When I first arrived at Paradise Hills Saturday afternoon, the place was hopping – the bar was full of people at various stages of their tasting and a few others were milling around admiring the building and the grounds while waiting for a spot at the bar. Being in no rush, I just hung back watching the action and listening to the stories being told by the members of the Ruggerio family as they poured the tastings.
But this also gave me the chance to spend a few minutes with Paradise Hills’ winemaker, Margaret Ruggerio, something which I don’t often get a chance to do because I so often visit wineries on the weekend, and the traffic levels usually preclude a leisurely conversation. But whether I called attention to myself by taking pictures or furiously scribbling notes or whether if not pouring, the family just mingles through the room greeting guests, the end result was a very pleasant 10 minutes chatting with Margaret Ruggerio while waiting for space to open up at the bar.
In addition to talking about the history of the vineyards and the winery as well as her own background, Margaret also talked about her approach to winemaking – in particular her focus on making each of the wines distinct. I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical of this claim; I’ve heard this from other wineries and winemakers, and while wines each have their own character, so often you’ll find a winery producing several wines using the same base grape, and so while there are distinctions, I wouldn’t have said they were distinct. But with Paradise Hills’ wines, Margaret Ruggerio was not exaggerating. Each of the wines was quite distinct, beginning with the
Vino Blanco del Paradiso – a crisp, refreshing white table wine that is a blend of Trebbiana grapes imported from Italy and estate-grown Cayuga White. The nose is very delicate with lightly floral notes of apple blossom and a hint of crisp green apples. In the mouth the wine is very light on the palate with a subtle grassiness on the front developing into stronger, but not overpowering, notes of grapefruit at the back, and a touch of green apple tart-sweetness on the finish. The balance is really interesting – the grassy earthiness offset by the fruitiness were a pleasant combination. This wine definitely benefits from being served chilled, and while I enjoyed the tasting, I think this would be even more interesting when paired with food – say grilled shrimp with just a splash of lemon…
Washington Trail White – named for the “Washington Trail” a historic area of the state through which General Washington and the Continental Army traveled to pick up supplies – and gunpowder – from nearby Durham during the Revolution. Parts of the trail run directly through the Ruggerio’s property, and they’ve found a number of late Colonial/Revolutionary War-era artifacts which they are will be displaying in the winery.
The wine is a blend of Chardonnay brought in from California and estate-grown Seyval Blanc grapes. The result is a very smooth, fruit-forward wine with soft notes of pear on the front and brighter notes of citrus on the finish. The citrus builds as the wine moves to the back of the mouth and then softens on the finish. Not surprisingly, it was suggested that the wine would pair very well with spicy foods. Overall a really nice wine, but my favorite among the whites was the estate-grown
Chardonnay – 100% estate grown Chardonnay from the vineyards right outside the winery’s front door, this is a really lovely wine. Like all of Paradise Hills other wines, the Chardonnay is fermented and aged in stainless steel with any oaking being introduced through chips or staves. The nose on this wine is gorgeous, rich, soft and fruity with lovely notes of sweet pineapple. In the mouth the wine is rich and soft with notes of melon on the front and butterscotch on the finish. One of the things that I found particularly charming was how the butterscotch builds and develops as the warm wines in your mouth – it pulls the wine through palate. This wine would be great for sipping on its own or paired with a wide variety of food. As soon as I tasted it, I knew I was going home with a bottle, and I’m looking forward to experiencing it more fully sometime soon.
The last of the four whites, the Cayuga White, is currently sold out, so not available tasting. So we switched glasses before moving to the Reds. Yep, you read that right, we switched glasses… Paradise Hills serves their tastings in “real” wine glasses, not their souvenir glass (which they do have available for purchase for anyone who wants one). The whites are served in a Bordeaux style glass and the reds in a Pinot Noir style glass – by using these glasses rather than the much smaller-bowled glasses of the typical souvenir wine glass, it’s better for the wine and only enhances the tasting.
Washington Trail Red – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Merlot from Washington and estate-grown Chambourcin, this is an interesting example of the influence of terroir. While there are few places here in New England that successfully grow Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, when they are grown locally I’ve found the result to be very fruity. But the California and Washington grapes bring more earthy elements – still fruity with notes of cherry and blackberry, particularly from the Chambourcin, the wine is not as fruit-forward as the more typical New England red. The nose is subdued with slightly floral notes of cherry blossom. Medium-bodied, in the mouth the wine has, as mentioned above, discernible notes of cherry and blackberry tempered by a subtle earthiness and a smooth richness that softens the “bite” of the Chambourcin. A very interesting wine; one I think a lot of people will like.
The last wine of the tasting is the President’s Choice. Using a recipe that has been passed down for several generations in the Ruggerio family, this was the star of the show for me as well as the couple next to me. The Chardonnay is described as the winery’s “signature wine” – but the President’s Choice is the family wine. A full-bodied red, the wine is smooth, rich and very satisfying. The nose has lovely notes of dark berries and a light earthiness. Well-balanced, the wine has notes of blackberry at the front developing to notes of mocha on the finish. One of the most interesting characteristics of the wine is that I found it to linger in the middle of the palate, rather than the back – as if the wine gravitates to that intersection point where the fruit begins to give way to the chocolate…
Unfortunately this wine is not currently available for sale – the Ruggerios kept their first vintages small, producing only 1200 cases of all their wines combined, waiting to see how the wines would be received before committing to larger production. President’s Choice, not surprisingly, has been exceptionally well-received and they’ve already sold out – and they’ve only been open two months. They have enough bottles to continue to include the wine in the tasting menu, and they anticipate having the second vintage available in September, at which time they’ll resume sales. There were several of us at the bar that afternoon who were making notes in our calendars to come back in September!
Jean & Cheryl take note – we definitely need to include this on our next SOTS outing!
Keeping with their philosophy of promoting local agriculture and husbandry, the Ruggerios help foster the next generation by providing a scholoarship to a graduating senior from the Lyman Hall Agricultural program who is going on to study agriculture or wildlife conservation. To help fund the scholarship, the family agreed that all tips received from winery guests will be added to the scholarship fund – so if you get a chance to stop by help develop the next generation by leaving a generous tip in the jar!
Congratulations to the Ruggerio family – Paradise Hills is a great addition to the Connecticut Wine scene, and I look forward to many return visits, as well as enjoying the bottles of Washington Trail White, the Washington Trail Red and the Chardonnay I brought home with me that afternoon.