It has been 14 years since Unionville Vineyards in central New Jersey began a vineyard experiment by planting a variety of French grapes in what’s called the Amwell Ridge vineyard, located on a hill across from the winery in Ringoes.
That’s a little more than a 30-minute drive north of Trenton.
General manager John Cifelli gave an update back in 2017 on the winery blog, noting that the 11 types of grapevines they planted were native to all parts of France, each grown in a variety of weather conditions and soils. “Different parts of New Jersey share some similarities with each of these regions,” he wrote, “but there are no perfect correlations between New Jersey’s grape growing areas and the various viticulture zones of France.”
At that time, they made the decision to end the Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon production there, switching over to “two of our very successful Rhone white grape varieties- Marsanne and Rousanne.”
In 2020, they planted 1,500 Picpoul grapevines. Picpoul is a white-wine grape variety of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France. The name Pique-poul translates literally as “stings the lip,” a reference to the grape’s mouthwateringly high acidity, according to winesearcher.com. One winery that has successfully integrated the grape into its lineup is McPherson Cellars, located in the Hill Country of Texas.
Said Cifelli, “They are thriving; some of the shoots that pushed just above the graft union are as thick as my thumb – very vigorous. We’ve planted over 15 acres the last four years and the Picpoul Blanc [vines] are definitely the most prolific. We might take fruit from this block next year, whereas the neighboring rows of Marsanne and Rousanne will probably need to wait until year 4.
All that in mind, it seemed a perfect time to circle back to Cifelli to get an update on his assessment of how the experiment is faring. Like a lot of trials, there have been successes and setbacks, he said in an email Monday.
“I would say the jury is still out on what the Rhone project will yield,” he said. “The wines have been excellent at times, very vintage-driven. Even in marginal years, they have been interesting and worth enjoying. The 2019 vintage was just scored 90 points by Wine Enthusiast and the 2015 scored 89+ in Wine Advocate. The current release of Hunterdon Mistral Blanc, [Viognier/Marsanne/Rousanne] might be my favorite release from the entire series. It’s floral and full-bodied with perfectly balanced acidity, a gorgeous partner for summer seafood like scallops or swordfish.
“Now, the not so good. The original Syrah plantings have almost completely died from Syrah Decline. The replantings along with the new Diamond Block [1.25 acre monoblock on Amwell Ridge] went through a new virus protocol and are not showing any problems, so I am hopeful that we are on our way to exceeding our previous Syrah production peak in 2016. Viognier has shown above-average susceptibility to crown gall relative to other varieties on Amwell Ridge. We ripped out significant portions of blocks and left the field fallow for 3 years before replanting in 2021.”
Cifelli said the winery hired Rachael White in January, someone he called “the missing piece in our program.” She studied with Tony Wolf, a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech and one of the region’s most respected authorities on what’s growing in East Coast vineyards, before getting her master’s in viticulture at the University of Georgia. “We’re having our best season in six years since I took over management of Unionville,” Cifelli said. “I am excited to see how improved management will help these plants stay healthy, which should make them less susceptible to galls and other infections. We’re focusing on overall vineyard wellness now.
“So to summarize, the wines have been revelatory and set us apart in the region. The vines have struggled at times, and I think they now exist in a healthier regime that will allow them to thrive going forward. I’m more excited than ever.”
Among some other midsummer highlights from Unionville Vineyards:
- The numbers are out from Wine Enthusiast on a mix of New Jersey-produced wines. Seven of those submitted received scores of 90 or 91, including three from Unionville (for its 2019 Home Estate Grown Chardonnay, its Hunterdon Mistral Rouge and its Amwell Ridge Pinot Noir).
- In what has been a summer of heat and, in some places, torrents of rain, Cifelli said they had avoided the downpours until a couple of weeks ago. “This caused some splitting in Pinot Noir, but not enough to make a meaningful impact,” he said. “It’s been dry since. My team has done a great job keeping the canopy clean, and the fruit set was good in most varieties. The forecast looks fair to good, a manageable amount of rain is expected next 10 days.”
- Business, he said, has been good this summer. “A lot of pent-up demand seems evident. Everything feels pretty good here right now.”
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