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…

Sharpe Hill Vineyard ~ Pomfret, Connecticut

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

Christy actually made it to Sharpe Hill before I did, a fact of which she is inordinately proud.  Not only had I started on my Win(e)ding Road adventures before she moved here from Texas last year, but I’m usually the one who organizes the trips – giving her a ring on a Friday night or Saturday morning and saying “I’m heading of to ____ fill in the blank; do you want to join me?”  So for her to be able to introduce me to a winery is a very unusual occurrence.

However, I like to think that our joint adventures have inspired her.  One weekend in late Spring when her now fiancée, Jeff, was in town for a long weekend, she took him to Sharpe Hill for the afternoon.  I’m not exactly sure why she picked Sharpe Hill over any other winery, but late that afternoon my phone buzzed with a series of texts from Christy about how beautiful the winery was, how good the wines were, how much fun they were having, and didn’t I wish I was with them.    After I pointed out that I hadn’t been invited so no fair taunting me with “don’t you wish you were here,” I promised that I would join her soon for a return visit, so she could introduce me to a Connecticut Winery.

Gardens at Sharpe Hill, Pomfret, CT / Photo: Marguerite BarrettThat day came about six weeks later in July.  I was on a week’s vacation, and Christy had a rare Friday with no meetings or appts.  So she cleared her calendar, took the day off, and we headed up to Pomfret, Connecticut and Sharpe Hill Winery.

For many Nutmeggers Sharpe Hill is Connecticut wine – or rather their most popular wine, Ballet of Angels, is.  It’s Connecticut’s best-selling wine, partly due to the fact that it has the largest distribution of any Connecticut wine.  Pretty much every package store in every nook and cranny of the state will have Ballet of Angels.  When my colleagues at work first started hearing about my weekend wine trail adventures, they would inevitably ask, “Oh, have you tried Ballet of Angels, yet?”  Some of these were people who lived relatively close to one or more wineries and had no idea that they even existed, or that Connecticut produced wines other than Ballet of Angels.  But Ballet of Angels… that they knew.

Given all that, why had it taken me so long to get there?  That’s a good question.  Part of it is that I started my adventures on the western side of the state in the Litchfield Hills (I started in the Summer of ’08 and thought the hills would be gorgeous in the late summer and fall) and Sharpe Hill is in the far northeast corner of the state.  And being very much a Type A personality, once started, I wanted to complete the western trail before starting on the east.  And as the eastern trail runs largely along the shoreline, I started out working my way east along I95 before heading north towards Pomfret.  But if I’m being truthful, most of it was a reaction to all those “But have you tried Ballet of Angels, yet?” questions.  I’d get there, but on my time…

Sharpe Hill Vineyard, Pomfret, CT / Photo: Marguerite Barrett

Get there I finally did, and the winery lived up to everything Christy texted me that first afternoon.  Set in the rolling hills of northeast Connecticut, the winery sits on the side of a hill amidst a backdrop of gardens and vineyards.  A trail runs through the vineyards leading you to the top of the hill where you get great views of the surrounding countryside.

The winery itself is charming with a studied historic New England character.   A group of interconnected red-barn-like buildings comprise the winery, the tasting room and restaurant.  The decor and gardens were obviously carefully selected to evoke a sense of New England’s rural colonial past – right down to the copper plates and kettles decorating the tasting room and the large stone sink in the rest room.

A large formal garden sits across from the parking area, slightly lower down the hill, and the area behind the winery consists of a large stone patio and grassy terrace with abundant seating.  The tasting room itself is quite small, and on nice days, like the day we stopped by, they hold the tastings outside, reserving the tasting room for the winter or on rainy days when there will likely not be many visitors anyway.  The seating arrangements are both intimate and expansive:  spread out across the lawn and patio are small groupings of wicker chairs and love seats (accomodating 2-6 people) surrounding “coffee tables” with lovely floral arrangements.  A portable bar cart is set up to one side and people can mingle as they will and enjoy a tasting or a glass of wine at their leisure.

Christy Sherard

Christy Sherard

In addition to the winery and tasting room, Sharpe Hill also owns and operates the Fireside Tavern Restaurant offering lunch and/or dinner seatings on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year, although the schedule is more limited in the winter months.  Space is limited so reservations for seatings is required.

We promised ourselves we would make reservations one day and come back for lunch, but that Friday afternoon we were there for the wines.  Sharpe Hill offers two tasting menu options: for $5 you get a logo glass and your choice of six wines; for $10 you get the glass and a tasting of all twelve wines.   It was Friday afternoon, we had nowhere else to go, so we opted for the $10/12 wines package.

First up?  Yep, you guessed it, Ballet of Angels…