Win(e)ding Around Northern Illinois – The Valentino Vineyards & Winery

Gretchen Neuman
VinoVerve Editor

Valentino VineyardsWhile wandering my Win(e)ding Roads in northern Illinois a while ago, I drove past what appeared to be a vineyard in the suburbs.  Now there are several wineries in the area, but unless they are further out into the exurban area, there are no vineyards associated with them.  They obtain their fruit either by contracting with vineyards for fruit or must.  It took me a bit to track down the vineyard name and website but eventually, I was ready to visit.

When we arrived at the winery we were greeted by the owner and winemaker, Rudolph Valentino DiTommaso who chatted with us about the winery.  Mr. DiTommaso started as a developer who had been making wine for years.  At one point he was speaking with a friend with more wine making experience and wondered what he needed to do to improve his wine.  The answer?  Improve the grapes that he was using.  Using grapes that were available for sale to home winemakers were not the first quality.  Those went to vineyards with their own wineries or were specifically grown for them.  That is when Mr. DiTommaso decided to grow his own grapes.  The remaining land that he originally thought would be used for single family homes were converted into vineyard.

The next interesting part of the Valentino Vineyards are the grapes that they grow.  Traditionally, northern type vineyards grow hybrid or native varietals that can survive our delightful Illinois winters.  This vineyard is growing a good selection of vinifera grapes.  How?  At the end of the season the vines are buried to protect their root system.  This is a time consuming process but can be done at a small operation such as this.  Yes, hybrids are grown as well, so not all the vines need so much tending.

As a result, there are estate grown Chardonnay’s in Illinois.  Wow.  Additionally, they produce fortified wines that are among the most unique that I have tasted.  Missing is the alcoholic sting of a newer port style wine.

The downside to everything? The winery is only open April to December on weekends only.

With spring around the corner? Stop by and visit!

Valentino Vineyards
5175 Aptakisic Road
Long Grove, IL 60047
April thru December: Monday – Thursday, by appt., Friday, 5pm – 9pm, Saturday, 11am – 5pm, Sunday, 12pm – 4pm

The Wines of Rosedale Farms & Vineyards

Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

It was pretty much the end of the season by the time Jean, Katie and I made our way over to Rosedale (although Katie, who lives down the street is something of a regular, I understand), and Rosedale’s Serendipity and Summer Blush were already sold out, which left us with four wines, two whites and two reds and a bonus wine, a new Sauvignon Blanc that the winemakers had been testing all summer.

The Tasting Bar is at the back of the farmstand, a two-sided bar that could hold perhaps 10-12 people comfortably.  The walls are decorated with posters of both current wine labels and labels of wines that have been retired, providing both art and a sense of history and continuity.  Being so late in the season it was fairly quiet that day, and we were able to find spots and begin our tasting right away.  We kicked off with the

Simsbury White, an estate-grown Seyval Blanc.  The nose was soft and floral with citrus blossom notes.  The mouthfeel was also soft, and in the mouth the wine is dry with light citrus notes and subtle notes of acid on the finish.  The predominant note was grapefruit, although it was light and somewhat delicate, and I appreciated the subtleness of the acid – anything stronger could have brought out the bitterness of the grapefruit.  As it was the wine has a light sweet/tart bite that was rather interesting.

Three Sisters.  Next up was Rosedale’s Three Sisters, named for the owner’s three daughters.  This is an estate-grown Cayuga and is described in the tasting notes as “a classic summer wine.”  The nose is brighter than the Simsbury White and has some spiciness to it.  In the mouth, the wine is bright and tangy with much stronger notes of grapefruit and a nicely balanced finish.  A very nice wine, and yes, a classic summer wine, but this will pair well with a wide variety of foods and should carry through nicely all year round.  I could see this working well with casseroles and heartier fall soups.

From the two whites, we moved on to the two reds; first up…

Lou’s Red, named for the late owner of Rosedale Farms; the current owners are his children and grandchildren.  Lou’s Red is a blend of four grapes: 20% Marechal Foch and 20% St. Croix, both estate-grown, and 10% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot, both brought in from California.   In previous years, the wine was a blend of just three grapes, Marechal Foch, St. Crois and Merlot; the winemaker added the Sangiovese last year and found it  really helped round out the wine.   I really liked the nose on this wine, finding it spicy with warm notes of cumin and pepper.  Undoubtedly the influence of the California grapes, as Northeastern grown reds tends to produce fruity rather than spicy noses.

The wine was lighter-bodied than I had anticipated, but I wasn’t disappointed.  Soft and spicy with notes of dark stones fruits, plum in particular, and pepper, this is a really nice table wine.  There are notes of leather on the finish giving it a somewhat soft finish that really balances the fruit and spice.  This would pair well with heartier pasta dishes as well as lamb or veal.

