We Heard It Through
the Local Grapevine
By Marc Bouchard / Fiddlehead Contributing Writer
Editor’s Note: Fiddlehead wanted to take a closer look at local wineries and sent out our main food/wine writer, chef and sommelier, Marc Bouchard, who has been seriously studying wines for more than 35 years.
“I value the time I’ve spent tasting in Italy,” he said. “I’ll never forget a rainy autumn day in Tuscany sipping Brunello in the cellars of Livio Sassetti. The wines were amazing, perhaps more so because of the romantic setting: oak casks, a treasure trove of older vintages, and rows of Sangiovese vines that extended to the top of the hill where the ancient town was perched.
“My visits to local New Hampshire wineries brought back a lot of those memories because they share the many of the same characteristics: the birth of a new industry, the experimental aspects, mixed with the beauty and romance of the New Hampshire countryside.”
Al Fulchino of Fulchino Vineyards in Hollis shared a story that perfectly illustrates that which makes local wines unique: “An American family finds themselves at an Italian country taverna after a busy day of touring. They call for glasses of the house wine, and are flabbergasted at how fresh, how delicious it is. Curious, they notice that the bottle has no name, no label, no vintage. ‘Where is this amazing wine from?’ they ask. The padrone shrugs, then gestures up the road. ‘My grandfather makes it, up the hill.’”
Good news, New Hampshire oenophiles, you don’t have to travel all the way to the Old Country to have that experience. Grandpa and his progeny are living right down the road and their wines are amazing.
The Granite State is haven for locavores when it comes to food and dining because so many ingredients can be locally sourced. But until recently, if you brought up the topic of New Hampshire wines, you would be met with either indifference or outright derision.
Thanks to an explosion of vineyards and wineries statewide, those days are gone forever. Quality wines of all types and styles, using local and imported grapes, cultivated and wild fruit, and natural enhancements like maple syrup and honey are now available in quantity year-round.
This new generation of vintners come from all walks of life. Some are second-generation winemakers, others wine lovers who left other fields of endeavor to follow their passion. I took a trip around the southern tier to visit a few of our local growers. It was an eye-opening experience.
With its handsome main building perched atop a hill with rows of golden vines and lush, green grass, a visit to LaBelle is a tad disorienting. Somehow you started out on Route 101 in southern New Hampshire but ended up in the Napa Valley? This home-grown grandeur might seem a bit imposing compared to smaller Granite State vineyards, but it never loses its local touch.
And that is entirely due to the personality of its owner and winemaker, Amy LaBelle. She has more than 100 employees working there, to make sure that every visitor gets personal attention. It’s a big family – a word that means a lot here. During a visit, Amy interrupts a wine tasting to call her husband, Cesar Arboleda, the cellar master: “Can you pick up the kids from soccer camp and bring them here? They’re sure to be hungry and after lunch they can play in the storage room.”
LaBelle offers an overall wine list of unmatched excellence. Their best bottlings display a finesse and refinement that other vintners are still reaching for, while their worst wine...Well, frankly, they don’t have a worst wine.
Lots of folks make a blueberry wine. Only LaBelle’s blueberry has the depth and elegance to make converts of dyed-in-the-wool California merlot drinkers.
Seyval blanc is one of the more prolific northern white grapes, but it often verges on the thin, acidic side. Blended, as it is in LaBelle’s White Alchemy, with New York chardonnay, it blossoms into a full-bodied white, but without the cloying aspect that infects so many California chards.
I could easily dismiss their best-selling cranberry wine as “just another semi-sweet rose.” But it’s brighter, crisper and suitable, not only as a summer sipper, but as a food wine. My sister, a LaBelle devotee, has served it alongside her Christmas turkey for a decade now.
It’s clearly Amy’s passion that drives this winery, “I just completed the University of California/Davis courses. And we’re hoping to open our Portsmouth Tasting Room this fall.”
In between that there’s the LaBelle’s series of yoga classes, cooking classes, painting classes, the wine club... the list of activities and events is endless. And I haven’t even touched on the award-winning Bistro with its seasonal, farm-to-fork menu.
The importance of Italians in the development of the American wine industry cannot be understated. And there still exists many flag-bearers of the old-school: Mondavi, Gallo, Sebastiani, Parducci, Pedroncelli, Coppola and Martini.
Which is why I felt a special kinship when I visited Fulchino Vineyard in Hollis and Zorvino Vineyards in Sandown. I’ve worked with Italians in the food business for decades. Going there was a little bit like going home.
The grounds of Fulchino resemble a Tuscan estate, with the vines planted in rows directly in front of the villa. There’s a stunning outdoor terrace and spots to leisurely sit, sip wine and just watch the grapes grow.
Inside, Fulchino stands in front of a wall, decorated with portraits of his ancestors. “My grandfather, Andrew, came to America searching for the American dream. Like many Italians, he brought the tradition of wine making with him,” he said.
In fact, he made his first bottle of wine when he was just 21, using his grandfather’s old, handcrafted press.
Fulchino has a full range of wines, which reflect the classic Italian philosophy that wine is a food and should complement the meals with which it’s served.
