We confess that we used to consider New England wines as little more than novelties. Now we don’t mind having to drink our words.
From a stumbling start in the 1970s, wineries along the region’s southeastern coast have taken root and begun to make good wine. Even better, some keep their tasting and sales rooms open through the slow months. The relaxed pace of the off season makes tastings more intimate than during the bustle of summer. The fermentation is over, the vineyard work hasn’t begun, and folks have time to reflect and talk about their wines.
Here are five welcoming wineries in the Southeastern New England AVA. That’s the government’s official American Viticultural Area designation. The 15-mile strip along the ocean from south of Boston to New London, Conn, is our Yankee counterpart to Napa or Sonoma, Calif. The tasting rooms are waiting for your knock at the door.
Westport Rivers Vineyard & Winery
Tastings at Westport Rivers usually start with the long-aged sparkling wine that established the winery’s reputation. Founders Bob and Carol Russell planted the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines here in 1986. With 80 acres now in grapes, Westport Rivers is the largest vineyard in New England. The houses and barns clustered at the edge of the vines truly feel like a farm winery.
Westport Rivers also makes an array of still wines, though most of the work is on pause right now. As winemaker Marco Montez explained, ‶the barrels and tanks are closed and there no more grapes coming in.″ He was focused on preparing wines for bottling, which will commence in March.
In the meantime, Montez recommended the winery’s ‶Nouveau.″ Westport’s nod to Beaujolais Nouveau is made from the French-American hybrid grape Marquette. ‶It’s fresh,″ he said. ‶We just picked those grapes in October.″ He was right; the wine was ready to drink as a fruity, light red. Among the whites, we were taken with a dry estate-grown Riesling and an off-dry white blend called ‶Five Dogs.″
Weather permitting, staff light the firepits on the patio behind the tasting room on weekends but you can request a seat at a tabletop firepit any time. It’s the perfect vantage to survey the dormant vineyards and imagine the greening and swelling buds that will burst forth in early May.
417 Hixbridge Road, Westport; 508-636-3423; westportrivers.com. Tasting flight $14.98. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Running Brook Vineyards & Winery
A wine tasting at Running Brook can be a little like eating in a restaurant kitchen. The tasting bar sits cheek by jowl with the fermentation tanks and aging barrels. On our most recent visit, owner and winemaker Pedro Teixeira and three workers were readying some wines for bottling and moving others into barrels. A dentist who had caught the winery bug, Teixeira jumped at the chance to take a break and talk wine.
Running Brook produces 15-20 different wines each year — a total that includes some fortified wines. ‶They are all cold-climate wines,″ Teixeira said, echoing a refrain we heard throughout the AVA. The ‶minerality″ (as the wine trade calls it) of these wines is a happy byproduct of stony glacial soils and the combination of warm winters and cool summers. The climate is courtesy of the nearby ocean.
The winery’s 16 acres of vineyards are mainly planted in Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc, and Cabernet Franc (the more rustic parent of Cabernet Sauvignon). Be sure to try all three in a standard tasting flight of five wines. For a slight surcharge, you might also try the winery’s concentrated and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon. On weekends, you can catch free live music from 1 to 4 p.m. By the way, Running Brook also sells eggs from Teixeira’s chickens.
335 Old Fall River Road, North Dartmouth; 508-985-1998; runningbrookwine.com. Tasting flight $10. Open Monday-Thursday, noon-5 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m.
Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard
Founded in 1975, Sakonnet is coastal New England’s longest operating winery. Since 2012, it’s been under the stewardship of jewelry designer Carolyn Rafaelian, founder of Alex and Ani. ‶Carolyn loves it here,″ Nicole Falcone told us as she poured our tasting. ‶What’s not to love?″
Good question. The 30 acres of vineyards occupy a beguiling maritime setting. Over the decades, growers have experimented with many different grapes, but the original plantings of Vidal Blanc remain one of Sakonnet’s strengths. It’s offered as a crisp white to accompany food and as a rich dessert wine redolent of ripe stone fruits. Sakonnet is also one of the few New England wineries making a sleek, barrel-aged Pinot Noir.
The ever-popular Eye of the Storm preserves a quirky bit of Sakonnet history. The off-dry blush wine is modeled on the wine made in 1985 from the grapes that survived a harvest season hurricane. ‶It’s three whites and a red,″ Falcone said, ‶but the blend is a secret.″
Mondays are popular with the hospitality trade, according to Falcone. You could find yourself tasting elbow to elbow with a local chef or sommelier.
162 West Main Road, Little Compton, R.I.; 401-635-8486; sakonnetwine.com. Tasting flight $20. Open Friday-Monday, noon-4 p.m.
The big fireplace in the tasting room of this pioneer New England winery is especially welcoming on a chilly day. If it’s not too busy, you can pull up an armchair by the fire for your tasting. Stonington was established in 1987, but its vineyards were planted years earlier. Like Westport Rivers, Stonington excels at making good Chardonnay, but exclusively as a still wine. To account for different tastes, the winery produces a barrel-fermented lightly oaked Chardonnay and a more austere ‶sheer″ Chardonnay each year.
The other main grape at Stonington is Cabernet Franc, which figures in both a tannic red and as one component in a fruity rosé. The winery also makes a tart and spicy Riesling. As Joshua Main poured our tasting, he confided that he loves the Riesling paired with the tangy pineapple in tacos al pastor. If you want to try the combo yourself, drive a few miles to Mystic to eat at Taquerio (30 Broadway Ave., 860-245-4420, taquerio-mystic.com).
On Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m., Stonington offers live music for adults only. Main observed that some customers hire a sitter for a few hours away from the kids.
523 Taugwonk Road, Stonington, Conn.; 860-535-1222; stoningtonvineyards.com. Tasting flight $16. Open daily, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Saltwater Farm Vineyard
You’ll have to wait for April to visit the youngest of the wineries in this sampling, but the drama of the landscape will be your reward. Saltwater Farm Vineyard opened in 2010 on a former small airfield at the edge of a tidal marsh. The 15 acres of vines, first planted in 2003, flank a grass landing strip that leads to a World War II-era airplane hangar. Strikingly restored to accentuate such industrial design features as the ribbed trusses in the ceiling, it makes a snazzy tasting room.
The winery doesn’t do a formal tasting, instead selling wines by the glass and the bottle. When we stopped in just before the tasting room paused at the end of December, Gregory Post let us sample several wines before we ordered a couple of glasses.
‶We grow only French vinifera,″ Post told us, referring to classic French wine grapes. The winery focuses on powerful red wines, mostly aged in French oak barrels. The Bordeaux blend of estate Cabernet Franc and Merlot best captured the sense of place — rich and elegant, full-bodied, and just brash enough to show some cocky attitude.
349 Elm St., Stonington, Conn.; 860-415-9072; saltwaterfarmvineyard.com. Wines $9-$12 per glass. Open April-December; check website for hours.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.
Patricia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.