Farmington River Red.  The second of the reds is an ever-changing wine; each year the winemaker selects different grapes.  For 2010 the Farmington River Red is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from California grapes.  The 2011 vintage will be a Shiraz.  Also in 2011, Rosedale Farms is considering adding a Pinot Noir from Chilean grapes to their wine list.  But that’s next year.

This year, the Farmington River Red is a medium-bodied very pleasant Cabernet Sauvignon  The nose is lightly fruity with notes of pepper.  In the mouth the fruitiness continues with notes of blackberry and a smoky finish with a hint of peppery heat.  Another very nice table wine, very drinkable with a wide variety of dishes.

The tasting finished with a bonus wine, a Kiwi/Pear Sauvignon Blanc that the winemakers had been taste-testing with visitors all summer long.  The nose is soft and fruity with very strong notes of pear.  In the mouth the wine is sweet, falling somewhere between a sweet table wine and a dessert wine.  The mouth feel is soft, light and very smooth.  The lightness is actually quite refreshing, and this wine would be great as an aperitif or with a light fruit and cheese tray.  It would be heavenly with some of the softer cheeses such as brie or goat cheese, and might work paired with a blue.  It would also pair well with lighter desserts such as fruit tarts or ice cream and berries.   An interesting wine and one I hope the winemakers have on their wine list next year.

With the wine tasting concluded, Jean, Katie and I wandered through the farmstand and then headed over to a local restaurant to relax and chat over a glass of wine and a late lunch.  Little did I know at the time that that afternoon was my last win(e)ding roads adventure for 2010.  I had every intention of heading down to southeastern Connecticut to check out one of the last two remaining Connecticut wineries on my list before they closed for the season – but didn’t make it.  And planned to head back over to the Shawangunk Wine Trail to visit a few more wineries on that list – yeah, didn’t make that either.  Looking back, I can’t figure out what I was doing all those weekends, but as I get ready for 2011, one of my resolutions is to do a better job of hitting the trail this year.

Savino Vineyards Revisited

Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

I first visited Savino Vineyards in Woodbridge, Connecticut late in the season last year by which time they had already sold out of the Cabernet Franc and the Frontenac.  I made a mental note to return in 2010 to sample the latest vintages of the two wines I missed in 2009.

So, as I left Northwinds Winery, I decided to detour south and stop by Savino to see what they had on the menu this season.  Unfortunately, neither Cabernet Franc or Frontenac are included in this season’s wine list, but I did have the chance to revisit the 2008 Seyval Blanc and the 2007 Merlot as well as sample two new wines, the 2008 St. Croix and the 2008 Merlot.

I also was lucky enough to meet owner and winemaker, Gennaio Savino.  Savino grew up in Italy making wine and returned to the business after he retired.  He planted his first vines about 10 years ago, and today his vineyard encompasses 8 acres and includes Seyval Blanc, St. Croix, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes.  All of his wines are produced from estate-grown grapes, although he does bring in a small amount of Merlot from California to blend with his locally-grown Merlot.

2008 Seyval Blanc I first tried the 2008 Seyval Blanc, the only white Savino produces, on my visit last Fall.  At the time I noted that the predominant notes were citrus, particularly grapefruit and were a bit strong.  Over the ensuing 8 months, the wine has mellowed.  Still crisp and tangy with a nice burst of acid on the finish, the citrus notes are softer and a bit lighter.  I still picked up the grapefruit, but it wasn’t as pronounced as before.   On second tasting, I found myself taking to the wine even more than I had previously, and I had enjoyed it on first tasting.   It’s not that often that I take the chance to go back and try the same wine, same vintage, only months later.   Often when I return to a winery, I either want to sample wines I wasn’t able to taste during my previous visit, or try the new vintages.  However, now I’m rethinking that strategy, and will definitely peruse the wine lists with an eye for the chance to revisit a wine I’ve previously tried.

2008 St. Croix The 2007 St. Croix was my favorite of the Savino wines on my first visit.  At the time I had bought a bottle and drank it a few months later, finding it to be a lovely, complex wine that paired very well with the beef I had for dinner that evening.   The 2008, while it didn’t disappoint, didn’t quite live up to my memories of the 2007.  Dark purple in color, with a tangy, fruity nose, the wine is lighter-bodied with an earthy fruitiness and notes of cherry that linger on the lips.    In my notes I likened it to eating just-ripe, just picked cherries.   What made the wine interesting though were the earthy notes, up front I detected notes of soil and grass, and it wasn’t until the finish that I got the cherries.  Again, not a bad wine, but not as strong as the 2007.

