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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are You some Kind of A Wise Guy?

A Brief Tour of the Outer Coastal Plain AVA

When you think of New Jersey and wine, the picture at left is likely what you think of.  A group of people, sitting around a big table, sharing a bottle with a plate of Spaghetti with a Sugo that Nona slaved over all day long, or in one of the many Italian restaurants in the area.  There is however, more to the wine story in New Jersey than meets the eye.  THEY MAKE WINE IN NEW JERSEY!

While on the stereotype bandwagon, I thought I would stay there and tell you that when I say they make wine in New Jersey, I don't mean in Nona's Basement.  I mean there are wine growers, makers, and a whole wine drinking, tasting thing going on.  Granted, some of it is sweet fruit wine, or wine made from native or hybrid grapes and many are less than great I am sure.  However, there are also dry reds and whites from Vitis Vinifera Grapes (European Wine Grapes; Cabernet and the like).

I was only there for a brief time, and I only got to sample 3 wineries, but what I tasted was an impressive sample that has made me interested in going back and tasting more.  What made me think to taste wine in New Jersey?  This is a shout out to Wine Folly.  If you have not been to their blog you should.  They are one of my favorite sites out there, and I think Madeline Puckette is very good at making the scary wine thing very approachable.

Anyway, she did a blind tasting with 3 Somms and they tasted wines from Bordeaux and a wine from NEW JERSEY and tasted them blind to see if anyone could pick out the wine from Joisy... NOPE.  Also, all of them said the wine was good, and went further to say that it would be good if you had to pay 30 dollars or more.  Madeline even exclaimed because she liked the wine so much blind.  It was a Holy... Oh my, that is sooooooo complex type of proclamation.  And so, I had to taste this wine.

When I got to New Jersey, my first wine destination was Amalthea Cellars in Atco, NJ.  This was the winery that made the wine from Wine Folly, so I thought it only fair to start there.  Upon arriving at the winery, I was greeted promptly and courteously by Megan, a lovely young woman who was quite knowledgeable about the wines, and the area having grown up there her whole life.  She told me that she, "Is a Jersey Girl who loves the area and loves Jersey Wines."  Still Skeptical, I nodded and smiled.  She told me that they have both dry and sweet wines, but are known for their dry reds.  Indecently, other wineries in the area raved about their dry reds as well.  One person described Amalthea as, "Having the dry red wines DOWN!"  I would agree.
I opted for a tasting of the dry whites and reds.  Prior to tasting, I learned that the winery has been in South Jersey for 39 years.  The winery is owned and operated by a guy named Lou Caracciolo who started as a food scientist, and put his passion and know how into making wine.  He is very decorated in the area, but he also won a major wine competition in which his wines beat out wines from France and Napa.  All of the wines were tasted blind, and 100 experts chose his wine as the best in show.  Author George Taber dubbed this the "Judgement of New Jersey."

This had me thinking, maybe there are some good wines made in Jersey...  I then also learned that some of the grapes are grown locally, and sometimes they buy grapes from other growing regions.  Ah HA!!!!  That is it.  What I learned is that the grapes are Estate grown unless there is a green dragon on the label, and that in fact, most of what I was going to taste was from Estate grapes.  Also, the awards were mostly from estate wines.  Hmmpf.  Back to good wines in NJ.  Lets taste already!  Geesh, this is painful.  It really was not there, but to tell a good story, you have to have a build up.

First I tasted a proprietary rose' called Leda (A Tavel style from Cab Franc), and then a Traminette, a Pinot Grigio and a Chadonnay Sur Lie.  The Leda was amazingly complex and yet simple at the same time.  It had your typical strawberry nose with some peppery spice and a bit of floral aroma.  What was interesting on the palate was that it left me with some profound licorice spice.  A good start to be sure.  Next was a Traminette (First taste of this grape ever) which was amazingly floral and had a white tea spicy thing going on.  I think there may have been some botrytis that year as there was also a ginger finish.  Next was the Pinot Grigio which I would say was a bit of a patio wine.  Lemon zest, with a nice acidic tension.  It had a slight nuttiness to it as well and tasted as though it may have spent some time on lees.  Finally, the Chardonay which was a fairly classic Burgundy style Chardonay with Grapefruit, toast and a bit of a hopped herbaceousness.

So far so good.  Nothing bad, and since he is known for his reds, I am interested to get started there.  Perhaps my least favorite thing that I tasted was a Green Dragon Tavern Pinot Noir.  These grapes were from the Sonoma Coast.  It was not bad.  Light and smokey with floral notes and berries.  Just not that barrel funky, forest floor mushroom cold weather Pinot I was hoping for.  Next was a Clone 2 Cabernet Sauvignon.  This is a small berried variety of Cab, and shows accordingly.  Blackberry and Casis with a vegital note.  I was surprised by how ripe and interesting it tasted.  A similar cab quality from Napa would carry a much heftier price tag than the 22 dollars they were asking.  Next I tried a couple of Cabernet Franc options.  This was the money wine if you ask me.  Apparently the soils in the area are sandy, and I know two things about sandy soils.  First, they make good Cabernet Sauv and Franc, and second, that they tend to make wines with with a softer side (Italians say, "Hard soil gives you hard wine, and soft soils give you soft wine")  The first was a 2011 Cab franc which showed a lot of red fruit.  I got strawberry and some black cherries along with a lovely pepper finish.  Tannins were medium plus but very soft and rounded.  A great food pairing wine that would go with a lot due to its nice acid.

