“Wine country” is not an intuitive identity for New England, a region more associated with gray, rocky shoreline, isolated lighthouses, lobster rolls and soft-serve ice cream.
In the 1980s, Robert Russell, co-owner of Westport Rivers Winery in Westport, Massachusetts, and vice president of the AVA’s Coastal Wine Trail, recalls his parents’ attempts to get their wine on Boston restaurant wine lists, hoping to dispel the notion that, “If the wine is from here, it won’t be good.” Now he says, “We have good wine. And we don’t want to be an enigma here.”
The Southeastern New England AVA spans 13 counties along the Atlantic Coast between Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Most vineyards are rooted on 19th-century (or older) dairy or potato farms and are planted, in some measure, with the AVA’s star varietal, Chardonnay. More modern vineyards were planted in the 1980s, with many expanding initial planted acreage to safeguard farmland from developers.
The critical reason that “good” wine is viable is the Atlantic Ocean, a thermal store that holds warm air in summer and cool air in winter. The spring growing season begins slowly, as the ocean blows in cold air after a long winter, thus delaying budbreak until after spring frosts. In autumn, the ocean releases the heat it gathered during the summer, prolonging the growing season into September and, in some areas, even October. Vineyards situated near the ocean have sandy soil, but farther inland, the soil is mineral-rich glacial till, from glaciation that took place 10,000 years ago—granite, flint, shale and basalt.
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Bill Wilson, winemaker for Greenvale Vineyards in Rhode Island, says the extended, extremely cool growing season ensures bright, high-acid wines from their Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Albariño grapes. Cabernet Franc, a thick-skinned and productive red variety, is also widely planted. Westport Rivers is acclaimed for sparkling wine, an identity Russell sees the region further embracing. A flagship Brut cuvée is a classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Apart from Cabernet Franc, which is cold hardy and “shrugs off storm events,” according to Connecticut winemaker Jonathan Edwards, red wines are always a question mark, as ripening is challenging. But hybrids offer possibilities.
Nick and Happy Smith purchased Stonington Vineyards in 1986; the vineyard, previously a dairy farm, was planted in the 1970s. The Smiths focused exclusively on vinifera for many years. Winemaker Mike McAndrew, who has been with Stonington Vineyards since its opening, has recently created a light-bodied, balanced red by blending young Cabernet Franc with Corot Noir (a cross between Seyve-Villard 18- 307 and Steuben) and Petite Pearl. And at Preston Ridge Vineyard, Cara Sawyer and her husband, Andrew, grow Baco Noir for a popular early harvest rosé.
Michael Connery, owner of Connecticut’s Saltwater Farm Vineyard, says the trick to being a good vineyard in coastal New England is planting what will work and accepting there are some limitations. “Not to overstate it, but it really is about pride of place—it’s about the integrity of the place—and trying to maximize what can be done here.”
Region Quick Facts
- Date AVA Established: March 27, 1984
- Total Size/Acreage: 1,875,200
- Total Vine Acreage: Unknown (The AVA spans three states—we lost our count along the way.)
- Number of Wineries: 19
- Most Planted Red Wine Grape: Cabernet Franc
- Most Planted White Wine Grape: Chardonnay
- Climate: Coastal, maritime
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Last Updated: September 7, 2023