2007 Merlot The tasting concluded with back-to-back Merlots, 2007 vs. 2008.  I had sampled the 2007 Merlot on my previous visit, and given my reaction to the Seyval Blanc was very interested to see if I found a similar change in the 2007 Merlot.  Unfortunately not.  The nose is a bit richer, more jammier than I remembered, but in the mouth the strong peppery, slightly bitter notes that I picked up on my previous visit were still present.   It’s not bad for a Connecticut Merlot, which tend to be lighter-bodied and not as smooth as their California or Oregon counterparts, but it still didn’t win me over.

2008 Merlot The 2008, however, was a completely different story.  The difference between the two begins on sight: the color, which in the 2007 is a dark purple, is more of a bright ruby in the 2008.  The nose is much more subtle, duskier and while there are still notes of cherry, it is less jammy than the 2007.  In the mouth the wine is stronger bodied, richer, more lush, with soft deep notes of cherry, warm soft spice rather than the sharp bite of pepper, and a nice light smoke from the oaking.  It’s smooth and opens up nicely in the mouth.  This one could, just possibly, win me over to Connecticut Merlots.

The Wines of Northwinds

Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

The tasting kicked off that afternoon with the Traminette, altogether a very lovely wine and my favorite of the afternoon.  The nose is very aromatic, with strong floral notes – very pretty.   The wine is crisp and refreshing, with very light notes of sweetness from subtle fruit flavors, maybe a hint of peach, that blend well with the floral notes in the nose.  The finish is crisp with a nice balance of acid.  This is a great sipping wine as well as a wine that should pair well with a wide range of foods.  I liked it so much I actually went home with two bottles – unusual for me.

Next up was the Zephyr.  Because this is the one Northwinds wine that uses non-estate grown grapes, this wine must be labeled differently from the others.  What I loved about Northwinds is that they really embraced that regulation, producing a bottle and label that was not only distinct from their other wines, but distinctive in and of itself.  The wine is a blend of their estate-grown Traminette and Sauvignon Blanc brought in from off-site.  The nose still has the pretty, floral characteristics of the Traminette, but it’s tempered by the Sauvignon Blanc, and as a result is not quite as aromatic as the Traminette.  In the mouth the wine is smooth and refreshing, although not as crisp as the Traminette.  There are also some grassy notes in this one which temper the floral notes.  It’s not a bad wine, and a lot of people, including many around me that afternoon who will like this wine very much.  But I found myself definitely preferring the crisper, more aromatic Traminette.

Last up for the whites was the Vidal Blanc.  Darker in color than the previous two which were more of a pale yellow, the Vidal Blanc is more of a light gold color.  The nose is lovely with sweet floral notes of orange blossom and peach.  In the mouth, the Vidal Blanc, like the previous two, tends more towards the floral rather than the fruity, although the flavors are more subtle in the mouth than in the nose.  I definitely picked up the orange of the orange blossom as well as some light grassiness which provided a bit of depth and kept the wine from being sweet.  The finish is fairly smooth with just a light touch of acid.  Not as crisp as the Traminette, I’d be more likely to drink this wine with food rather than on it’s own.  Still, overall a nice wine, and for those who like their whites tending toward the sweet rather than the dry, this is a nice find.

With that we moved on to the single Rosé.  The most distinctive thing about the Rosé is its color, a beautiful amber gold color.  A color one associates more often with late harvest dessert wines, not Rosés, a comment which I blurted out as soon as I saw the wine.  The Rosé is a blend of three table grapes, the Himrod, Vanessa and Jupiter grapes.  The result is not your typical Rosé, and for those, like me, who often shy away from Rosés finding them too light-bodied and, often, too sweet, this one is definitely worth a try.  the nose is soft and fruity, almost like a late harvest nose.   That combined with the unconsciously led me to expect a much sweeter wine than the one I found.  In the mouth, the wine is much drier than I expected, although until I noted my surprise I hadn’t realized the extent to which I was expecting a sweet wine.  There is a light sweetness, but as with the other Northwinds wines, the overall notes are floral rather than fruity, including a hint of peach blossom.  The finish has a pleasant bite of acid, although overall the wine is smooth and rich in the mouth.  Definitely not what I was expecting from a Rosé.

