Winemaking in the Granite State has progressed over the years to the point where it was time to create an association. In 2006, the New Hampshire Winery Association was formed to group 20 wineries together in an effort to best promote the production of premium New Hampshire wines, ciders, and mead. A New Hampshire wine trail was also formed, and this group of winemakers had the advantage of a forum to exchange ideas and share information.
Through trial and error, and shared experiences, these independent winemakers have succeeded in producing quality wines in the Granite State. Given the challenges of the climate, they had little choice other than to approach this arduous process in unconventional ways.
For example, the growing season is shorter in New England, and there are no natural temperature-controlled caves at any of these wineries, which also means there are no lavish cave events to attract guests to these wineries. The association had to think outside the box and create programming to attract the masses. Fortunately, three seasons out of four offer pristine outdoor ambiance and acres of landscape perfect for winetasting events and weddings. And let’s be clear… the high quality of wine produced here draws a crowd on its own.
A combination of established wine producers and the emergence of bold newcomers in recent years has led to a healthy, growing wine scene in the Granite State where several “destination” wineries each attract thousands of visitors a year. Within this small state however, there’s a good balance of smaller, boutique wineries that provide a surprisingly diverse set of experiences. In a popular tourist area, the close proximity of many wineries makes it easy to understand New Hampshire and its rise to becoming a wine destination for tourists and locals alike.
But then there’s the issue of best practices to bear fruit. Let’s begin at the root of the issue and how this association has overcome the challenges of its viticulture, a term defined as the process of growing grapes.
Globally, vineyards are challenged year after year. You’ll hear about unseasonal hail in Bordeaux and Champagne or drought-related wildfires during “fire season” in California, Oregon, Washington State, and Australia. And then there’s disease that may plague vineyards at any given moment. Remember when phylloxera almost took out all the vineyards in France? A new strain of this pest wreaked havoc during the 1980’s in California, and then hit Washington State and Oregon. Vineyards were ripped from these lands and new rootstock had to be grafted and replanted.
Today’s pests in these well-known wine regions include grape-berry moths and Japanese beetles. In certain areas of the northeast, the spotted lantern fly (not in New Hampshire, thankfully!) has been making a pilgrimage from Berks County, Pennsylvania, to areas of Virginia Wine Country.
The good news about viticulture in New England is that the vines that produce hybrid grapes are more disease-resistant. Also, during harvest, temperatures dip to perfection in picking these high-performing grapes. In fact, New Hampshire’s white grape varietals are best known for their outstanding aromatics.
Brian Ferguson, owner of Flag Hill Winery & Vineyard, located in Lee, shares the secret to these aromatic whites. “We focus on world class aromatic white wine production using Germanic methods (arresting fermentation early).”
Amy LaBelle, owner of LaBelle Winery locations in Amherst, Derry, and Portsmouth, shares, “In New Hampshire, wineries are unique and special, allowing our products and creations to shine.”
LaBelle Winery’s top three selling wines are Seyval Blanc, Malbec, and Chardonnay. While Malbec and Chardonnay are familiar grapes to many oenophiles, Seyval Blanc is the lesser known varietal worthy of a mention. This hybrid grape performs much like a white burgundy in that it has an elegant minerality and bright citrus notes. To further position Seyval Blanc’s presence in the mainstream of varietals, Amy sells a Seyval Blanc Vinaigrette in the winery’s boutique.
LaBelle’s success speaks for itself with its three locations and a new winery facility dedicated to Méthode Champenoise sparkling fermentation. “This new facility has doubled our capacity and [ability to] add another restaurant, event spaces, tasting room and market to our portfolio,” says Amy.
Viniculture and Sourcing Grapes
Genetically, most New Hampshire vineyards grow hybrids on vinifera grapevines fashioned from Europe. The grapes grown in New Hampshire have a bit more acidity and less tannin stability. Unlike a high temperature region, the delicate compounds aren’t released in the heat. The cooler temperatures retain these compounds and translate to the production of highly aromatic wines. These wines may not be ageable like single-varietal wines, but they are perfect for drinking upon purchase. There’s no need to lay down these bottles in a cellar for years.
What sets Flag Hill apart from other wine regions, says Brian, is the climate. “We have the perfect climate for growing and making world-class aromatic white wines. The delicateness of the soft aromas is protected by our cool mornings allowing for early morning harvests that respect fruit in the finished wine.”
During a tour of Flag Hill Winery, Brian will share what grapes he’s planted and how he has responded to what grows best in New Hampshire. He strives to create the best wines, and his top-selling wines are Cayuga White, Apple Cranberry, and Sparkling Cayuga White. Cayuga is a French-American hybrid grape variety first bred in the Finger Lakes of New York State. It produces a wine with floral, clean notes.
In addition to growing their own hybrid grapes, many wineries source vinifera from other growing regions. In order to offer a full spectrum of varietals to guests, Mark LaClair of Seven Birches Winery, located in the RiverWalk Resort at Loon Mountain, receives shipments of 10 to 12 tons of red grapes from wine regions that include Chile, the Central Valley of California, and Washington State. For additional white wines, 8 tons of juice are shipped to create a diverse wine portfolio that includes a zesty off-dry Pinot Grigio from Chile, as well as a California Riesling with a slate minerality.
The good news for New England is its quality hybrid grapes grow successfully as a more disease-resistant vinifera and wines with exquisite bouquets. Even better, most wines in New Hampshire are fairly priced, speak to the land on which it’s grown, and showcase the shining spirit of these winemakers in the Granite State.
In order to experience all of the great wineries located throughout the granite state, check out the article “Travel in the Live Free State of Wine” and also download or pick up the NHWA winery passport, available at each participating winery. If you’re driven to win, bring your passport to each member winery in New Hampshire to collect a special prize for visiting them all.