A worker harvests Marquette grapes in the vineyard at Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville. Photo courtesy of Cellardoor Winery

Bob Manley, co-owner of Hermit Woods Winery in Meredith, New Hampshire, recently spent 30 minutes with customers as they sipped six different wines at the tasting bar. He described the wines for them in detail, including all the ingredients. Manley and his partners make their wines from New England fruits like blueberries, blackberries, quince, currants and plums.

“At the end of the tasting, the person on the other side of the bar says ‘So what grapes are you using?’ ” Manley recalled, a little frustrated but also making an important point.

The customer assumed the wines were made with grapes not because of the taste, but because they drink like classic drier, barrel-aged wines made from grapes, with the same depth, complexity and personality. “We’re not trying to make a pinot noir,” Manley said, “we’re trying to make a wine as interesting as a pinot noir.”

Petite Blue, a dry, barrel-aged blueberry wine made by Hermit Woods Winery in Meredith, N.H., has received accolades from Food & Wine magazine, the Today Show and Oprah. Photo by Bob Manley

New England wine used to mean pouring yourself a small glass of fruity sweetness. But a growing number of winemakers in the region are now turning out bottles of wine that pair better with a piece of fish or beef than a slice of pie. Some, like Manley and Maine-based Bluet and RAS Wines – which are producing bright, dry blueberry wines – are focusing on native fruits, while others are growing and fermenting cold-hardy hybrid grapes that can survive the region’s below-zero temperatures, are more tolerant of local pests and diseases, and in the end, drink more like classic dry wines than dessert wines.

Margot Mazur, a sommelier and wine educator who will moderate a panel discussion and tasting on wine making in the Northeast during Portland Wine Week, which begins Monday, says hybrid grape varieties are “the future of winemaking in New England.”

“I think as we go into the future and more research is done on hybrids, we’re going to see some really, really beautiful wines coming out of New England with these grapes that are more ours than any vinifera grape is,” she said. “A lot of these grapes are American grapes, developed here in the United States.”

(Vitis vinifera is the scientific name for the common grape vine and produces the best-known European wine grapes.)

The excitement around these new regional wines, whether they are made from hybrid grapes or other fruits,  has led to an influx of young farmers and winemakers (Mazur among them) looking for land to start their own small vineyards and wineries. “I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more Maine winemakers in next decade,” Mazur said.

Manley believes that New England wine making today, and the wine culture that’s developing here,  is “a little reminiscent of what it was like in California – actually, even in Napa – in the ’50s and ’60s.”

“We’ve been watching what we think is a real change in what people think about New England wines,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more wine makers follow that path, to figure out how do we make drier wines, how do we make more complex wines? Even more important, I’m seeing more of the national wine media taking interest in that subject. I couldn’t imagine a national wine magazine writing a serious story about fruit wine 10 years ago. But there have been three or four serious stories about fruit wines in several national magazines in the last few years, so I think people are starting to see that there can be some really interesting things being created in a different way, from different fruit, in this part of the world.”

Why is this happening now? Winemakers cite several reasons, from climate change to better raw materials and shifting consumer tastes.

“Most people will say that climate change has something to thing to do with it,” said Joe Appel, a partner in RAS Wines in Portland. “We’re getting longer growing seasons and better ripeness from all kinds of fruit, so that’s making better wines.”

One of the biggest drivers of interest in these wines, however, is changing palates and a new generation of wine drinkers who are more adventurous and open to trying new things. Winemakers say it’s a natural evolution of the explosion of interest in craft beer, kombucha, ciders and other craft beverages.

“These are people who are into lambics and sour beers,” Appel said. “They’re into artisanal ciders from Basque, Spain or Normandy.  Those sorts of people have a lot fewer hang-ups about what wine should be and what it should taste like.”

RAS Wines in Portland recently released its first wild blueberry wine, called Arkadia. Photo courtesy of RAS Wines

These changing tastes, Manley adds, are “giving beverage makers a lot of opportunities to explore new ideas. They are open to something different. I think that’s all contributing to our ability to do some fun and creative things and be taken seriously for it.”

Amanda O’Brien, owner of Eighteen Twenty Wines in Portland, which makes rhubarb wines that are often compared to sauvignon blanc, has witnessed this shift in consumer preferences first hand. Her boutique winery is located next to the Lone Pine and Goodfire craft breweries, and beer drinkers sometimes pop into her business to try one of her wines.

“The beer bros love our strawberry-rhubarb wine,” O’Brien said. “They like all the fruity beers, so why not?”

Ask who is making some of the best wines in New England today, and invariably Deirdre Heekin’s name comes up. Heekin, a grower, sommelier and former restaurant owner who makes wine at La Garagista Farm and Winery in Barnard, Vermont, is the author of  ‘The Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir.” She and her husband, a chef, farm 11 acres of hybrid grapes and produce almost 1,000 cases of wine a year. Her wines are natural wines, which means they are fermented with indigenous yeast and produced with little intervention and no additives such as sulfites.