From the Rosê the tasting proceeded to the first of Northwinds two reds, Boreas a blend of Cabernet Franc (85%) and St. Croix (15%), both estate-grown.   Garnet colored, with a dry, dusky nose with subtle notes of black cherry.  In the mouth, the wine echoes the subtle notes of black cherry found in the nose, with a slight smoke from the Hungarian and American oak barrels.  On the lighter side of medium-bodied, I found the wine didn’t really open up in the mouth, although subsequent sips did provide some layering of flavors and smoke.  The wine should pair well with chicken and lighter meats, such as grilled pork, but I don’t feel it’s robust enough to stand up to the heavier meats such as beef, lamb or veal.  I was somewhat disappointed with this wine, really wanting it to open up more in the mouth.

And last, but not least, the tasting concluded with the St. Croix. Dark garnet, with a really nice soft, rich dusky nose with the faintest hints of fruit.  The wine is medium-bodied, smooth and richer than the Boreas, with interesting notes of grass and earth as well as leather from the oaking.  As with the nose, there are  faint notes of dar berries, but the predominant notes are grass and earth.  I definitely preferred this over the Boreas.  This should pair well with a variety of foods.

I went home that afternoon with two bottles of the Traminette – unusual for me to go home only with whites, and with two bottles of anything.  A 1oz sip, while giving you a sense of the wine, isn’t really enough to truly understand the wine.   I really don’t know if I am going to love something until I have the opportunity to linger over a whole glass as well as pair the wine with food.   Therefore, my standard practice is to bring home a single bottle of wines that intrigued me during the tasting.  Depending on the wine, I’ll either put in the cellar (makes that dark back corner of my basement sound so grand to call it a cellar) to sit for a few months up to a year, or put it in the rack to be opened soon.   This gives me the opportunity to better explore the wine before deciding it’s something I want to invest in having on hand.  It’s this practice that turned me into a Cabernet Franc lover.  The first couple times I tried Cab Franc here in Connecticut, I really wasn’t sure, often feeling upon first sip that the wines were pale versions of their more robust Cabernet Sauvignon cousins.   But there was something there that intrigued me, so I brought home a bottle from one or two wineries.  Let them breathe for a good 20-30 minutes after opening, paired them with food, and found a whole new wine to love.  So to go home with two bottles was a definite departure from routine for me, but I really liked that Traminette.

I’ll have to make a mental note to head back in late September to try the Riesling.

Taylor Brooke Winery ~ The Reds & Dessert Wines

Much of the art work in the Tasting Room is used in Taylor Brooke's wine labels.

Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

If you’re a fan of Cabernet Franc, as I have become, or just interested in exploring a bit, and you’re in the southern New England area this season, I recommend making a trek over to Taylor Brooke Winery to check out their last vintage of Cabernet Franc.   After doing a full evaluation of their vineyards, they decided to take out the Cabernet Franc and replace it with Corot Noir, making this the last vintage they will be producing.

The reds section of the tasting menu kicks off with the Cabernet Franc.  Taylor Brooke produces their Cab Franc in the Pinot Noir style, medium bodied and fruity.   The color is a medium ruby.  The nose is lightly earthy with notes of plum.  In the mouth the wine has light cherry notes and a peppery finish.  Upon first taste, the wine feels both young and light, however it does open up with subsequent sips.  It’s not as robust as the Gouveia and Chamard Cabernet Francs, and fans of the more full-bodied reds of California and Oregon will likely not be won over to Connecticut Cabernet Francs here.  However, it’s a nice wine when given a chance, and I anticipate it will improve with a few years of cellaring.

I’m looking forward to Taylor Brooke’s Corot Noir, which they’ll begin producing once they finish the last of the Cabernet Franc.  I’ve not found many Corot Noir wines; Land of Nod is the only other winery that comes to mind that produces a Corot Noir wine; other wineries, I suspect use it primarily for blending.  It’s not a grape I know much about, and it will be interesting to see what Richard Augur does with it.  But more on that in a year or two.

Roseland Red After the Cabernet Franc we moved on to the Roseland Red, a meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.   The Cabernet Franc is from the Taylor Brooke vineyards, and they bring in the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot as juice from California and Oregon.  Made in the Bordeaux-style and aged in Hungarian Oak, this is a really nice wine and my favorite among the Taylor Brooke reds.   Also a medium ruby color, the nose is delicate and lightly fruity – an interesting change from the earthy/floral noses of the whites.   A light/medium bodied wine with both spice and cherry throughout.  The finish is peppery with a hint of smoke and leather from the oak.  The wine opens up over multiple tastings and would pair very well with grilled meats and heavier pasta dishes.

