level of professionalism winemakers are putting into their wines,” he said. “There is a certain level of dedication and it’s certainly showing up in the bottle and that’s what consumers buy — they buy what’s in the bottle.”

McWilliam Jellie also said the state’s wine industry is still in growth mode. “I think you will see more [wineries] come on board and more people doing different things,” she said.