The history of New Hampshire winemaking begins and continues with a resilient and independent group of people adhering to the state’s motto “Live Free or Die”. In many other wine regions there are regulatory handcuffs that limit freedom of variation and experimentation from choice of fruit to fermentation, but not in the Live Free state.
Here in New Hampshire, winemakers thrive on authenticity. Wineries are smaller, family owned and operated, rather than big corporations. This allows winemakers and grape growers to creatively exploit their specific terroir and micro climates, to produce a diverse style of wine. Wine makers are free to engage with their customers in the vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms, and sell their wines direct to consumers, as well as whole sale customers.
No doubt, New Hampshire is famously known for its abundance of natural resources and beauty that includes a cherished ocean, large freshwater lakes, cascading rivers, and steep mountains. The local farm-to-table movement and the growth of domestic wine production have become increasingly popular and desirable since the early days of the state’s wine industry.
Wine making took course in New Hampshire in the 1960s when John and Lucille Canepa, a couple with Italian roots and part of a family of grape growers found wild grapevines growing on their newly purchased property on Governor’s Island, a precious part of Lake Winnipesaukee – the largest lake in the State. Although the terroir was much different from their family’s in Italy there definitely was promise for producing local wine after discovering the grape vines. Intrigued, the Canepa’s studied viticulture for several years before planting 800 French hybrid grape vines and added 200 more vines the following year. By 1968, they purchased a farm near Belmont and began White Mountain Vineyards. They were the only winery in the state at the time.
During that period the Grape Growers Association of New Hampshire was formed, with John Canepa as the chairman. Progressing rapidly, 200 acres of French hybrid grapes were already growing by the early 1970’s and farmers were starting to add grape vineyards to their land in anticipation of selling wine grapes.
Back then, New Hampshire had strict laws selling wine when White Mountain Vineyards went up for sale. An entrepreneurial couple from Miami, John and Florence Vereen, with long family ties to New Hampshire, decided to become winery owners with ambition to take sales to a new level. Unfortunately for them, there were not a sufficient number of local grapes to make an adequate amount of wine. Grapes had to be purchased and brought in from other wine regions frequently arriving spoiled to the winemaking facility. The new owners had no new vintages to sell. By the mid 1980’s three brothers, Roger, Pete and Alde Howard, bought the winery and hired wine broker Bill Damour for sales and marketing. Damour also lobbied on behalf of the wine industry in the NH State legislature. He ended up buying and moving the winery to Henniker, eventually closing it in 1995.
The State of New Hampshire adopted a winery license in 1990 and two years later a two-tier winery license for small wineries making less than 1,000 cases a year. This certainly opened the door for other winemakers when a trio of men opened three separate wineries, establishing that quality wines, even in cold weather conditions, could be produced in New Hampshire.
Dr. Peter Oldak started Jewell Towne Vineyards on his 12-acre farm in South Hampton and just recently retired. Frank Reinhold opened Flag Hill Winery on his family’s farm in Lee and sold to Brian Ferguson in 2015, and Bob Dabrowski established Candia Vineyards.
In 2006 Oldak founded the New Hampshire Winery Association (NHWA). Currently there are 21 members in the association. They range from vineyards, home wineries, resort wineries small European style wineries, historic properties, barns, store fronts, to large hospitality centers. Each business offers an exuberant and unique experience, many offer food and there’s even some with lodging.
Wine production has more than tripled since the earlier days. Today there are over three dozen producers of wine (both grape and other fruit- based), cider, or mead. They are offered in every imaginable style still, sparkling, dry, semi-dry, rosé and sweet.
Most grapes grown in the state are French-American hybrids (the genetic crossing of two or more grapes) with a strong resistance to cold weather. Cayuga represents 27% of the planted vines in the southeastern part of the state, followed by Marechal Foch. Signature grapes include Marquette, Niagara, Petit Pearl, La Crescent, Brianna, Chancellor and Seyval. Other varietals Noiret, Aromella, St Croix, Traminette and Vignoles, along with some International varietals - Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, and Zinfandel, can be found here too. Emerging varietals are L’Acadie Blanc and Itasca.
Now wineries also successfully source grapes from other wine regions - California, New York, Europe, and South America - a common practice in the industry. Many New Hampshire wineries make wine from their own grapes.
Fruit wines are made from locally grown apples, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, cranberries, and more. The hard ciders are some of the finest in the world, and the honey meads produced here are very unique.
Wineries are spread throughout the state in various regions. The vast majority of wineries are located in the Seacoast and Merrimack regions where the climate is milder, allowing cool climate tender grapes to thrive. The Lakes Region, Connecticut River Valley, and White Mountains favor cold climate grapes. The NHWA is in the process of obtaining appropriate AVA (American Viticulturally Area) designations to recognize the distinction of the wine produced here.
New Hampshire wines are sold within the state and at a selection of local restaurants, wine retailers (including the state liquor outlets), and at the winery. There are several wine trip itineraries to help wine lovers and nature buffs enjoy and learn about the expression of freedom in New Hampshire wines.
The NHWA also has a winery passport available at each participating winery and for download on the website. Prizes are awarded for those that visit them all.