The New Jersey Wine Renaissance
Written by: Dr. Gary Pavlis
Originally published by: Atlantic County Sun, November 2003
Who would have guessed that when the Farm Winery act was passed in the New Jersey legislature thirty two years ago it would ignite a renaissance of the wine industry in this state? Before that piece of legislation, a law was still on the books initiated during Prohibition that stated there could only be one winery per million people based on the NJ population. The time was 1981 and there were seven wineries. We now have over fifty. There are numerous factors that brought about this seven-fold growth. Realize that the wine industry is the fastest growing segment of agriculture in New Jersey, by far. So why this growth? The reasons are social, economic, and climatic.
Socially, this state and this country are becoming a wine loving region much like that of Italy, France and Germany. We drink wine with our meals on a regular basis and two years ago wine actually surpassed beer as our number one alcoholic drink. Wine has become a passion for many and this passion and love for wine develops into the desire to produce it.
Economically growing grapes became the crop of choice in a difficult economy. Other less profitable crops were no longer paying the bills. A $200 per acre return for corn doesn’t stack up to a $6,000 return for Merlot grapes on that same acre. Many farmers growing corn, lima beans, hay, apples and peaches have come to me wanting to know how to grow grapes.
And climatically, New Jersey has, in my opinion, the best climate for growing grapes in the east. Our well drained soils, long growing season, mild winter temperatures and access to clean quality water for irrigation all give this state a tremendous advantage for quality grape growing. And interestingly enough, as you travel from the vineyards of Sussex County in the north to those in Cape May County in the south, the grape varieties change with the climate. In the north, it is cooler and so grapes such as Riesling and Pinot Noir are doing very well. One winery won an award for the best Riesling in North America in a national competition. In the south, the hot weather grapes are their forte’. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and even some Italian varieties such as Sangiovese, Barbera, and Nebbiolo are thriving.
So the reader now must ask, how are the wines? It is true that fifteen to twenty years ago, all the wines made in NJ were sweet and simple. That has changed and it should be realized that NJ has a long history of wine making. In 1767 the Royal Academy in Great Britain awarded 2 wines produced in New Jersey their highest award as the best wines produced in the New World. This was the beginning of the New Jersey wine industry. In the early days, wineries grew Concord, Niagara and Delaware. With time, varieties such as Seyval, Vidal and Chambourcin were added which are French Hybrids. As wine drinkers became more sophisticated in their wine drinking, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling were grown in many parts on this state. But what is our best grape? Is it Cabernet, Merlot, or some other variety? The NJ wineries are still experimenting. A recent survey conducted by Rutgers University revealed that there are currently eighty two grape varieties being grown in this state. With time, many of these will be taken out for numerous reasons such as lack of winter hardiness, poor wine quality, or susceptibility to diseases. Most wineries do not expect to find a perfect grape to make one and only one wine. They have found that producing a range of wines is very consumer friendly. To that end, many also produce fruit wines made from blueberries, cranberries, cherries or various other fruits. Some consumers may confuse this fruit wine production with the inability to produce a quality dry wine. The production of the one does not diminish the production of the other. In fact, we make some of the best fruit wines in the country. Try a New Jersey red raspberry wine with cheese cake for dessert and you will know what great food and wine matching is all about.
As far as quality dry wines are concerned, I’m here to tell you that New Jersey has arrived. Some time ago I saw an article about New Jersey’s wine industry entitled “Napa East”. I think it would be more accurate to call our wines, our wine styles, and our industry, “Bordeaux West”. Our climate results in wines that are more European in style, namely, less tannic, lower alcohol, and more food friendly. It is also interesting to note that when our wines are judged against the best of France as was done last summer in a tasting in Princeton, New Jersey entrees were deemed as good or better than the French entrees which were by the way, in the $200-$800 per bottle range. Every wine produced in New Jersey is not on the level of a Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux, but that is true with wine from anywhere in the world. New Jersey wines will continue to improve and I challenge the reader to go out and experience the passion that is the New Jersey wine industry. What you will find is a wide range of wine types and styles, and wines that will satisfy the tastes of just about any wine drinker. Crisp whites, lush and fruity reds, gorgeous fruit wines, rich ports and beautiful dessert wines are all offered by New Jersey’s wineries.