The truth is that size doesn’t matter when it comes to quality wines. From boutique to destination spaces, to multiple location wineries, New Hampshire offers a wide range of options to stop, sip, and take in the fresh mountain air that surrounds.
Akin to a mad scientist, one simple request is made from wineries in the Granite State… they want you to experiment. Afterall, the New Hampshire motto, Live Free or Die, is about embracing your independent spirit. And nobody has achieved this goal better than the state’s largest producer, Amy LaBelle, proprietor of LaBelle Winery.
When it comes to growing grapes in New Hampshire, Amy understands the challenges of the climate, and has met them head on. The proof is in her successful management of three locations in Portsmouth, Derry, and Amherst.
Her love of winemaking was inspired by a visit to a small winery in Nova Scotia in 2001. From there, she began educating herself in winemaking and worked on a business plan. She and her husband, Cesar Arboleda, built what is now the LaBelle 20,000 square-foot and state-of-the-art flagship location in Amherst.
LaBelle’s Amherst location is where she grows 2,000 grapevines to produce six different varietals, including a French hybrid Noiret, which is used with Cabernet Franc in a popular blend called Americus -- Amy’s response to the discerning wine drinker who enjoys a full-bodied red.
“We love the extra challenge of winemaking with New Hampshire grapes as it lends itself to our naturally hard-working Yankee work ethic,” she says. “We don’t shy away from a challenge, and it makes us better, more creative winemakers.”
LaBelle Winery has garnered local and national recognition for each aspect of its business, amassing honors such as Business Leader of the Year and the Business Excellence Award 2021, to name a few. Amy’s business prowess has helped earn New Hampshire recognition in the wine industry.
“New Hampshire wine is unique and special because of the people that make it and our difficult growing climate,” adds Amy. “We have to work a bit harder at LaBelle Winery to grow quality wine grapes in New Hampshire due to the harsh winter temperatures, but the results are wines with zippy acidity that are beautifully balanced.”
Compared to LaBelle Winery’s production of 20,000 cases annually, Sweet Baby Vineyard produces a quarter of that amount, but to reiterate… size doesn’t always matter. In this case, it’s important to note Sweet Baby Winery may be a boutique winery, but it has the best-selling blueberry wine in the state.
Says Lewis Eaton, co-owner of Sweet Baby Vineyard with his wife Stacey, “It amazes us every time the top 1200 list comes out that this wine creeps higher and higher up the list and is now (almost) in the top four hundred. This has been happening now for over a decade, us being the top selling New Hampshire wine in the New Hampshire State Liquor Stores.”
The secret behind its best-selling blueberry wine is where Sweet Baby Vineyard sources its fruit.
“We use fruit from Taylor Brown Blueberry Farm in Alton,” shares Lewis. “We’ve used the same berries from the same farm for the last 14 years, and we do not deviate from the source.” It’s worthy to note that the fruit is received frozen solid, even during the season.
“Using frozen instead of fresh fruit allows for the long cold soak of the berries waiting for the must to reach 55 degrees (tolerance for the yeast to start working),” says Lewis. “With blueberries, it’s not really about the juice inside the berries but the skin contact, for the color and mouthfeel.”
Sweet Baby’s wine uses the simplest ingredients: blueberry, water, pectic enzyme, sugar and yeast, according to Lewis. The fermentation process is similar to Pinot Noir production, with two punch-downs per day.
Says Lewis, “When the must is clear and stabilized, it is then back sweetened to 5.5% [residual sugar], capturing the subtle taste of these little wild blueberries. We don't use any added tannins or color, so the growing practices at this farm are super important, providing consistency.”
Constancy means everything to the Eaton’s, who have roots in New Hampshire, a state they love for several reasons.
“We have a beautiful country setting with wines grown on our property and fruit from other New Hampshire farms,” says Lewis. “And we are very close to the coast and to major cities, making for an easy commute from major highways.”
Ninety percent of Sweet Baby Vineyard’s products are New Hampshire grown, and plans are in the works to expand the vineyard and lessen the winery from being reliant on fruit from elsewhere.
One of the smallest producers in the state of New Hampshire is Poocham Hill Winery in Westmoreland, owned by Steve Robbins and his wife, Mame Odette. The winery has been in business since 2011 and produces 300 cases annually. It’s open June through November on weekends and its top selling wines include Marquette, WolfPine Red, and Frontenac Gris.
Unlike the typical winemaker’s path beginning as an adult, Steve’s passion for science began at the early age of 9, when he received his first chemistry set. A few years later he learned you can make wine with chemistry, so he did.
“It was horrible,” he said. “My father took it away from me.”
Fast-forward to college, a time when Steve began making wine from all things local, such as rhubarb and dandelion… until he learned of someone in New Hampshire who grew wine grapes. He soon purchased Marechal Foch, which are French hybrid grapes, and he made 20 gallons of red wine that won the approval of a discerning French palate. That same wine he made in 1978 proved its aging ability when three years ago, a longtime friend found an old bottle in his dirt basement. The two opened the bottle of Marechal Foch and were amazed it was still good!
In 1998, Steve and Mame purchased the 154-acre farm on the Connecticut River where Poocham Hill Winery stands today. For 12 years, Mame grew organic vegetables, while Steve planted 30 vines of Marechal Foch and slowly planted more. Eventually, Mame suggested they plant more wine grapes and today, five acres are dedicated to grapes.
“We are really passionate about it and have 5 varietals of red and 4 white varietals,” he said.
Frontenac Gris is Poocham Hill’s most popular red wine, with its deep garnet color and black cherry aroma and black berries on the palate. It’s an exceptional wine to pair with hearty food dishes and barbequed foods. LaCrescent wines are also a big seller. This white grape was Steve’s choice based on research he conducted on Minnesota’s success with viticulture. This varietal was developed by the University of Minnesota's cold hardy grape breeding program. It’s a highly aromatic grape, an attribute for many New Hampshire wines. Steve uses the LaCrescent grape to make a brilliantly balanced white wine that offers an immediate bouquet of orange blossoms, followed by crisp flavors of peach, apricot, and citrus, similar to a Sancerre.
He also makes a semi-sweet blend as the market demands, but admittedly, he doesn’t produce a lot of blends.
“It’s important to me that people identify grapes,” he said. “With single varietals, you can taste the Marquette and know it’s different than the St. Croix.”
He also notes that where and how you grow the grapes is important.
“If they ripen appropriately, they can stand up to California or European wines,” he said. “We’ve had people come in from New York who were shocked by our aromatic whites.”
According to Steve, the aromatics are a byproduct of the grapes, but also in the winemaking process.
“Most winemakers test until acidity is proper and sugars are proper, and then its important that you use the right yeast” he said. “Each varietal grown is different and each winemaker has their own way in making the wine, but they all start out with something aromatic. Grapes in New Hampshire produce some amazing aromatic wines and do it in a way that customers enjoying tastings are pleasantly shocked by the quality.”
The surge of success among wineries in the Granite State is best experienced through a tasting to personally witness what each winemaker is achieving. No doubt you’ll walk away amazed at what these winemakers have accomplished. And there’s more to come with each visit.
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.