Sunday, June 18, 2006

Haight Vineyard

The first stop on our quest to evaluate Connecticut's native winetasting experience is Litchfield's Haight Vineyard. Located in the northwest part of Connecticut, Litchfield is known for its rolling hills, pastoral scenery and large country estates (Litchfield is home to many wealthy New York natives and even a few famous movie stars looking to escape the glare of Hollywood). It should also be known as the home of Connecticut's first established winery.

Having planted their first grape vines three decades ago, Haight is among the state's most experienced winemakers producing a number of white wines, a couple of reds and a couple of fruity wines. A number of Northeast wineries make wines based on different fruit combinations -- my guess is that this a popular practice here because it's so darn difficult to produce a diverse lineup of extracted, interesting reds. While many people like, for example, blueberry or apple wines, I won't be reviewing them. I really have no good frame of reference for comparing them, and I suspect most people are not coming out in search of these wines anyway.

The winery is located on a wide open piece of farmland, surrounded by vineyards. With plenty of room to move, the winery hosts many community events, such as craft fairs and a Taste of Litchfield.

The facility itself offers loads of rustic charm. A walk upstairs, past the tapestries and mounted game tropies, takes you to a fairly large tasting room and gift store. There are a couple of tables for leisurely tasting by the fireplace, and there's a veranda. While the tasting bar can get crowded, there's plenty of room to explore the many different items for sale. In fact, my wife rated the gift store one of the best at a local winery. So I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 (see end note on scoring).

Our guide for the tasting experience was a very pleasant woman who conveyed a real love of wine, without resorting to cliches and hype. She also had a good knowledge of the products, though she had a few holes in her memory banks and couldn't answer some questions. All in all, she was helpful to anyone looking to learn and get excited about wines. 3 out of 5.

The Wines

Tastings are free at Haight. In general I found some tasty whites with good acid levels, but the reds lack ripeness and complexity. Growing grapes in Connecticut means an almost constant battle against mildew -- this year, with lots of early rain, is off to a very bad start. But the occasional dry years can help Connecticut winemakers make some excellent wines. The wineries right now are serving almost all '04 wines (not ideal), though a few have some '03s. But some of the problems are evened out by using up to 49 percent of the grapes from other sources (true of wineries across much of the U.S.), such as South America or California. Haight uses some grapes from California.

Chardonnay ($11.98). This wine won't net blockbuster scores, but it's a very enjoyable, crisp style of the varietal with green apple aromas and just a bit of oak.

Covertside White ($9.98). An off-dry blended wine made from seyval blanc from different vineyard sites is interesting and enjoayble. Could go well with light Asian dishes.

Barely Blush ($9.98). A bit simplistic and quite sweet -- not for me.

Riesling ($11.98). A very nice expression of the grape, this wine is somewhat sweet but with balance. Definitely a Litchfield Hills success story.

Merlot ($11.98). Light and simple with tart cherry flavors. Just not there.

Picnic Red ($10.98). Made with mostly marechal foche, this red has a bit more ripeness with a slightly sweet finish. More full-bodied than the merlot, it would be nice with grilled summer foods. However, also short on complexity.

Honey Nut Apple ($9.98). A dessert wine made apples and honey (she twisted my arm), this wine lacks for acidity but is nonetheless enjoyable with its slightly nutty finish.

I enjoyed roughly half of these wines and find in them reason to hope for even more from Connecticut vineyards -- at least from the whites. I give Haight 8 out of 10 for quality of wines.

As a winetasting destination, Haight gets 15 out of 20 points, in my opinion. Which is quite good, if you consider the high quality of winetasting experiences to be had in the big wine-producing states. As an aside, we were told that the Haight family and its aging patriarch are selling the winery and vineyards. Hopefully, the winery will continue, even grow. But this might be good incentive to check it out soon.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.


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