A trend with RI vineyards, and our farms in general, is how hard they work to keep extra chemicals off of their crops. Each vineyard approaches the problem differently, but they all seem to use some combination of cover crops, tilling and even specialized mowing equipment to keep weeds and bugs from harming their vines.
“On our travels to California and Long Island, everything was about the insectaries and about compost,” said Nancy Wilson, the owner of Greenvale Vineyard in Portsmouth. Her son, Billy, is spearheading their effort by growing wildflowers to attract beneficial insects and even using nettle tea, a natural fertilizer in his compost piles.
“That water line was put out, but we’ve never had to use it because the natural irrigation is so good,” Greenvale’s tasting room manager Maggie Harnet said, motioning to a water line. She was explaining how factors like the proximity to the ocean and pitch of the land create perfect growing conditions. Grapes are resilient, and stressing the plants a little bit forces them to hold onto their nutrients instead of growing a large canopy, according to Maggie.
Over a tasting with Deborah Daniels, the director of guest relations and wine education at Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard in Little Compton, she explained how Rhode Island is similar to the northern coastal regions of Europe and particularly France. RI doesn’t stay warm for long enough to support the ripening of big robust grapes like merlot and cabernet sauvignon. It is, however, ideal for dry white and light red varieties that generally fare well in acidic soil and occasionally brisk conditions.
“We’re more like the French style, the Burgundy-style chardonnay,” said John Nunes, Jr., co-owner / vintner of Newport Vineyards in Middletown, referring to the grapes he uses to make two of their wines. “We’re not looking to do a California butter bomb in your face; this is a real food wine.”
A large form of public outreach for these vineyards are their classes and tours covering the growing and production of the wine along with different food pairing guidelines. Entertainment isn’t restricted to only eating and drinking, either. Greenvale has jazz weekly and Sakonnet has a summer concert series. Newport Vineyard hosts both comedians and musicians along with a farmers market. If you’re looking to get a little more involved, some of the vineyards even enlist the help of the public to pick the grapes come harvest season. Remember to bring a camera. The properties are works of art in and of themselves, and catching them as the sun is fading is downright magical.
The vintners and staff go out of their way to welcome you onto their farms and in some cases, their homes. Diamond Hill vineyard is a classic New England farmhouse tucked away in the woods of Cumberland. The ground floor is open to the public as a tasting room and shop. The majority of the property is open to explore as well, the exception being the family garden and other private spaces.
Diamond Hill grows a few varieties of grapes including cabernet franc and chardonnay, but only their pinot noir is completely estate grown. They started adding fruit wines to the roster because it allowed them to produce a product while they age and make more grape wines. “If we get a crummy year we just don’t make any wine,” Chantel Berntson from Diamond Hill said. “So that’s why we like having the backup of the fruit, not only because they’re our most popular, but it allows us to go to farmers who just grow great blueberries or raspberries and make wine from their fruit.”
For a good look into the production side of viticulture, Brix restaurant is located in the Newport Vineyards winery and part of the dining room overlooks the production facility. Go when the grapes are being harvested to see the crushing process over a glass of wine with dinner.
If you get a chance to try some of the wine the state is producing, pay attention to the riesling from Newport Vineyards, the gewürztraminer (pronounced guh-voorts-trah-meener) from Sakonnet, Greenvale’s vidal blanc and Diamond Hill’s fruit wines.