He makes a light Biancco, 100 percent locally grown, with hints of pear, apple and melon; medium-bodied Hollis Vino, the perfect barbecue red, with bright cherry notes and good acidity; and Vivace, a port-like dessert wine – naturally rich, not fortified.
Zorvino Vineyards, located off a shaded road in Sandown, is an imposing location, with a large tasting room, function space, an outdoor patio and long rows of vines stretching to the edge of the forest. But it was never supposed to be this big.
“Jim Zanello originally planned to retire here,” tasting room manager Nancy Walton explains. “He had a collection of antique cars housed upstairs, and wine making was just a hobby.”
Some hobby. Today Zorvino makes almost 50 kinds of wines, using their own grapes, as well as more from Italy, California, Chile and South Africa. And that doesn’t include the locally sourced fruit.
Zanello is still involved, but daily operations are the focus of his daughter Amy, with winemaking under the direction of Dave Sexton. Their vintages run the full range, but their fruit wines garner the biggest accolades. And new flavors are being introduced like pineapple habanero and blood orange.
It was a very rainy Saturday morning during a recent trip to Sweet Baby Vineyard in Hampstead. This setting is so organic to the countryside, I nearly drove right by it. Lush bunches of Swiss chard grew in the family garden, children’s bicycles on their sides were in the tennis court and rows of two-year-old grapevines were running out in every direction.
It looked as if it would be a serene visit.
But by noon, the parking lot was full. Clusters of people, mostly in quartets, came flying up the walk to grab a cheese plate for an early brunch, re-taste and buy a case of their favorite wine, but most of all to schmooze with Lewis Eaton, the winery’s personable owner and winemaker.
Everyone had something to tell him. One faithful customer couldn’t wait to say, “Lewis, I saw your wines at Market Basket.”
It was like walking into the middle of a party. And that is, perhaps, the truest test of loyalty, for both the customer and the winemaker. Eaton makes wines that people love, and in return they come back again and again.
“I tend to make my wines on the sweet side,” he said.
He was echoing what insiders in the business know to be a truism: that wine drinkers often “talk dry” but drink “sweet.” And every one of his wines, whether grape or fruit-based, rings true to type, with a clean, un-adultered flavor.
Whether he realizes it or not, Eaton has tapped into the retro market with wines like his Niagara. Folks of a certain age will remember when New York State wines dominated the marketplace, and the big names were Taylor, Great Western and Widmer. Niagara is a throwback to that style: cold, white, vividly grapey and sweet. Delicious.
“They told me it couldn’t be done,” said owner and winemaker Mike Appolo of Appolo Vineyards in Derry.
He was referring to conversations with agriculture experts about the chances of growing grapes organically, without spraying, in New Hampshire.
“How would I know if I didn’t try?” Appolo’s next move was to go out and prove the experts wrong. It was a bold move because New Hampshire’s famously erratic weather encourages the growth of any number of molds, mildews and viruses.
Mike’s approach to vineyard maintenance is almost holistic. When he spots a bit of mold, he grabs the pruning shears, not the sprayer. Instead of electric fences to ward off the deer, he has dogs. The more mature vines are well-pruned and tied high on the trellis, to insure constant ventilation. And among the rows I saw several families of bluebirds, titmice and house wrens working in unison, picking stray beetles and worms off the leaves, while barn swallows dove over our heads.
At Appolo, even the process of tasting has an integrated feeling. His outdoor tasting patio, the Crushpad, is situated behind the barn, and only an arm’s reach from the vines.
Of course, the bottom line is still the wines, right? In that respect Appolo, like most of his colleagues, is an explorer, testing different combinations.
“A white grape like Frontenac Gris is high in acid, so I try blending it with a low-acid grape like Alpenglow,” he said. The result is a wine labeled Blushing Bride, one of his most popular.
He’s also planting a number of little-known grape varieties that show a lot of potential in this northern climate. Alpenglow is one, but he may have hit the jackpot with Brianna (see wine recommendations).
In the marketplace look for Appolo’s Drangonfly Red and White, Bridesmaid and China Girl, a delicious rosé made with New York Chambourcin grapes, dedicated to the winemaker’s muse, a woman who hails from China, Maine.
Every winery has its own character. Candia Vineyards is no different. I felt like I had walked into a monastery. The cellars were the chapel and the winemaker, its abbot.
This is contrast to a small road sign and a simple building. There’s no host or hostess, wine-tasting room, hourly tours, function space, gift shop, patio or anything of a touristy nature. There are the vines out back, a cellar in the basement and Robert Dabrowski, the owner, winemaker and chief bottle washer.
Some visitors might find the lack of amenities underwhelming. They figure that a guy who’s been making wine for 30 years should be a little more consumer-friendly. But that’s not Candia’s style. It’s all about the product, and Dabrowski takes his winemaking very seriously.
He’s direct. “I don’t do fruit wines,” he said. “Grapes have tannins, acids, sugars; everything necessary for making wine … Winemakers ask me for the recipes. I say ‘sure.’ I’ll tell you my secrets if you tell me yours.” End of discussion.