Woostock Valley Red The reds finish with Taylor Brooke’s 100% St. Croix wine.  While St. Croix is grown all over southern New England and is used by many vineyards in blending, this is only the second 100% St. Croix wine that I’ve found in Connecticut, the other being Maugle Sierra’s which I had tried earlier that morning.   If there are other predominately St. Croix wines, they were not called out as such during my tastings.   While fruity, Taylor Brooke’s St. Croix is not as fruity as Maugle Sierra’s; like many of their other wines, there are earthy notes that come through the fruit, possibly the differences in terroir between the northeastern hills and the southeastern shoreline.   The Woodstock Valley Red is garnet colored with a light nose with pleasantly earthy, grassy notes.  In the mouth the wine has bright notes of cherry, although it is not the rich “jammyness” that I found with Maugle Sierra’s.  The finish is slightly spicy; I found it hard to pinpoint what I was picking up.  It’s not pepper, although it has some of the sharpness of pepper.  Indian spices came to mind – perhaps a bit of curry?  Still not sure…  Also aged in Hungarian Oak, the finish is lightly smoky.

With the reds concluded, I rinsed my glass and prepared for the dessert wines.  As regular readers of Vino Verve know, I have a particular weakness for dessert wines.  I love that rich silkiness of a good late harvest or ice wine, and am always on the lookout for new wines to add to my collection.

First up was Taylor Brooke’s Late Harvest Riesling. A pale gold color, the nose is delicate with very discernible notes of apricot.  The mouth feel is silky and lush, and on the palate the wine is smooth and rich with notes of apricot with a honey finish.  There’s a touch of acid on the end which is interesting if unexpected.   During the tasting, Linda Augur serves this with chocolate, and the chocolate definitely smooths out that touch of acid, producing a more satisfying experience.

Chocolate Essence One of Taylor Brooke’s most popular wines, if not the most popular wine, they can’t keep this on the shelves.  From start to finish it takes a minimum of one year to produce Chocolate Essence, which given its popularity means Richard Augur always has this in production.  The wine is a chocolate-infused, port-style wine made from Merlot, which is brought in from Long Island.  They add 20 gallons of brandy to 100 gallons of Merlot and then add cocoa bean essence.  The result is heavenly…  A lovely ruby color which sparkles in the light, the nose has deep rich notes of chocolate, lighter notes of berries and a slight smokiness from the oaking.  In the mouth, the wine has bright cherry notes on the front and soft notes of chocolate throughout.  The chocolate deepens and is stronger on the finish leaving you with the sensation of just having eaten a really good chocolate covered cherry.   It would be excellent on its own, it would pair well with a variety of desserts: fruit and cheese or cheesecake immediately came to mind.  Linda Augur also recommends drizzling it over ice cream in place of chocolate sauce.  Yum!  Once opened it is good for 4-6 months, so you can savor a bottle all summer long.

That concluded the afternoon’s tasting.  I will be heading back soon, though, as the second of their seasonal wines was released last week: the St. Croix Rosé.

The Wines of Maugle Sierra

Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

I arrived at Maugle Sierra at 10:58 am only to find another car, one with Pennsylvania plates, already there ahead of me.  I was not the only one who decided to hit the road early in an attempt to avoid the Memorial Day crowds.  By the time Paul Maugle had arrived to open the gates just after 11 am, a third car had joined us, and together the 7 of us greeted our host and made our way into the tasting room.

Maugle Sierra produces 7 wines, six of which are available for tasting.  The 7th, the Espiritu de St. Croix, Maugle’s dessert wine, while available for sale, is not included on the tasting menu.

1740 Ledyard House White The tasting begins with what Paul Maugle calls a “naked” Chardonnay.  Almost 100% Chardonnay from grapes brought in from Long Island, Maugle adds a “splash” of Golden Vidal, a locally grown grape.  Cold fermented in stainless steel and never oaked, hence the “naked,” the wine is crisp, light and delicious.   While the soft yellow-y interior lighting made it difficult to fully gauge color, the 1740 Ledyard House White is a pale yellow color.  the nose is crisp and light with notes of citrus, particularly a subtle grapefruit.  In the mouth, the wine is light and delicate with a nice acidity.  Notes of apricot and light melon blend with very subtle citrus notes.  The finish is smooth and quite satisfying.  A nice summer wine that would pair well with fish, salads and lighter grilled chicken dishes, or would be quite nice on it’s own.

1740 Ledyard House Rosé Maugle Sierra presents it’s one rosé in between the two whites.  Produced from St. Croix grapes with a splash of the vidal and cold-fermented, the rosé is a pale golden-pink color which is really lovely in the glass.  The nose is very light with very subtle floral notes.  In the mouth, the wine is lightly sweet with notes of distinct notes of grapefruit and a smooth finish.  Overall, a very pleasant summer wine.

