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Coolly redefining ‘vintage’

Encouraged to grow by vintners in even cooler climes

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2011

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BURLINGTON, Vt. - Roll down the windows. That’s the first thing I do after easing off the interstate. As I cruise along roads with unfamiliar names that hug northern Vermont’s undulating landscape, the humid air is filled with the scents of bluegrass and clover, sugar maple and spruce, and fields of blooming wildflowers. I inhale deeply, and as my trusty van crests a hill above Route 15 I see what I’m looking for: rows and rows of neatly spaced grape vines.

Grapes are not the first crop that comes to mind when we think about Vermont. Maple syrup, apples, cheese, butter, ice cream? Sure. Grapes for making wine? Not so much. But if the Vermont Grape and Wine Council makes its mark, we will discover another reason to tour the Green Mountain State.

On a weekend trip, I can’t tour all 21 wineries and tasting rooms promoted in the council’s Wine Passport Program. (Visit at least 10 to become eligible for prizes.) So I plan to stay in Burlington on Lake Champlain and visit four in the vicinity.

These northern, cool-climate vineyards all plant hybrid grapes, a combination of European varieties for wine quality and native vines for hardiness. In the past 10 years, vintners have added Minnesota hybrids (including Frontenac, La Crescent, Sabrevois, and Marquette), varieties that survive in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero. In addition, they have looked to Canada for inspiration and are producing quality ice wines - dessert wines made from grapes frozen while still on the vine.

First stop, Boyden Valley Winery. Flagstone steps lead to the red carriage barn, circa 1875, that serves as welcome center, tasting room, and sales office at this 1,000-acre farm.

I’m greeted by Bridget Jones, the wine room manager, who is about to lead a tour of the tank and barrel room and bottling facilities.

“We grow about 70 percent of the grapes we use on the property,’’ said Jones. “The rest we import from other growers in Vermont or nearby.’’

Four generations of Boydens have worked this land, most recently as a dairy farm, but in 1997 owner David Boyden and his wife started the winery. (His brother is growing organic corn and soybeans on another part of the property with the goal of raising organic beef.) From 8,000 grapevines, they produced about 6,500 cases of wine last year.

Standing between stainless steel tanks and French oak casks, we watch a short film to learn the basics of grape growing, harvesting, and wine production. Near the bottling apparatus, David Boyden stirs giant vats of fruit fermenting in open steel containers.

“We make cranberry and blueberry wines in the summer before the grapes are harvested in the fall and wine production begins,’’ said Boyden. “We had friends in the wine business in Quebec and Europe. We’ve tried to learn from growers in colder climates.’’

Back in the tasting room, Jones offers samples of white, rosé, and red wines, as well as fruit, dessert, ice wines, and a recent creation, an ice apple crème liqueur produced by combining Vermont ice cider with apple brandy and cream.

It’s a scenic drive across the Roosevelt Highway causeway out to the Snow Farm Vineyard in South Hero, an island in Lake Champlain. The tasting room and retail store occupy a restored barn atop a hill brushed by cool breezes.

“The lake provides a microclimate for us, so the island has a growing season 30 days longer than the rest of Vermont,’’ said Marilyn Connor, who describes her job as “a little bit of everything’’ from picking grapes to pouring.

Snow Farm Vineyard was created out of a concern that agricultural land in Vermont was being lost to residential and commercial development. When owner Harrison Lebowitz and his wife, Molly, first moved to the state, they became upset after learning a local dairy farm had gone bankrupt. A chemistry major in college who knew nothing about making wine, Lebowitz thought there had to be a way to keep farms open and working. In doing research, the couple met winemaker Patrick Barrelet, who had trained in Dijon, France.

“He majored in pinot noir,’’ said Lebowitz. “That was way better than anything I’d ever heard to major in.’’

They worked together to start the vineyard, which “came into existence’’ in 1996. Lebowitz admits he chose the name because “it sounded Vermont-y. Ernest and Julio Lebowitz doesn’t sound too good.’’