He suffers no fools: “I get people who want to know even the tiniest detail about every wine. The brix (sugar content), when was it picked.” He shakes his head in frustration. “I don’t have time for that.”
That’s because he’s saving his time to make some of the best wines in New Hampshire. Starting with test plantings in 1992, and the full vineyard in 1999, he was among the first to grow many of the cold hardy varieties. With them he has subsequently crafted award-winning wines, particularly his dessert wines (see wine recommendations).
How good are these wines? Well, let’s put it this way: I’m not a religious man. But after tasting Candia’s Pink Ice, I had the overwhelming impulse to genuflect in the direction of the wine vats. There are times when mere words are not sufficient. That’s how good it was.
New Hampshire wines can be as different as the vintners who own them. But the core values of all the wineries I visited was clear. Dedication, quality and of course, family – yours as well as theirs. Maybe that’s why New Hampshire wines taste so good. Because our winemakers have their priorities straight.
Pairing New Hampshire
Wines with Food
In general, New Hampshire wines go well with a wide range of foods for two specific reasons. They are high in acids and low in tannins. Acids cut through heavy fats and the lower tannins results in a cleaner palate. Still, it’s nice to have some sort of rules to follow, other than the ancient proverb “white with white, red with red.”
The best advice I received came from Jim Zanello, the patriarch of Zorvino Vineyards:
“There are four things I ask myself when choosing the proper wine. First, what kind of food is being served? Secondly, what kind of mood are you in? Who are you dining with? And, lastly, why are you dining with them? Answer those four questions, and you’ll know just what to serve.”
If that advice doesn’t solve your dilemma, then I refer you to Al Fulchino of Fulchino Vineyards, who offers the universal solution: “I always uncork two or three bottles for the family table. Even if it’s veal parmigiana, one person wants red, another wants white and there’s always someone else who wants a Coke. What can you do?”
Visiting wineries is a great excuse for touring our beautiful state, at any time of the year. And lest you think that “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” each vineyard is distinctly different from the others.
Today, thanks to the internet, there is plenty of information available to speed you on your way. Just type in New Hampshire wineries and you’ll find listings, contact information and maps under both the state and the New Hampshire Winery Association.
There are two publications that are particularly helpful. The state offers a “Wine, Cheese & Chocolate Tour” pamphlet, with suggestions for self-touring. And the Winery Association distributes a passport brochure. Remember to bring that passport with you – have it stamped at each winery, and when the book is full you can enter online for a prize drawing.
If you’re planning a day trip, keep it simple. Visit one winery as your focal point, with side trips to area antique stores, restaurants and farms as a secondary diversion. Allow a minimum of an hour for a tasting and tour. Some wineries offer food options like cheese plates, while others provide outdoor space for picnickers. All of this information is online.
If you’re feeling ambitious, visit a second winery located in the same area. But don’t push it. And, if possible, select someone as your designated driver. On a warm fall day, a half-dozen small sips of wine can hit you like a Long Island Iced Tea. Drive smart.
Remember that New Hampshire isn’t Sonoma or Napa, with megaplex wineries ready to receive busloads of tourists. Most are small, family-run companies. A few, like Candia, are literally one-man operations. Especially at harvest time, it’s wise to call in advance to the smaller vineyards to check their hours.
The one exception to this rule is Labelle Winery in Amherst. Not only are they larger, and therefore better prepared to handle the harvest/foliage season crunch, but they boast a full-service bistro menu second to none in the area. Plan on a minimum of three hours for Labelle: one hour for a tasting and/or tour, and two hours for a leisurely brunch or dinner.
Reducing Environmental Impact
LaBelle Winery is committed to reducing its environmental impact in all aspects of the business. The efficient building design includes SIPS paneling construction in post-and-beam style (plywood-foam-plywood), a clerestory roof design for summer cooling and a building orientation situated with southwest exposure for energy efficiency.
The winery cellar is built into a bank, which keeps the wine cellar naturally cool to about 55 degrees year-round. The walls are one-foot thick concrete.
The winery steam cleans its tanks with water conservation methods by using high-pressure, low-volume nozzles for non-chlorinated well water pressure cleaning of tanks and the crush pad. This method uses 90 percent less water and 10 percent less energy.
In the wine production, it composts all wine production biomass or must. In a 500-gallon tank, about 20 gallons will contain must. For filtration, a lenticular filter system is used. A large tank with 33,000 gallons would take 16 hours and would need to be filtered three times. With LaBelle’s new cross flow filtration system, 33,000 gallons will take 8-9 hours to filter requiring only one filtration over three filters.
LaBelle’s eco-friendly wine bottles are manufactured using less energy, are 20 percent lighter (saves on the carbon foot print of transportation) and are 100 percent recyclable. Its wine case cardboard is stronger and lighter than standard cardboard.
In the vineyard’s garden, the winery grows its own jalapeno peppers for its cooking wines and a variety of vegetables for farm-to-fork use in the Bistro. The Bistro’s organic kitchen waste is composted, as are trimmings from vine pruning.