Best Bites: Cheers! A toast to Valley wineries: Where to find the most delicious local wines

By ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

For the Gazette

Published: 08-03-2023 11:11 AM

The thing I love most about wine is visiting wineries – especially ones that have a great set-up for tasting, eating, drinking and entertainment.

Our three main local wineries, Black Birch Vineyard in Hatfield, Mineral Hills Winery in Florence, and Glendale Ridge Vineyard in Southampton, all have this in spades. Because of these three modest-sized family-owned businesses, we’ve got a wine region.

Black Birch, Mineral Hills, and Glendale Ridge have all taken advantage of the beauty of our area to create expansive indoor-outdoor spaces for eating, drinking, and learning about wine where you can bring your family, hang out all day, and have a fantastic time.

All three wineries have gardens with lots of tables, food trucks on weekends, and enjoyable indoor tasting rooms with bars where friendly sommeliers pour fairly priced tasting flights and explain what you’re drinking. Everyone in sight is way less pretentious than anyone in Napa, and there are fewer bachelorette parties. You might see a baby shower, though.

It’s always hard for me to decide which to visit, because I love them all. For me, the choice is more about checking out the different schedules of live concerts, food trucks, and food-and-wine-pairing events that are happening on weekends all summer and into the early fall harvest months.

Black Birch gets a special shout-out for its semi-permanent installation of a delicious Laughing Tomato Pizza outpost on-site (open Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), and for its butchery that sells pasture-raised, grass-fed lamb and mutton at very reasonable prices, including shanks, legs, ribs, chops, shoulder roasts and other cuts.

In addition to the Big Three, there’s also Westhampton’s Outlook Farm, which doesn’t have their own vineyards but makes wines from grapes sourced from California and New York. They’re more focused on fruit wines and ciders, which I’ll save for a future column. There are also a couple of other cottage wineries in the area that aren’t open to the public for tastings.

Black Birch, Mineral Hills, and Glendale Ridge each give free tastings and bottle-price discounts to wine club members (generally with a minimum purchase of a winery-selected assortment of 12 bottles per year, three per season). You can find some of their bottles at local stores including Provisions and Liquors 44, but buying wine at the winery or joining the club are both great ways to support the wineries – all your money goes directly to them.

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What about the wine, though?

New England is a deeply inhospitable climate for vineyards. Thirty years ago, you could hardly find a normal dry wine made from Massachusetts grapes.

Today, the winemakers at Black Birch, Mineral Hills, and Glendale Ridge are using new hybrid grape varieties that survive better in cold climates than traditional ones. Thanks to technology and their expert enologists, they’re making plenty of good wine in a variety of styles.

Still it is hard. Every year there are the threats of late frosts in spring and early ones in fall, or hailstorms that can wipe out an entire vineyard. These difficult growing conditions and unpredictable yields, along with local wineries’ small scale, unfortunately translate to high costs and high prices.

One fashionable view in the wine world is that the purpose of winemaking is simply to grow grapes and make wines that express the local terroir and microclimate. But the wines that most honestly express these attributes of the Pioneer Valley are of a very particular type.

This type is not the most immediately likable to most wine drinkers. The truly local dry reds, in particular, are light-bodied, light in color and low in alcohol, with less fruit and higher acidity than mainstream reds. To some they may seem thin or bitter; others may find beauty in their flowery aromas or their refreshingness.

The solution that our local wineries have discovered is to supplement their own local “estate” grapes with grapes sourced from vineyards elsewhere – mostly New York’s Finger Lakes region and California’s Central Valley. The flavors and other characteristics of these sourced grapes will be more familiar to most wine drinkers.

The three wineries all make some 100% estate wines from their own vineyards, plus other wines from sourced grapes, which are often more affordable. Some also make blends of estate wine and sourced wine.

Some might whine that “local wines” should only be made from estate grapes, but I don’t agree. Our local wineries care not about snobbery, but about their customers. They are giving people wines they love at prices they are able to pay, including something for every palate. Thus they can run sustainable businesses against all (wine-growing) odds.

On to my tasting notes.

When I write about wine, I never use numerical ratings, as I think they’re scientifically invalid. Here I will simply list my favorite 10 local wines, ranked in order, with my favorite wine of the year being number one. I give preference to wines that include some local grapes, but I don’t deduct points for sourced grapes.

I also take value into account in my selection. I only recommend wines that I would buy with my own money at their retail price. Nine of my 10 selections cost less than $30, and their average price is $22. This is not cheap for wine, but it’s relatively cheap for Pioneer Valley wine.

