On a warm Sunday at Alfalfa Farm Winery in Topsfield, owner Richard Adelman uncorks bottles for that afternoon’s tasting. The spring 2008 wine list, scrawled on a chalkboard that leans against the tasting room wall, features wines like cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio, and seyval blanc.
by Alexandra Pecci
Although these and other grape varieties grow at the foot of Alfalfa’s familiar silo, visible from Route 95, Adelman says many people are unaware of the winery. In fact, the North Shore is home to several wineries, each producing wines that are as distinctly different from one another as the fruits they start from.
“You’ll find that vineyards have personalities, like people,” says Rich Collins, director of sales and marketing at Jewell Towne Vineyards, which straddles the Massachusetts-New Hampshire line in Amesbury and South Hampton. And if North Shore wines, made from fruits like blueberry, rhubarb, black currant, and of course, grapes, are any indication, he’s right.
So why travel to Napa or other far-flung wine regions to satisfy your palate? Eschew the high fuel prices and experience a wine weekend right here on the North Shore.
Start up north at Jewell Towne Vineyards in Amesbury and South Hampton, where you’ll find a huge variety of 100 percent grape wines and a laid-back vibe. The winery produces red, white, rose, port, and ice wines from grapes grown on their farm. Open year round, it offers free tours and tastings. And no two tours are the same.
“It all kind of depends on the personality of the person giving the tour,” Collins says. Visitors can learn about whatever piques their curiosity, from the winemaking process to the grapes themselves. “It’s very loose. We just encourage people to ask questions.”
In the tasting room, classical music reverberates off a high ceiling, and the gold-hued oak and pine surroundings give the place a cozy, homey feel. Collins says at any given time, there are between 20 and 25 bottles open for people to try. And since they’re made from hearty, cool-climate grape varieties, the wines won’t taste like ones from California.
“You’re going to find something completely unique and different here,” Collins says, and that’s a good thing. “People are learning that the wine is just as good.”
Those who want a California-like winery without leaving the North Shore, however, can find it at Red Oak Winery in Middleton.
“Our motto is ‘bringing the West Coast to the East Coast,” winemaker Frank Spadafora says. Although all of Red Oak’s wines are produced in Middleton, they’re made from California grapes. Spadafora says he wanted to make his winery a local destination.
“It was important to us when we built this to have a winery that people could come to and experience the tour, the tastings, the boutique shop, the whole ambience that most wineries have,” he says. Part of that ambience includes his heritage.
“I grew up in an Italian family. My grandfather made wine; my father made wine,” he says. In addition, Red Oak makes marinara sauces from its wines and cures its own prosciutto. Although they don’t sell the prosciutto, Spadafora says he often serves it during tastings.
“If a crowd comes, in I’ll take out the leg and start cutting it up and putting it out for people to eat,” Spadafora says.
For a mix of grape and fruit wines, visit the historic farm at Alfalfa Farm Winery in Topsfield. According to Adelman, the farm has been there for about 300 years, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that his family started growing grapes there.
Adelman says their grapes are particularly suited to the cool New England climate and soil conditions. For example, seyval grapes are hearty plants that sleep for the winter, insulated by the snow.
“There are really a lot of variables in all this,” he says, adding that last summer was the best grape-growing weather the area has seen in the past few years. Alfalfa also produces blueberry and cranberry wines, using fruits from Maine and Cape Cod.
“Maine wild blueberries make the best blueberry wine, we’ve found,” says Adelman.
In addition to tastings and events, Alfalfa Farm Winery hosts an annual Harvest Festival in October, with music, food, and of course, wine.
In Ipswich, just a few miles from Crane Beach, Russell Orchards & Winery boasts more than apple cider doughnuts and baskets of farm-fresh vegetables. The farm also makes several varieties of fruit wines.
Although the winemaking started with hard ciders, it has expanded to include other wines like blueberry, jostaberry, and dandelion, says Miranda Russell, owner and manager.
“We like to make the wines out of all the fruits that we grow,” Russell says. With so many wines to choose from, it’s hard to pick just one favorite, and Russell’s depends on the season.
“This year I love the blackcurrant,” she says, adding that she also likes the strawberry, which is among Russell’s most popular wines because it’s sweet, but not sickly sweet. “It’s just delicious and easy to drink,” Russell says. “It has a beautiful bouquet and beautiful color.”
Wine connoisseurs appreciate Russell Orchard’s blueberry wine because it’s similar to a cabernet and aged in French oak, giving it a smoky quality. “The blueberry is a fruit that’s similar to the grape,” says Russell. “The skin is included in the crushing; it has the tannins.”
Visit Russell Orchards before it closes for the season the Sunday after Thanksgiving to try their holiday wines like blackcurrant and blueberry, which pair well with meats. And don’t forget dessert.
“Raspberry is a wine that I think pairs beautifully with a rich chocolate cake,” Russell says.
Local Wines, Local Movement
As environmental consciousness is raised, people are trading the grocery store for the farm stand, shopping for produce and other products that are locally grown and made. According to North Shore wine makers, buying wine made here is a great way to become a part of the local food movement.
Buying locally made wines is not only a way to support North Shore businesses and help the environment, Collins says; local wines are also often more affordable. And they just taste great.
But perhaps Miranda Russell says it best: “Get a corkscrew and start cracking!”
Haverhill by the Holidays?
Keep an eye out for Willow Spring Vineyards in Haverhill. Although they’re not open for business yet, they’re been growing grapes since 2002. Owner Jim Parker says they have about 1,000 vines of six different varieties and hope to have wine for sale by the holidays. They’re also restoring a circa 1790 barn for the winery.