To make great wine, you need the right grapes being grown in the right place by the right people — and then those grapes must be handled the right way by the right people in the cellar. That not so — well — simple, of course. In a world that is increasingly focused on getting what we want when we want it — which is always now — great wine takes patience and passion and perseverance.
A recent day trip tasting New Jersey wines with my good friend and fellow writer Carlo DeVito, not only convinced me that New Jersey has the potential for great wine but that it also has the people it will take to get there. Many of the wines I tasted already rival anything I’ve tasted from New York, Virginia, Maryland and beyond.
I have a story about New Jersey wine that will be published in Wine Enthusiast sometime in early 2018, so I can’t share everything that I have to say about what I’ve found in the Garden State wine community, but I can say this definitively: There is some terrific wine being made in New Jersey — and in some ways, the top tier of winemakers there are years ahead of those in neighboring states. More on that in the spring, however.
It was a long day — I left my house at 6 a.m. and got home around 8 p.m. — but my day in New Jersey wine country was well worth the effort. Here are nine wines that stand out as I go back through my notes.
William Heritage Wines 2014 Vintage Brut Estate Reserve ($40)
69% Chardonnay and 31% Pinot Noir, this no-dosage sparkling wine was another of the real surprises. Brisk and focused, it’s driven by green apple and citrus character with doughy yeastiness overlaid on top. Bone dry and linear, the palate stretches out with a beautiful citrus zest finish.
Beneduce Vineyard 2016 Gewurztraminer ($26)
Winemaker Mike Beneduce is focusing on European grape varieties grown in places like Austria, Northern Italy and the Alsace region of France. He has one of the largest plantings of Blaufrankisch I know of in North America but it was this spicy, citrusy Gewurztraminer that stood out. One-third fermented in neutral oak, it’s bone dry and tautly concentrated, with terrific natural acidity and texture. I found a distinct citrusy hop aroma really appealing too.
Unionville Vineyards 2015 Pheasant Hill Chardonnay ($43)
The Pheasant Hill site is less than 10 miles from the winery and — at least based on the wines I’ve tasted that were grown there — is a premier site in Northern New Jersey. The nose is citrusy and floral with subtle leesy notes (it spent nine months in neutral French oak) the palate is lightly creamy, with nice fruit concentration and terrific chalky acidity. This really might be one of the best Chardonnays in the east.
William Heritage Winery 2016 Semillon ($18)
There isn’t much Semillon in New Jersey — in fact, winemaker Sean Comninos thinks he may have the only plantings — but this wine has beautiful melon, guava and peach fruit flavors that are ripe but well balanced by citrusy acidity.
Mount Salem Vineyards 2015 Zweigelt ($30)
I really like and appreciate well-made red wines that focus on acidity and texture without being overrun by oak and oak-born flavors. This wine does just that. It bursts with black and blue fruits — both fresh and dried — with great, crunchy acidity. It’s not particularly complex, it’s simply the kind of red wine you want to drink with a wide variety of foods.
Alba Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir ($25)
Pinot Noir is one of the focuses in one of the state’s larger estate vineyards — and the views from the top aren’t bad either. Aged 18 months in French oak of varying age, it has everything you’d want from Pinot Noir — red cherries and raspberries, and layers of cola, spice and just a tiny bit of well-integrated oak. I honestly didn’t expect to find Pinot like this in New Jersey — and definitely not at $25.
Unionville Vineyards 2013 Pheasant Hill Syrah ($33)
Finding Syrah that tastes like Syrah — without a lot of oak or oak-derived flavor — isn’t easy on the East Coast, but here it is. Raised entirely in neutral oak and with 5% Viognier blended in, it’s peppery and earthy and perfumey all at once with plenty of dark berry fruit too.
Working Dog Winery 2015 Syrah ($26)
Grown 20ish miles southeast of Unionville’s Pheasant Hill site, this Syrah is a completely different animal. Aged in oak that varies in age from new to completely neutral, this wine is darker, deeper and burlier with chewy tannins, a vein of black pepper and notes of dusty earth. At the same time, there is a delicate floral high note too. This is a wine worth stashing in your cellar for a few years.
Working Dog Winery 2015 Cabernet Franc ($25)
Mostly Cabernet Franc (with 4% Merlot) this is another young wine that will benefit from time in the bottle. The black currant and blueberry fruit here is pure and concentrated with notes of dark roast coffee and dark chocolate. The tannins are grippy but softer at the edges.