Wine making in New Jersey dates back to the 18th century, although the Garden State's first commercial winery - Renault - didn't open until 1864. In 1981, state laws limiting the number of wineries were changed. Now New Jersey boasts over 40 wineries.
January 2012 should see a legislative vote on direct shipping in and out of the state, which would be a boon for New Jersey winemakers. Here's a Wine Spectator article on that legislation.
Valenzano Winery is a family-operated vineyard located in Shamong, New Jersey, in the New Jersey Pinelands less than an hour east of Philadelphia. They produce wine from grapes grown in Southern New Jersey. The winery was licensed in 1996, taking the winemaking
hobby of Tony Valenzano, Sr. to the commercial level. The Valenzanos now have three locations, and they aim to produce 30,000 gallons of wine - quite a growth from the 500 gallons produced in their inaugural year.
From the Valenzano website: "We produce both Merlot and Chardonnay, along with a selection of vitis-labrusca varietals and hybrids that are unique and specific to the southern New Jersey microclimate. For the past decade, we’ve also been working with dozens of different varietals in accordance with our soil, climate and growing season. ...Cynthiana, also known as ‘Norton,’ the only North American varietal which can produce a big, bold, old-world style table wine, has garnered us the coveted Governor’s Cup two years in a row -- a first in the Governor’s Cup competition!" Valenzano also produces a signature red wine from Chamboucin and wines made with Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Their vineyards are mainly in the Shamong area, but they also source grapes from vines at a number of other small farms in New Jersey.
Valenzano Winery states that they aim to produce wines not to please critics, but to please wine drinkers. They make a big claim: "We would match any of our wines against any wines produced in California or Europe in the same price range." The Valenzano wines range in price from eight to 17 dollars.
Valenzano Winery was kind enough to provide me with four of their wines to sample, and they were quite impressive overall.
Valenzano Merlot, Outer Coastal Plain, 2008
This Merlot is touted as a "West-coast style," although it has only a 12.5% abv number. It sells for $15. Medium dark in color, light goes through it easily. The nose is very rich and loaded with fruit. Blackberry, plums and cassis stand out. There is a good deal of American
oak spice also prominently displayed. On the palate, smoke, licorice and cinnamon show strongly. Flavors of strawberry and blackberry with the aforementioned smoke are joined by a hint of an herbal note. This green quality is in the background behind the fruit and spice the first night the bottle was open. The herbaceous quality took over on second night and stood as an equal to fruit on the third. It reminds me of Cabernet Franc quite a bit.
Valenzano Merlot, Outer Coastal Plain, 2010
This more recent vintage of Merlot again shows a terrific nose full of fruit. The wine is extremely dark, black almost.
Very aromatic black cherry, mocha and chocolate dominate. There is a vegetal angle which is quite dark - not green, but like black olives. The palate is rich and dark, too, with currant, blackberry, black pepper and black olives in a setting of strong tannins and fantastic acidity. The lengthy finish is much appreciated.
Valenzano Cabernet/Merlot, Outer Coastal Plain, 2010
The bottle shows the 2008 vintage stricken in magic marker, with 2010 written in its place. The label also shows a blend of 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, but Anthony Valenzano tells me the '10 has 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc.
On the nose, this very dark-hued wine displays an incredible array of dark fruit and baking spices. There is also a green element, as if the grapes were whole-cluster pressed. The Cab Franc makes its way to the front of the olfactory show without trouble, while Merlot and
Cabernet Sauvignon assist.
Very clean and appealing on the palate, the Valenzano Cab/Merlot is vibrant and fresh. There's no mistaking the flavor of the Cabernet Franc, or the lip-smacking acidity. The Merlot's spice makes a play, as does the minerality of the Cabernet Sauvignon. There is a sour cherry flavor that lingers beautifully into the finish. Tasting this wine on an 80 degree Los Angeles day made the illusion of spring more vivid. I envision this wine will also be great when chilled a bit and served outdoors at summer picnics.
The wine is great for sipping - medium bodied and easy to drink - but has the necessary qualities to make food pairing easy. It grew darker in flavor over the course of several days open. After enjoying it for a while, it hit me that I was drinking a $10 bottle of wine. It's quite a value at that price.
Jersey Devil Port
This Port-style wine is made with Cynthiana grapes - known as Norton in some places - and is fortified with brandy and oak-aged for three years. It carries a whopping 19.5% abv and sells for $16.
I smell greenness behind the dark fruit. I also smell a lot of that brandy, which is actually a 93% oak-stored grain alcohol. I have loved Norton on the occasions I've tried it, and find the grape somewhat masked by the other factors involved here. This a wine that should find favor with people who like to sip hard liquor. That is what comes through the strongest.
The Port-style was not much to my liking, but the Merlot based wines were outstanding. In fact, the Cabernet/Merlot is one of the best wines I've had in the past year or so. The Valenzano website shows a number of wines - made with both grapes and other types of fruit - which look quite interesting. Apple cider, cranberry and blueberry wine catch my eye, as do wines made from grapes like Chambourcin, Cynthiana, Vidal Blanc and a Cabernet Franc blush!
Valenzano is winery that definitely has some interesting ideas about wine and is worth a look.