Wednesday, November 08, 2006

And the Winners Are

What better day to look back at my experience on the Connecticut Wine Trail this year, to assess the winners and losers, than the day after mid-term elections nationally. Don't need any voting machines nor will there be any recount...for this ballot of one.

And the winners are:

Best Wines -- Chamard. For many wine fans in this area, this comes as no surprise. I even admit this is a boring choice, since Chamard has long been regarding as the best in Connecticut by critics and consumers alike. Up and down their lineup, you'll find balance, depth and decent complexity. I wanted to upset the apple cart and swoon over someone else's wines just to shake things up. But I couldn't do it. Chamard still rocks.

2nd Place -- Sharpe Hill. I love this winery for its lovely ambience but also for the strength of its white wines. There are so many strong white wines, from two wonderful but different styles of chardonnays to a very nice riesling to their signature Ballet of Angels -- a slightly sweet but citrusy delight.

3rd Place -- McLaughlin Vineyard. I almost went with another winery here, but I think McLaughlin deserve cudos for what they've done with their Vista Reposa wines -- perhaps the best cabernet franc in the state. There's terrific complexity in these wines. To be sure, there are a couple of misses in their lineup, but I just loved the Reposa and have to give them credit.

Honorable Mentions
The Connecticut Wine Trail is boasting something on the order of 19 or so wineries in the state, and I can definitely recommend a visit to about half. Actually, virtually all of the wineries have something nice to offer. You're going to meet committed, enjoyable people at nearly every Connecticut winery.

When I say I can recommend visiting perhaps half of them, I mean that roughly half make wines that I would buy. In addition to my three favorites listed above, Hopkins, Haight, Stonington and Jonathan Edwards all make wines worth trying. There were some clear disappointments. Some small operations have not yet found a way to meet the challenges of Connecticut's weather, making thin, unappealing wines. I found one well-known winery with a great reputation for making sweet wines subpar overall, with a couple of exceptions in the dessert wine category.

But the good news is that just as the quality of winemaking everywhere has greatly improved in the last 10 to 20 years, Connecticut winemaking overall has come a long way. Ten years ago I would have recommended two out of eight (25 percent) Connecticut wines. Today, I can recommend just about half of almost 20.

Lessons Learned
Once again, I find what's true for other locations is true here -- microclimates rule. I found the best Connecticut wines can boast vineyard origins that benefit greatly from microclimates. Whether it's close proximity to Long Island Sound (ocean) or Lake Waramaug, factors that help delay the onset of frost and mitigate the heat of summer make for better wines.

Experience also counts for a lot. With one or two exceptions, I also found that those winemakers who have been in business the longest make the best wines.

In the end, there's no guaranteed formula for finding wines that will please your palate. You have to get out there and find what you like. Perhaps my impressions will sync up with your own, perhaps not. But I hope my reviews over the past four months will provide some assistance. Just a word on scoring -- wine reviews that use the 100-point scale actually judge wines on a 40 or 50-point scale. Wineries get 50 points just for showing up. The other 50 points have to be earned. I followed the same model. The wineries that truly impressed earned 15 points and up on my 20-point scale.


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