Heekin says wine regions develop in a particular way; when food culture takes off, she says, the beverage scene usually follows suit. That’s what happened in California, she said, and it’s happening in New England now. The earliest cold-climate vineyards in Vermont were planted around 1997 or 1998, following the resurgence of small homesteading and organic farming, and then “the explosion of restaurant culture,” she said. Then came craft beer, cider, distilleries and, finally, wine. (Sound familiar, Mainers?) Dairy farmers looking for a more sustainable way to make a living started planting grapes, as well as folks trying to find a way to hang onto the family farm. Then businesspeople retiring or looking for a career change moved in and began building tasting rooms and catering to tourists. With this first wave came the infrastructure for farm wineries. Vineyards were planted, trellises went up.

Deirdre Heekin on her Vermont Farm. Photo courtesy of Deirdre Heekin

Heekin considers herself part of the second wave of winemakers who saw what was happening and started thinking “there are even more possibilities here.”

“Now I would say there’s a third wave of younger people who are coming to Vermont, they are looking to take over established vineyards that have either gone by the wayside, or they’re working in collaboration with people who own vineyards but don’t want to make wine,” Heekin said. “This is an established region, and now we’re in that growth period where there’s all this energy and vitality from a third wave of producers.”

She expands on Manley’s comparison of New England to California in the 1950s: “I think we’re a little bit farther along, at least in Vermont,” she said. “The majority of people making wine here are really focused on good farming and what they feel is wine with a sense of place. Dry wine, sparkling wine.”

Ethan Joseph was one of those young people drawn into a life of wine making in Vermont when he was in college. Mostly self-taught, Joseph started a well-regarded label called Iapetus, named after the ancient ocean that once covered the Champlain Valley. He grows about a dozen varieties of hybrid grapes on 23 acres at Shelburne Vineyard, and produces about 4,000 to 6,000 cases of experimental, “geocratic” wines that are an expression of the Vermont landscape. The wines are fermented with natural yeast from the vineyard, and with little intervention. They fit best into the “natural wine” category, but Joseph doesn’t like being put into that box because he prefers having some flexibility in the management of his vines.

“We have a philosophy that guides us,” he says, “but we’re not drawing lines in the sand.”

Joseph believes the foundation of the wine industry that’s growing in New England will be smaller than in other parts of the country, mostly because the states are smaller. “I doubt anyone in New England will ever have 100-150 acres of grapes and be selling fruit,” he said. “I don’t think New England is going to reach that kind of scale. There are going to be farm wineries for the most part, if we’re talking about locally grown fruit.”

Hybrid grapes grown by Ethan Joseph of Iapetus in Shelburne, Vermont. Photo courtesy of Iapetus

Joseph envisions farm wineries ranging in size from a couple of acres to 40 acres, spread out over the landscape, run by small, independent winemakers who revel, as he does, in experimentation and self expression. Running a farm winery, he said, “makes you much more intimately connected to the product that you’re making. I certainly recognize the limitations as well, but it’s something that’s unique enough that it could be a nice foundation for the regional identity.”

Aaron and Christina Peet are examples of budding winemakers who returned to Maine in 2008 to follow their passion. Aaron is the winemaker at Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville, owned by Bettina Doulton, and Christina – known as CC – is his wife and the assistant winemaker. “We’re from Maine,” CC Peet said. “We want to live here, but we also want to make good wine.”

The couple tend to five-and-a-half acres of hybrid grapes: Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac Gris, Marquette, and L’acadie Blanc. After 13 years of honing their craft and experimenting with different wine-making styles, they are learning what works in the vineyard and what doesn’t.

“Rather than fight the varieties and make them what we want them to be,” Peet said, “we’ve been learning what they want to be and trying to bring out their best abilities.”

They are particularly enamored of the L’acadie Blanc, which they say ripens earlier and is consistently yielding five to six tons of grapes per acre compared with two tons per acre from the other varieties. “In the last few years,” Peet said, “we have found that the L’acadie Blanc is absolutely suited for the traditional method sparkling wine – it’s perfect chemistry.”

The Peets hope Maine farmers will come to see the high-producing L’acadie Blanc grape as a potential money-making crop.

“That would be, I think, a big jump in the Maine wine industry, if you had some farmers who would be willing to plant vineyards to sell to the wineries,” Peet said. “You would start to have this beautiful wine industry in Maine that would grow exponentially. At the moment it’s small because it’s held back by what we can do.”

Heekin says there would have to be a lot of support for farmers who want to transition to grapes because “it’s a whole different ball game in how you farm and the infrastructure.” But she agrees that fruit sourcing, or access to vineyards, is a major challenge for New England winemakers. There are more people interested in making wine, she said, than there are vineyards.

The more wine New England makes, the more it will be able to establish its regional identity in liquid form – that expression of soils, bedrock and microclimate known as terroir. Joseph says winemakers can already detect differences in taste among wines made from grapes grown in different vineyards. It will take a lot more producers and a lot more drinking by consumers, he says, to start discerning the differences between “a Marquette from Maine versus a Marquette from Vermont.”

Here’s to one day raising a glass and toasting to those unique flavors.

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