The vineyard produces about 2,800 cases a year. They also manage two satellite tasting rooms: one in Quechee, and the other at Cabot Cheese and Green Mountain Chocolate complex in Waterbury.

“I call it the cholesterol mile,’’ Lebowitz joked. “There’s Ben and Jerry’s, the Cabot Cheese and chocolate. Our red wines break the cholesterol.’’

Day two: After a good night’s sleep and a swim in Lake Champlain, I’m ready to taste more wine. I aim the van south on Route 7 from Burlington, and in a mere 15 minutes arrive at the Shelburne Vineyard.

The bright and airy barn may look rustic but in fact it’s only three years old. Inside, it’s a state-of-the-art winery with a wood-polished bar that serves customers daily, year round.

Owners Gail and Ken Albert started the business 13 years ago, first by leasing land from nearby Shelburne Farms (still in use) and then purchasing more.

“Ken was an engineer with IBM. We grew grapes for 35 years in our little garden in the woods,’’ said Gail. “Ken saw all the vineyards in Quebec and thought, if they can do it in Canada, we can do it in Vermont.’’

The winery uses 50 percent of its own grapes and 50 percent of grapes grown in the Finger Lakes of New York and Vermont, and produces about 3,000 cases per year. They use Vidal Blanc grapes for their ice wines.

“Ice wine is getting quite popular in Vermont,’’ said Gail.

Before leaving, I peer into a room filled with enormous steel tanks. The winery offers free tours throughout the day, but with one more place to visit I bid goodbye and hit the road.

On a hilltop just north of Middlebury is Lincoln Park Vineyard. The one-story tasting room, with its brick pathway between well-tended gardens and a long expanse of deck overlooking a pond with osprey, feels more like entering the home of old friends than a commercial establishment. Indeed, it’s a family-run business.

“I’ve been involved in the farm since the day I was born,’’ said Sara Granstrom. She has just come in from a day tending the vines. “We had pick your own strawberries on this land for 25 years.’’

Sara’s dad, Chris Granstrom, has been farming in the Champlain Valley for over 30 years and mom Michaela is an art teacher who helps farm in summer. Credited with being the first vineyard in the state to plant large amounts of Minnesota hybrids, Lincoln Park also uses an innovative trellis system, the Geneva Double Curtain which uses two sets of wires to spread out the vines so they train downward.

They currently plant about 12 acres, and use all their own grapes in wine production that yields about 2,000 cases a year. All the grapes are harvested and pressed the same day.

In early August, the grapes are just beginning to turn from green to red, a process called “veraison,’’ a French term that means “the onset of ripening.’’ Out in the vineyard, Sara Granstrom points to a trellis heavy with firm, purplish orbs.

“This is the second most exciting time of year, other than the harvest,’’ said Granstrom. “Every time I see it, it blows me away anew. You can start to taste harvest on the horizon.’’

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Courtyard Burlington Harbor
25 Cherry St., Burlington
802-864-4700
www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/btvdt-courtyard-burlington-harbor/
Located steps away from Lake Champlain, downtown, and the marketplace. Doubles from $259.
What to do
Boyden Valley Winery
70 Vermont Route 104
Cambridge
802-644-8151
www.boydenvalley.com
Taste seven wines for $6 and keep souvenir glass.
Snow Farm Vineyard
190 West Shore Road
South Hero
802-372-9463
Off-season: 802-372-9463
www.snowfarm.com
Taste 10 wines for $6 and keep souvenir glass.
Shelburne Vineyard
6308 Shelburne Road
Shelburne
802-985-8222
shelburnevineyard.com
Taste eight wines for $5 and keep souvenir glass.
Lincoln Peak Vineyard
142 River Road, New Haven
802-388-7368
www.lincolnpeakvineyard.com
Taste six wines for free; ice wine $3 a sample.
Information
www.vtgrapeandwinecouncil .com