Tuesday, October 8, 2013

NH Oldest Winery: Jewell Towne Vineyards

I recently visited Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton, New Hampshire’s oldest winery. My only complaint is that I didn’t visit sooner. They have a great story to tell, a beautiful vineyard and excellent wine.

Peter and Brenda Oldak moved to their 12-acre farm in 1977 and planted six grape vines in 1982. At that time, Peter was a home gardener with a background in science and chemistry who started experimenting with winemaking and planted more vines and varieties to see what would grow best in New Hampshire. Four years later, he was making wine and in 1990, there were 60 varieties of American, European and French hybrid grapes in the vineyard area of the farm. He found that its location facing the Powwow River made a great microclimate for grapes.

In 1990, the vineyard was officially established, named after the Jewell Towne Historic District of South Hampton. Peter narrowed down the grapes to 20 varieties and with the help of other agricultural and wine professionals, further developed his winemaking skills.
Peter’s work paid off, because in 1992, Jewell Towne’s South Hampton White won a gold medal and best hybrid of the show from the American Wine Societies national competition. A second wine, Alden, won a silver medal.

“This is what I call the beginning of a hobby run amok,” said Brenda recalled during a tour of the vineyard.

Two years later, the winery went commercial, producing 40 cases of wine that sold out in three weeks. With visitors flocking to the vineyard, the Oldaks realized they needed a tasting space and had reserved an area on the property for that purpose. The tasting room was built in 1998 and has been expanded since due to the winery’s continued success.

During my visit, vineyard employees and volunteers were harvesting grapes, a process that usually occurs from September through October. After the grapes are harvested and weighed, they are put through the crusher stemmer. From there, they enter the bladder press. We had a chance to see this process in motion during the tour and it was very neat.
Brenda showed us the vineyard’s plants, set eight feet apart, set-up in a vertical shoot positioning formation for maximum grape ripening. The vineyard’s microclimate makes it so little irrigation is needed. She also noted the plants have 10 to 15 foot roots.

“You can’t make top quality wine from bad grapes,” Brenda said.
Inside the winery there are 500 and 1,000-gallon tanks and an automated bottling and corking system. The Oldaks have come quite a long way from making wine in their garage and bottling, labeling and corking bottles by hand.

“For us, it makes a huge difference,” Brenda said of the automated machine, noting it now takes them five to six hours to bottle, cork and label the amount of wine from a large tank, versus two days by hand.

While I had tried a few of Jewell Towne’s wines before, the sampling list at the winery was extensive and it was hard to choose only a few to try.

“We are really focused on winemaking,” said Brenda in the tasting room, surrounded by awards and articles written about the winery.

The wine speaks for itself. I tried Cayuga White first, one of Brenda’s favorites. This wine is off-dry with flavors of tropical fruit and melon. Next, I tried Traminette, a Gewurztraminer and Seyval hybrid that is sweet and delicious. I took a bottle of this home, along with their Vidal, an off-dry, full-bodied white that is smooth and fruity.

Jewell Towne is one of the only wineries in New Hampshire that produces Steuben, an off-dry rosé similar to white zinfandel, but with much more flavor and depth.

For reds, I really enjoyed their River’s Edge, a semi-sweet red blend of Concord and Leon Millot grapes; Landot Noir, a mediuim-bodied wine with aromas of licorice and leather; and their Port, which is fruity, but much less harsh on the palate than others I have tried.
In addition to liking each wine I tried at Jewell Towne, I also loved the atmosphere. The tasting room was cozy and welcoming; the vineyard was beautiful and the staff was friendly, knowledgeable and took their time letting us try each wine. Even my friend Amanda, who doesn’t usually drink red wine, enjoyed their selection and she took a bottle of red wine home.

Do not wait as long as I did to visit Jewell Towne Vineyards. They are open year-round from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Visit jewelltownevineyards.com for more information.

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