Maugle developed the rosé for Abbott’s in Noank, Connecticut, a restaurant set directly on the waterfront at the mouth of the Mystic River.  Abbott’s specialty is lobsters in the rough, and in season, you can stop by pick up a whole lobster and a bottle of 1740 Ledyard House Rosé and head down to the docks to enjoy a seaside al-fresco dinner.

Ledyard Sunset White The second of Maugle Sierra’s two whites is a Vidal wine, which Paul Maugle describes as “late harvest style.”  While I didn’t find it as sweet as many other late harvest style wines I’ve tried, it was definitely richer and more full-bodied than the Chardonnay or the Rosé, explaining why it’s included after the rosé on the tasting menu.  Aged for one year in French oak, the wine is a light-to-medium gold color with a lovely fruity nose with notes of pear predominating.  In the mouth, the wine is smooth and sweet, although not sweet enough to be classed as a dessert wine.  The notes of pear continue to predominate on the palate balanced by a crisp acidity at both the front and the finish which help keep the wine from tipping into the cloyingly sweet category.   Not one of my favorites from the Maugle Sierra menu, but I tend to prefer drier wines in general.  Still, it’s a very nice wine and those who like sweeter table wines should find this one charming.

10-foot high fences are erected around the vineyards to keep out the deer

1740 Ledyard House Red The reds kick off with a Merlot/St. Croix blend.  The Merlot grapes are brought in from Long Island, but the St. Croix is all grown locally on Maugle Sierra land.  Merlots are tough here in the northeast, as regular readers of Vino Verve undoubtedly know.  The grape does not do as well in the colder winters and shorter growing seasons and the result is a wine that is less robust and rich than the Merlots of the west coast.  Most of my friends who I have taken on the Connecticut Wine Trail have been really disappointed with the Merlots.  By blending it with the St. Croix, rather than trying to make a true Merlot, Maugle Sierra produced a very nice wine, combining the richness and fruit of the Merlot, with the robustness of the St. Croix.

The 1740 Ledyard House Red is a medium-bodied garnet-colored wine with a rich fruity nose with notes of cherry and black cherry.  The mouth feel is soft with light tannins and very strong notes of cherry.  After the first sip, Paul Maugle starts handing out the chocolate, which really brings out the tannins, reducing the overall sweetness and evoking a slight smokiness from the oaking.

Ledyard Sunset Red Another St. Croix blend, this time with Cabernet Franc grapes brought in from Massachusetts, the Sunset Red is also a medium-bodied, garnet-colored wine.  The nose is brighter than the House Red, with more of the sea-air-tang I find so often in Northeastern reds and notes of both cherry and plum.  In the mouth, the wine is a bit more traditional than the House Red, and in a blind tasting I probably would pick this one as the Merlot.  Although we know how well I do in blind tastingsThere are very discernible notes of cherry, slight tart which helps balance some of the sweetness.    A nice wine, but my least favorite of the Maugle Sierra Reds.

Last up is Maugle Sierra’s signature wine, the St. Croix.  St. Croix grapes are a hybrid developed in the early 1980s by Elmer Swensen in Osceola, Wisconsin from native and French-America grape stock.  A very hardy grape designed to withstand the cold winters and short growing seasons of the Upper Midwest, St. Croix has migrated east to New England.  You’ll find many, if not most, wineries here in New England grow St. Croix grapes, although most will use them for blending with other, less cold-hardy grapes, to provide more depth and robustness in the wine.  The grape itself is are not overly sweet and the wines they produce often lack tannins, another reason why it is often blended with other grapes during wine production.

St. Croix Paul Maugle describes his wines as “jammy” – and this is the wine that best exemplifies that.  Estate-grown and double-fermented in oak barrels, the St. Croix is a dark purple color with a beautiful soft and subtle nose with light notes of cherry.  In the mouth the wine is soft and silky with almost no tannins.  Lightly sweet from notes of cherry, there is just a touch of bitterness at the end which provides a nice balance.  The fruit notes are rich without being overpowering, and the “jamminess” is the richer flavor of hand-crafted jams made from darker fruits like dark cherries and blackberry. The finish has a bit of heat with notes of pepper.  One of the things I enjoyed most about the wine was the way it opened in the mouth.  Each subsequent sip provided additional depth and complexity and the wine really came alive.

When I had visited back in December with my wine trail buddies, Deb, Cheryl, Jean and Melissa, I was a little nervous about bringing them to Maugle Sierra.  They had not been overly impressed with most of the reds we had sampled on the Western Wine Trail, most of which were produced from lesser-known, colder-climate hybrids, although they really liked the reds of wineries like Jonathan Edwards, whose reds have strong bases of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon brought in from the west coast.  The St. Croix, however, they loved – and I think everyone of us brought home at least one bottle.  High praise, indeed.

