Rhode Island is home to no less than six vineyards scattered throughout a state that takes approximately 30 minutes to drive through. It is part of the South Eastern New England AVA, which also encompasses several vineyards along the SE coast of Massachusetts (up through Cape Cod) and a few in Connecticut around the New London area.
“Coastal” is the main attribute you’ll find among Rhode Island’s vineyards. In fact, a majority of them have an ocean view, which in my opinion is the best nature can offer: vineyards + ocean = Lindsay’s slice of heaven!
Now what about the wine? Well, I once had someone tell me the soils here are better suited for growing potatoes rather than grapes—okay, I’ll admit to having eaten some mighty tasty local spuds (and you can’t knock the fact that Mr. Potato Head is also a RI native). However, after a recent daytrip to the East Bay where we visited Sakonnet, Greenvale, and Newport Vineyards, I was convinced that Rhode Island does indeed make some pretty interesting wine.
Rhode Island’s soils are mostly silt with a distinct gravel influence (leftover deposit from the last Ice Age once the glacier subsided). It has a cool growing season with a mean temperature of 70 degrees that is strongly influenced by its maritime climate—especially by the Gulf stream (as in “Gulf of Mexico”), which rides up the East coast, then bangs a right at Cape Cod and heads towards Europe. Like Europe, Rhode Island can thank the Gulf Stream for its warming effect that prevents deep killer frosts that would otherwise make grape growing impossible here.
However, unlike much of Europe, we also are subjected to cold fronts from the northwest that are responsible for those harsh, snowy winters that New England is famous for. Therefore, plantings of solely European grape varieties can often be challenging, though they do exist. Like many cooler grape growing regions in North America, Rhode Island also utilizes numerous French-American hybrid grapes that are a genetic cross between European varieties (from the Vitis vinifera species) and native North American varieties (generally from the Vitis aestivalis, rupestris, riparia and berlandieri species). In theory, these hybrid grapes are meant to offer the “best of both worlds” = all the taste and complexity of European grapes, plus the cold hardiness and disease resistance of North American grapes.
RI Wines of Distinction
These are the wines from each vineyard we visited that made the greatest impression:
- Sakonnet Vineyards: I enjoyed both the Chardonnay and Reserve Chardonnay (the later having seen some oak-aging). Both were light, balanced and with pleasant fruit flavors (the anti-“big, buttery Chard”, if you will). I also recommend the Rosé from 100% Cabernet Franc (great strawberry/raspberry fruit flavors and more than the usual substance you typically find in a rosé). Also impressive was the Petit Red, which I was told is a “little of everything”—meaning a blend of all their red varieties. For a seemingly hogpog concoction, this blend had both balance, flavor, a fair amount of structure, plus a nice finish.
- Greenvale Vineyards: They win my vote for best Vidal Blanc. It was as crisp and refreshing as they come with pure fruit and mineral flavors and without the funkiness you sometimes find in hybrid wines. I also was impressed with the Reserve Chardonnay, which again was a light combination of fruit, minerality and just the right touch of oak.
- Newport Vineyards: This place always excites me because there are just so many wines to choose from (I recommend sharing the tasting with at least one other person so you can fully explore this portfolio). From our last tasting, I really enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc, which had some nice citrus fruit, well-integrated with some appealing grassy notes (think “fresh cut lawn”). I also enjoyed the Cabernet Franc with its fine cherry flavor and black spice, as well as some great acidity that would make this a very food-friendly wine. Lastly, I was most intrigued by the Landot Noir—a 100% varietal wine made from the French-American hybrid of the same name. I did a little research on this particular grape variety and found not much at all, other than that it’s also grown in New Hampshire and considered to hold great promise for the New England terroir. I would have to agree. This wine was so smooth, silky, balanced, and without a trace of foxiness. I would dub it the “New England Merlot” and hope that more continues to be planted.
After a day of exploring the eastern half of the state’s vineyards, here are my basic conclusions about Rhode Island wines:
1. Diversity: Whether you like red, white or rosé, naked or oaked, sparkling or sweet—RI wines are produced in all styles using a long list of grape varieties. What you’ll commonly find in the portfolio are the following types of wines:
- White wine: Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay (with and without oak), Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and often a white blend made from both vinifera and hybrid varieties.
- Red/ Rosé wine: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon (either as varietal wines, a Meritage blend, or both) and Pinot Noir; Rosé wines are also made from those same red varieties; Lemberger (aka. Blaufränkisch) is another common red variety seen both as a varietal wine and within a blend.
- Sweet wine: Anything from a late harvest to a true ice wine (as offered by Newport Vineyards) made from Vidal Blanc; Ports are also common: Sakonnet offers a red port made from 100% Chancellor; whereas Newport vineyards has a white port from 100% Niagara and a red port that is a changing blend of all the red grapes it produces.
Perhaps the most impressive wine list is found at Newport Vineyards, whose double-sided tasting sheet offers visitors no less than 31 labels to choose from, including 14 whites, 9 reds, 4 rosés, 3 “dessert” wines and 1 sparkling wine (plus a hard cider for kicks!)
2. Estate grown: Both Newport Vineyards and Greenvale produce wines that are entirely estate grown. Sakonnet Vineyards also produces a large number of estate grown wines, as well as wines made from imported grapes. In terms of size, Newport Vineyards is the largest with 60 acres, followed by Sakonnet Vineyards (50 acres) and then Greenvale (24 acres).
3. Hybrid grapes: As mentioned earlier, producers here utilize many hybrid grapes (particularly the French-American hybrids) to make both varietal wines, as well as wines blended with other hybrids and also European varieties. The most commonly seen hybrid grape here is Vidal Blanc—which in my opinion represents Rhode Island’s token wine. It is a white grape that all three producers use to make a still white wine that exhibits some nice tropical fruit with a dose of earthiness and the slightest hint of sweetness. Vidal Blanc is also used to produce a late harvest dessert wine (or genuine ice wine, as seen from Newport vineyards). Other commonly seen hybrid grapes are the white varieties, Cayuga, Seyval Blanc, and Niagara, and the red varieties Chancellor, Maréchal Foch, as well as the less common, but highly distinctive Landot Noir.
4. Ocean view: Even if you don’t like the wines, you can’t go wrong with the scenery. The vineyards we visited are all located within walking distance of the Narragansett Bay. In fact, during the height of summer beach traffic it may actually be quicker to swim to all three instead of drive.
5. Goes with quahogs: But of course—in the land of stuffies, clam cakes and chowdah (translation: breaded clams, clams fried in dough and clam soup) what else would you pair Rhode Island’s wines with? Its most revered mollusk, naturally.