50 States Project: Vermont

Aka, are Vermont grapes feeling the Bern?

Vermont is a very cold state. Too cold, most European growers would say, to yield grapes that can make expressive wines. As places like Sussex, Ontario and Vancouver are showing us, global warming is allowing some very northern places greater ability to produce higher quality wine, but many of these regions are waiting painfully for classic vinifera wines (like Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) to be able to grow. In Vermont, many wineries are shaking their fists and saying no to vinifera-elitism. They are taking the grapes of ‘Murica, gosh darn it, and melding them with those hoity-toity European varietals to create hybrids that not only grow in the state, but excel.

Most of these varieties, like ‘la crescent‘ (a white grape) or ‘marquette‘ (a red grape) have unique expression depending on the particular terroir where they are grown. (Other grapes include ‘cayuga’, ‘frontenac’, ‘baco noir’ and ‘leon millot’ – all of which are probably the names of new-soul artists. I’m waiting to discover a ‘Kelela‘ grape.) Most of Vermont’s wineries align the coast of Lake Champlain, with a few on the Grand Isle (a weird little island just off the coast of mainland Vermont.) The wineries that have been brave and jumped into these hybrid varietals have seen mixed levels of success as they fight to minimize mildew diseases without resorting to heavy pesticide and chemical sprays. Vermont vines are plagued by Japanese beetles (who look like those creepy broaches your middle-school librarian probably wore), mites and black rot. Conveniently, because Vermont’s wine industry is very recent, those winemakers who choose to take it on do so out of a passion for terroir-focused winemaking, meaning that most of the wineries are at the very least organic, if not biodynamic.

Two wineries are particularly leading the pack when it comes to getting Vermont’s name on the national radar: Shelburne Vineyard and La Garagista  Shelburne is kicking butt with its whites, particularly its sparkling “Celestial Louise” (great cat name, btws) and its gold-medal winning “Louise Swenson”. La Garagista had a particularly flattering write-up in the New York Times, which led to stockist Frankly Wines to sell out every order it’s made in the last six months. (This diligent reporter managed to snag a bottle of the 2014 Vinu Jancu by basically hounding the store owner for a week.) La Garagista has managed to get into a number of California and New York wine lists based on its unusual flavor profiles and natural winemaking techniques. The Vinu Jancu (a white made from primarily la crescent) I tasted was like a floral cider: it bloomed with orange blossom and lemon flavors, but then settled down into slightly tangy and acidic stone fruit flavors.

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Here’s the skinny on Vermont’s still very thin industry:

It’s all about being local. If you aren’t tasting wines made from hybrid local varieties you might as well throw the bottle away.

It’s expensive and very limited editionFor the wines which are coming out of the state, it isn’t going to be cheap. Shelburne’s prize winners retail between $18-$35, while La Garagista’s go for much more (think $35-$60). These wineries are tiny and make generally less than a hundred cases a year.

It’s trendyVermont wines tend to be organic, natural and bottled with agonizingly twee and adorable labels like the one above. Collect ’em and set them on your shelf for the hipsters.

Great resources:

Vermont Wine – http://www.vermontwine.com/

Vermont Grape & Wine Council – http://www.vermontgrapeandwinecouncil.com/