That concluded the Maugle Sierra tasting, so I finished up my notes and hit the win(e)ding and winding roads, heading north on Route 169 to Woodstock, Connecticut and Taylor Brooke winery.

Sharpe Hill ~ Reds and Dessert Wines

Marguerite BarrettSharpe Hill Vineyard, Pomfret, CT / Photo: Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

Continued from Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ballet of Angels may be Connecticut’s best-selling wine, but both Christy and I found ourselves much more taken with Sharpe Hill’s reds than with any of their whites.  First up was their best-selling red,

Red Seraph A blend of Merlot and St. Croix, this is a dry medium-bodied wine that will pair well with a wide variety of foods.  The nose is very spicy with notes of pepper and smoke.  In the mouth, the wine is smooth with light smoke and notes of dark stone fruits and a spicy finish.  The Merlot grapes provide body, while the St. Croix provides a crisp bite at the end which gives the wine some interest.  Not my favorite red, but I did like this wine.

Red Seraph 2006 Vintage Merlot Also a blend of Merlot and St. Croix, there is a greater percentage of Merlot in this blend making the wine smoother and richer overall than the Red Seraph.  That being said, this was my least favorite of all of the reds.  Both in the nose and the mouth I detected notes of cherry, although they are more subtle in the mouth than on the nose.  The oak is more subdued producing very light notes of smoke.  It’s not a bad wine, but in general I didn’t find it as complex or interesting as the other reds, particularly the next two…

Cabernet Franc 2006 This and the St. Croix 2006 (see below) were hands-down my two favorite wines of the afternoon.  I have been finding myself drinking a lot of Cabernet Francs lately, and this was one that made it on my list of “wines to come back for.”  Medium-garnet in color, the nose is rich and spicy with interesting notes of tobacco.  The mouth feel is lush and silky, and on the palate the wine is smooth with a smokey spiciness that balanced the light fruit notes of dark berries nicely to produce a wine with interesting character and depth.  Christy starred this as one of her favorites of the afternoon as well.

St. Croix 2006 100% estate grown, the St. Croix is the second of my two favorite wines of the afternoon.  Also a medium garnet color, the St. Croix is a fuller-bodied wine, with a soft, lush mouth feel.  The nose is soft with subtle notes of berries which are also detectable on the palate before the wine finishes with intriguing notes of licorice.  The licorice provides both a bite and a hint of sweetness that made the wine more interesting.  Our host indicated that this wine pairs well with game as well as with more traditional dishes such as beef or lamb.   While I really enjoyed this wine, Christy was less impressed, finding a lot of sediment at the bottom of her glass.

That concluded the reds but not the tasting as we cleaned our glasses and settled in to enjoy dessert in the form of the last two wines on the menu.

Select Late Harvest 2006 An estate wine made from 100% Vignole, this is a really, really nice late harvest wine.  Rich, lush and sweet, the color is a lovely orange-rose color that catches the light nicely.  The nose is subtle with soft notes of fruit which blend nicely in the mouth.  No one fruit note is predominant, and the result is a smooth, balanced wine that would be excellent on it’s own or paired with desserts, cheeses or fruits.

Pontefract 2006 This is a port-style dessert wine with rich notes of chocolate in both the nose and the mouth.  Very smooth, I found it not as rich as other ports and the mouth feel wasn’t quite as lush as I expect.  Made from 100% estate-grown St. Croix grapes, despite being a dessert wine,  the Pontefract retains that interesting final bite that one finds so often with St. Croix.

Both the Select Late Harvest and the Pontefract are produced in more limited quantities and neither are available by the case, and the Pontefract is limited to three bottles per customer.

As the tasting ended, we sat back and took stock of the afternoon: the American Chardonnay and the Cabernet Franc were our favorite white and red, and runners-up in the “wines we’d come back for” category also included the Cuvee, the St. Croix, the Red Seraph and both (or either) of the dessert wines.

All in all one of the more successful – and relaxed – Win(e)ding Road afternoons.

Sharpe Hill vineyards / Photo: Marguerite Barrett

Sharpe Hill ~ White and Rosé

Marguerite BarrettSharpe Hill, Pomfret, CT / Photo: Marguerite Barrett
Contributing Writer

Continued from Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christy and I normally head out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, so being able to go during the week was a bit of a treat.  Normally we head out on the Win(e)ding Roads once a month; we’d love to do more, but what can I say, life intervenes.  And even though Connecticut is a small state, we often are looking at an hour’s drive just to get over to the wine trails – so we generally plan a route that allows us to hit several wineries and get the most of the trip.