I also tried the 2010 Cab Franc, which I later found was one of the best vintages in the area ever.  Some say there will never be another 2010... It was that good.  This was a wine worth cellaring.  It was a red fruit heavy with cherries, plum and strawberries and of course a great white pepper finish.  The Tannins were big but balanced and the finish was amazing and very long.  All of this for 28 bucks.  I would say a great value.  I should say that I am a big fan of Cab Franc and I would also say that Cab Franc is what this area does best.

Finally, I tried the wine that Madeline had on Wine Folly.  The 2012 Europa which is an homage to Chateau Latour of Bordeaux fame. (2000 dollars a bottle for Latour).  This is a cab sauv, Franc and Merlot blend in the style of the left bank.  It had black cherries, currant, some tobacco, and a cedar smokey finish.  This was a great balanced wine, and if I tasted it blind I would have guessed old world for sure.  I agree that this is a wine that was not just good for New Jersey, it was really good wine by any standard.  at under 30 dollars, good luck finding anything measurably better.

I did try one of their sweet wines, and that was a wine called solara, which is kept in a ...Solara which is normally used to make Sherry.  In this case, they started with red wine, and made a very funky smelling dessert wine that was half port, and half sherry.  It was very complex, and I loved it.  I would suspect others would not. It had baking spice and funk, with orange peal and finishes with an unmistakable chocolate.  High acid means it is not too sweet. 

My only criticism is that some of the wines had a bit too much oak for my taste, but that is being very picky.  I am super happy that I went there, and I will be ordering wine from Amalthea soon.

The final point I will make is one that Lou makes often and that is if you flip NJ over, the shape looks a lot like Bordeaux.  The soils are similar as well.  It is no surprise that the wines that do well are the same ones that do well in Bordeaux.
My next stop was Herritatge.  They made some good wines and some that I did not love.  I would say in general, they suffered from a profound over oaking.  They made a lot of different wines, and they were among the busiest and well known wineries in the area.

What I will say is the setting is beautiful, the people were lovely and accommodating, and the wines were well made.  I would only say that the oak was a bit heavy handed on most of it.  Their best wine was the Cabernet Franc again, and I loved it.  It had less fruit than many with the usual red and black and the pepper finish, but it also had baking spices and a nice herbal tone.  Their Chardonnay, their BDX (Bordeaux Blend) and their Syrah were all good but not anything I would go running back to.  Better than one would expect from NJ however, and I am likely not going to be seen turning down any one of those wines either.

I am not the norm on my feelings as Heritage has probably received more awards than most of the other wineries in the area.  They are also a marketing powerhouse, and do a great job getting the word out about their wines.  They won NJ winery of the year in 2014 and once in 2010 before that.  Again, the wines are good, but they are also more suited to the middle and not the most interesting I had while in the area.

Finally, I stopped at Bellview Winery, another family owned and operated winery in Landisville, NJ.  All of the wines at Bellview are estate wines.  They do make sweet wines to, "pay the bills" but make no mistake, this is a serious wine making group that makes some great dry reds and whites from some of the usual Vinifera grapes but also from some local an hybrid varieties as well.  The Quarella family still owns and operates the winery and they started from farming roots.  They have owned the land for 4 generations, and are passionate about allowing the land to produce the best grapes, and then doing as little as they have to in order to make good wine in the winery.  They recognize that in cold climate areas there are good years and bad years, but they only release varietal wines in years in which they are happy with the product.  Otherwise they blend.

I tasted several of their offerings including a nice crisp pinot Grigio which had a lively acidity and flavors of green apple and a lemon acidic finish.  Nothing spectacular here, but a great food pairing wine.  In fact, what I would say about all of their wines is that they would pair beautifully with food.  Sofia gave me the tour, and as a former cook, she said that is precisely what she likes about their wines.  Next I tried the Viognier 2013, which is my favorite white grape, and it was very true to the variatal with stone fruits (White peach and Apricot) as well as grapefruit on the acidic finish.  It is a soft lovely lux wine that I enjoyed very much.  I also tried the Chardonay which was lightly oaked and had the buttery finish but not the oaky butter bomb version, it was far more subtle and balanced beautifully with the acid from the green apple.  It also finished with a bit of marzipan.

On to the reds.  The first sample was Chambourcin 2012 which was a bit like a chocolate covered strawberry with a bitter finish.  This was not bad, but not my favorite wine.  I have nothing to compare to as I have never tried Chamourcin before.  Next I tried the Syrah which had a lot of bold and spicy flavors.  None of the Rhone Meaty stuff.  Red and black fruit with black pepper and tobacco.  A nicely balanced wine with Medium tannins.

Perhaps the best surprise was the Blaufrankisch 2013 which I loved.  This wine was complex with cherry, toffee, tea and spice.  The finish was long and the acid was high for a red wine, but not overly so.  I really wanted food with this wine too.  Next the Centennio which is a blend and had a ton of black tea, cherry, and orange.  It was a nice middle weight wine with good finish.  Finally I tried the Petit Verdot 2013.  This was the biggest wine by far.  It had great black color and black fruit.  Berries and casis, cedar, vanilla, and big tannins.

Next I tried the Cab Franc from the tanks because it was not yet bottled.  This was the best Cab Franc for tasting the Terroir.  Soft with ample tannins and a great acid backbone.  there was a floral, red fruit and spice thing but the wood took a backdrop role on this wine and did not step forward like so many of the others.

I am by no means an expert on the Outer Coastal Plain AVA but these three wineries offered a good start.  Next time you think about wine in New Jersey, maybe you will get beyond the Sopranos stereotype.  I know I will.

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