Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sharpe Hill Vineyard

Tucked away in Connecticut's rural northeast corner, the Sharpe Hill Vineyard doesn't feel like it's close to anything. Indeed, it was our longest trek to a Connecticut vineyard, and we're more or less located in the center of the state. But, don't let that stop you. Sharpe Hill is arguably the Connecticut Wine Trail's finest "destination."

Sharpe Hill is quite simply a fabulous setting for an outing, especially right now while Connecticut's hillsides are beginning to light up with color. And, the winery hosts a fantastic, though pricey, restaurant. The fare here features classics such as filet mignon and Delmonico steaks, and the more trendy, such as Jamaican chicken. But what makes the restaurant so distinctive is the liberal use of estate-grown herbs and fresh ingrediants of all kinds -- right down to the edible flowers on your plate.

However, we had such a wonderful meal and were so impressed by everything in sight that I have to make a very deliberate effort to prevent my enthusiasm for the dining experience to spill over into my review of the wines. This is not a restaurant review, after all.

The Facilities
The winery is located in a hilly, pastoral setting bordered by forests -- quintessentially New England. But the vineyards you pass driving in help you appreciate that this no dairy farm. To really soak up the vineyard ambience, you must walk up the hill and through the rows of vines, as guests are invited to do. You will learn a few things about vineyard management -- loudspeakers pipe in the sounds of predatory birds squawking loudly to scare off the grape-eating birds -- and you will be treated to some lovely views of the valley below.

The facilities themselves are rustic, on the one hand, with their exposed beams, barnboards and plank floors. But these modernized barns are so lushly decorated with flowers, so clean and well organized that the scene is somehow one of rustic elegance. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but believe me, you'll struggle to come up with an apt description of your own for this simple but classy environment.

There's only one potentially sour note to the setting. The tasting room is the first room you enter upon arrival, and it has a very definite rustic charm with its antiques and colonial farm decor. But as soon as you request a tasting you soon discover the quarters set aside for tasters are cramped, indeed.

The tiny tasting bar more closely resembles a check-in counter at a country inn than a winetasting bar. Four is the absolute maximum that can fit comfortably at the bar to sample wines. If you come at an off-time and have the place to yourselves or if you can get a seat outside on the patio for a tasting, you'd probably think I'm exaggerating the point. But if you come on a busy weekend, I'm sure you'll agree Sharpe Hill is not paying enough attention to the needs and comfort of tasters.

For this reason, I've got to knock a point off the score for the quality of these otherwise charming and enjoyable facilities. I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 score.

The Staff
Sharpe Hill is a big enough operation that you're not likely to run into the winemaker schmoozing with guests. But the staff we met helped make up for that fact. They were friendly, knowledgable and eager to find the answers to questions not exactly wine-oriented -- my wife's curiosity led her to grill the staff about the identities and other details of some of the early American portraits that grace some of the Sharpe Hill wine labels. When they did not know answers, they found someone who did.

These women were patient and personable. They were sometimes distracted by the large number of tasters and guests on the patio, making extended conversations sometimes difficult, but this was understandable and not a significant problem. I give the staff a 5 out of 5 score.

The Wines
Tasting at Sharpe Hill will set you back $5 a person, a fairly standard amount for Connecticut wineries. In general, I found many high quality white wines and some passable reds. Sharpe Hill offers more wines to try than do most others, so it probably makes sense to get right to it.

Ballet of Angels, $10.99. This is the winery's signature wine, found in almost every Connecticut wine store. The staff claims it's New England's best-selling wine. They will divulge that the wine includes vignoles and up to 8 other grapes, but staffers will say no more about the exact blend -- the "winemaker's secret." In any event, this stainless fermented and aged wine has very nice grapefruit and lime flavors with a sweet note throughout. Not enough sweetness to be distracting, but enough to keep it in mind for spicy foods.

Cuvee Ammi Phillips 2004, $22.99. This chardonnay, made exclusively with Long Island fruit, is a big California-style wine. Aged in French oak, it has rich vanilla and cooked apple flavors. Despite the very noticeable oak, it's fairly well integrated.

Sharpe Hill Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2003, $15.99. This estate chardonnay is a more subtle, yet enjoyable, version of chardonnay. Aged in old oak only, the fruit trumps the vanilla here for a crisp and food-friendly wine. I'm not sure why they serve it after the Phillips, but I would not do so.

Sharpe Hill Vineyard Dry Riesling 2005, $14.99. If you're used to lush, sweet riesling, this wine will come as a surprise to you. It has nice citrussy flavors and some flowery aromas, and could pair well with goat cheese appetizers. It finishes very crisply.

Dry Summer Rose, $14.99. This a very crisp, dry rose with just a hint of strawberries. It's a little too light, I think, but they did manage to keep it in the realm of respectability.

Red Seraph, $12.99. This blend of merlot and St. Croix has some nice plum and red licorice aromas but finishes weakly. It's a pleasant red, but not quite up to the food pairings suggested by the Sharpe Hill menu -- lamb and chocolate desserts? It would be crushed, and not in a good harvest way.

Cabernet Franc 2003, $17.49. Cabernet franc tends to be New England's favorite red vinifera grape because it does not take as long to ripen as others. This wine shows some nice red cherry and raspberry aromas but is just a bit thin and underripe. It's enjoyable but shows the difficulties New Englanders face trying to make quality red wines.

St. Croix 2004, $17.99. The tart red cherry fruit does not show a hint of complexity and makes me wonder about the 14 medals it's supposed to have won.

Select Late Harvest 2004, $22.99. Not a bad effort at all, with pineapple and sweet lime flavors. I would have liked a bit more acidity and balance, but the flavors extracted from this boytryticized vignole-based wine are very pleasant.

Despite a couple of misses in the red wine category, Sharpe Hill makes some excellent wines worthy of seeking out. Most people in the area may know Sharpe Hill only for its popular Ballet of Angels wine, but they really should try more of the lineup. I give the wines an 8 out of 10 score.

With some very strong white wines and an idyllic setting, Sharpe Hill should be one of the 3 or 4 Connecticut wineries you visit if you have to limit yourself to just a few. There's an attention to detail here that you won't find just anywhere. Sharpe Hill's overall score comes to 17 out of 20 points.

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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