But we were on vacation, and this was somewhat spur of the moment.  It was a freebie, if you will, and while we had the address of a second winery plugged into the GPS, as we pulled into Sharpe Hill, it was with a sense of leisure – it didn’t really matter if we decided to stay all day.

The other nice thing about heading out on a weekday is that you encounter far fewer people.  It’s definitely a more pleasant experience when you aren’t trying to jockey for position at the tasting bar or getting elbowed by the guy next to you who has definitely had one (or two or three) too many.

Sharpe Hill Terrace / Photo: Marguerite Barrett

We picked up our glasses and headed out to find seats on the grassy terrace.  There were a few other small groups, but the seats are arranged in small intimate groupings that seat up to 4 people, and we were able to relax and settle into our chosen seats and to some extent feel like we had the place to ourselves.  It was a really nice change from the normal lining-up-at-the bar experience.

We had opted for the full tasting menu – 12 wines including six whites, four reds, and two dessert wines.  First up was a tasting of Connecticut’s best-selling and best-known wine

Ballet of Angels This was not my first encounter with Ballet of Angels.  I had picked up a bottle at a local package store not long after I moved here from Chicago, and had given it as gifts to out-of-state friends.  I even got my cousin Bobbie hooked on it, and brought her a half-case of the wine at Thanksgiving last year.  It is a good wine, but there were several others in the Sharpe Hill line-up that I found myself liking better.   Ballet of Angels is a blend of 10 different grapes, with Viognier the primary grape.  A pale yellow, not quite straw color, the wine has a pleasant, slightly sweet nose with notes of grapefruit.  In the mouth, the wine is crisp, clean and light-bodied with lovely notes of citrus and very clean finish.   While a dry wine, the wine has a brightness that will appeal to even those who prefer sweet wines.

American Chardonnay 2007 Hands-down this was my favorite of the Sharpe Hill whites.  aged in American oak for six-eight months, this is a drier wine than the Ballet of Angels.  Also pale yellow in color, the nose is grassy with a pleasant mustiness from the oak.  The wine has an earthiness that I haven’t found too often in Connecticut wines, they tend more towards the fruity rather than the earthy, but this wine has lovely notes of green pepper which are balanced by a slightly acidic finish.  All in all a very nice wine.

Cuvee Ammi Phillips 2007 This is a limited edition wine, although our host for the afternoon wasn’t sure exactly how many cases they produce each year.  The Ammi Phillips is 100% Chardonnay aged 18 months in brand new French oak barrels.  The result is a richer, deeper and more buttery wine than the American Chardonnay.  The color, while also a pale yellow is a bit deeper than the previous two wines and has some jewel-tone qualities, catching the light nicely.  The nose has lovely notes of butter and smoke, and the wine has a soft, smooth mouth-feel.  The finish has a touch of both sweetness and acid which balance the smoke, producing a very satisfying wine.  That being said, I still preferred the earthiness of the American Chardonnay over the buttery smoothness of the Cuvee.

Sharpe Hill Tasting Room / Photo: Marguerite BarrettVineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2007 This was described as a French-style Chardonnay, aged six-eight months in French oak barrels.  Like the American Chardonnay, this wine is more earthy than fruity, with lovely floral and slight grassy notes on the nose and in the mouth.  It’s not as smokey as the Cuvee; a result of being aged in older barrels.  While not a sweet wine, it’s definitely sweeter than either of the other Chardonnays, but finishes with a slight tartness.  This was my least favorite of the Sharpe Hill Chardonnays; I didn’t find it balanced as nicely as either of the other two.

Vineyard Dry Riesling 2008 While generally not a fan of Rieslings, often finding them sweeter than I generally like, there are Rieslings which I have really liked and will stock in my cellar.  Unfortunately this is not one of them.   Described in the tasting notes as having “complex citrus flavors,” I found the flavors to be more overpowering than complex.  Very strong notes of grapefruit are present in both the nose and the mouth, so much so that they overwhelm the wine.   Christy concurred, and we both passed quickly over the Riesling and on to the lone Rosé.

Dry Summer Rosé Made from St. Croix grapes, the Rosé is a lovely soft pale rose color, with a floral, slightly earthy nose.  In the mouth, there are subtle notes of strawberry which give the wine an interesting sweetness before finishing on a slightly tart note.  This, too, wasn’t one of our favorites, although we did like it better than the Riesling.  Christy observed that it seemed watered-down; I don’t know that I felt that, but I did find the wine didn’t have a lot of depth or complexity.

Despite the somewhat disappointing finish with the last two wines in this category, we had really enjoyed the Chardonnays and now cleaned our glasses, sat back and prepared to tackle the reds…