1. Mineral Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (dry red, $23). This is a big, lush, age-worthy red wine that will stand up to rich meats, intense stews and sharp cheeses. In spite of its full body (almost 15% alcohol) and 18 months of aging in oak barrels, the wine is balanced and not too heavy to drink on its own. Its blend is uniquely bi-coastal: Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s very sunny Suisun Valley, plus some Marquette and Chambourcin from our considerably less sunny Pioneer Valley.

2. Black Birch Estate Chardonnay 2022 (dry white, $27). This fresh, medium-bodied wine is made with grapes from Black Birch’s own vineyard in Hatfield. It’s slightly toasty and nutty from light oak, with a mouth-watering aftertaste that lingers. This would go great with whole steamed-to-order lobster from a local supermarket.

3. Glendale Ridge Estate Pétillant Naturel Blanc 2021 (dry sparkling white, $26). “Pet nat,” the current favorite of hipsters, is bottled while it’s still fermenting, so the carbon dioxide stays in the bottle and adds fizz. This one’s got peach-cobbler aromas, but it’s bone-dry with refreshing acidity. Expect some sediment in the bottle. Drink it as an apéritif, or with sushi or summer salads. There’s also an equally refreshing rosé version.

4. Mineral Hills Le Tre Sorelle 2019 (dry red, $24). This enveloping blend is another bi-coastal rarity, combining two California grapes (Cabernet Franc from Lodi and Cabernet Sauvignon from Suisun Valley) with Chambourcin from Dartmouth. It’s oaked for 18 months and is full of cooked fruit and black pepper spice. This is not a picnic wine. Drink it with a hearty meal.

5. Black Birch Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon 2022 (dry rosé, $23). If there were ever an ideal diet wine, here it is. This pale-orange-colored rosé has zero residual sugar and just 10.8% alcohol. It’s tart and refreshing. Drink it on the beach, or in your backyard on a sultry summer afternoon.

6. Mineral Hills Fantasma Bianco 2022 (dry white, $19). This crowd-pleaser is named after Fantasma, the family dog. Its Itasca grapes (a cold-weather variety from Minnesota) are 100% local, from the Mineral Hills estate in Florence and Makana Farm in Williamsburg. You’ll get some toasty oak aromas, but it’s bone-dry and not too heavy. This is a good wine for sipping like a cocktail any time of day.

7. Glendale Ridge Estate Corot Noir 2020 (dry red, $22). Corot Noir is a “hybrid variety,” developed at Cornell and bred to be hardy in cold weather. Don’t expect too much fruit. It’s bright and perfumey, with flower and fresh cherry aromas and not much tannin. Its low alcohol is light on the brain and liver, but there’s some underlying force to it as well.

8. Black Birch Bloom No. 22 (sweet sparkling rosé, $21). This festive, flowery, effervescent wine spritzer has just 9.8% alcohol and drinks like punch. Because of its high residual sugar (4.5%) and low acidity, it’s guaranteed to be some people’s least favorite of my picks, and some others’ favorite. Put this out next to your dry wines at a party, and it might just go quickest.

9. Mineral Hills May Wine (sweet white, $19, or $38 for a 1.5 L bag). This traditional German festival wine is a semi-sweet Riesling from Finger Lakes grapes, infused with woodruff, a potpourri plant with green leaves and white flowers, plus orange, pineapple and sugar. Drinking it is like sticking your nose into a flower garden.

10. Glendale Ridge Estate Frost 2020 (sweet white, $50 per 375ml bottle). Ice wine, made by pressing the ultra-sweet juice from frozen grapes, is always very expensive to produce and thus to buy. The Frost, from Glendale Ridge’s own Vidal Blanc grapes in Southampton, is the golden raisin syrup of your fantasies, balanced by plenty of acidity. Drink it with blue cheese, with dessert, or as its own dessert. The 2020 is sold out, but a new vintage may be coming in the future.

Before closing, I have one wish. It’s that I wish local restaurants would serve local wine. A few once did, but as far as I can tell, it’s now down to Homestead in Northampton, with a single bottle at a white-knuckle price.

The two biggest problems, it seems, are prices and distribution. First, when you add restaurant markups to local wine prices, you get a $60 bottle on a wine list – almost nobody spends that much. Second, local wineries generally self-distribute, and don’t have the resources to do regular sales calls and deliveries for smaller accounts.

Every great restaurant in the area serves local craft beer. My suggestions are that local wineries seek distribution partnerships with local craft breweries or craft beer distributors, and that they offer special wholesale discounts for restaurants. Visibility on restaurant wine lists, even if the margins aren’t much, could help build recognition and bring more visitors to their beautiful vineyards.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.

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