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New Jersey wines: A rising tide

The emerging region on America's eastern seaboard is starting to get noticed for Bordeaux varieties and sparkling wines. We take a look at the region's history, growth and potential.

America’s defining ethos of freedom, at times a stereotype, is nonetheless a guiding principle that binds the nation. New Jersey embodies this ideal, even when it comes to winemaking. From Bordeaux-style blends, sparkling wines, and ambitious co-ferments, Jersey is paving its identity through freedom of expression. Grape expression.

‘Older European regions have a lot of rules for wine – when to pick, what to grow. American wine doesn’t,’ says Julianne Donnini, an attorney-turned-winemaker at Auburn Road Vineyards.

‘New Jersey has even fewer rules. People have very few expectations of what we’re doing here. It gives us a lot of creativity and flexibility to try making different wines.’

More than 80 varieties are grown in the region (with about 57 wineries), including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sangiovese, Albariño, Chardonnay, Merlot and Petit Verdot.

Small family businesses operate most vineyards. Setting up viable winemaking has taken time, especially because history has not played in Jersey’s favour.

Prohibition and over-regulation

Even though vines were planted in New Jersey since the colonial era of the 1700s, a combination of phylloxera in the 1800s and Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 nearly decimated all winemaking. Following the repeal of Prohibition, New Jersey instated a law that allowed only one winery license for every million state residents.

To put that into perspective, in 1933, there were about four million residents in the state, which meant only four wineries could be granted a license. The restrictive law was repealed in 1981 with the Farm Winery Act, leading to a Jersey wine resurgence.

In 1999, fifth-generation farmers like Bill and Penni Heritage began swapping their 60ha of peach and apple orchards for vineyards. Today, they produce the state’s leading wines, including Bordeaux blends and traditional method blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs sparkling wines.

‘We need to establish ourselves as being present and deserving,’ says Devon Perry, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association.

‘Every sip of New Jersey wine is an epiphany experience. We are shocking people that this exists. We’re growing on you.’

A tractor crosses the Beneduce Vineyards estate. Credit: Beneduce Vineyards

Topography and climate

New Jersey is in the northeastern United States, nestled right below New York. The Finger Lakes are around 500km to the north. The Delaware River to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east provide moderating and maritime influences.

New Jersey has four AVAs: the largest is the Outer Coastal Plain, which spans the southeastern part of the state, while Warren Hills is in the northwest. The Central Delaware Valley is shared with eastern Pennsylvania, and finally, the Cape May Peninsula in the south. Collectively, there are more than 640ha of planted vineyards.

Sandy loam soils dominate the region; there is more clay composition in the north and sand in the south. Night-time temperatures are lower up north, aiding diurnal shift and acidity retention.

Hurricane season and rainstorms are commonplace in the summer and autumn. The Delaware River and rolling hills act as barriers that tend to break up the clouds. Canopy management and spraying are used to manage disease pressure from the region’s humidity.

New Jersey gets about 100cm of rainfall a year with vast annual variation – some years are wetter than others and hard to predict. If this sounds like Bordeaux, that’s because it is very similar. The climate and topography resemble the French region’s, and Jersey wine producers have taken note by planting accordingly.

Winemaker at William Heritage, Kevin Bednar, says birds can also be a nuisance, and in the way of American innovation, he’s employing new ways to deter them.

‘You know those dancing blow-up guys from a used car lot? We put them around the vineyard, and it totally works,’ Bednar says. ‘Though the birds do get used to them, so we have to swap them out.’

image of vineyards in New Jersey

Beneduce Vineyards. Credit: Beneduce Vineyards

New Jersey’s wine today

It’s not just birds flocking to the vineyards in New Jersey. The wineries are agrotourism sites with tasting rooms, food service and live music, attracting folks from neighbouring New York, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. High-quality wines here are made in an Old World style, with lower alcohol, lower tannins and balancing acidity. Along with Vitis vinifera, hybrids like Chambourcin, with ripe black cherry and plum flavours, perform well.

Vineyards in the northerly Warren Hills AVA or nearby Hunterdon County where Beneduce Vineyards, specialise in Riesling, Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir, and even a Gewürztraminer pét-nat. On the opposite end, Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery on the southern tip of the state makes traditional method sparkling wine and a forced-carbonation rosé. William Heritage in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA co-ferments Golden Delicious apple juice on Cabernet Franc skins for a still cider.

‘The goal, thus far, has been experimentation,’ Bednar says. ‘A lot of wine regions can’t do that because of expectations of that region. We don’t have those limitations. And we do not like to be put in a box.’

The 2012 ‘Judgement of Princeton’, modelled after the 1976 Judgement of Paris, played a pivotal role for the state where New Jersey wines were blind tasted against French ones. Although a French wine won top honours in the white wine category, the next three places were New Jersey Chardonnays. Soon after, in 2015, the Winemakers Co-op was formed – a group of Jersey winemakers dedicated to elevating the state’s fine wine and image. Members of the co-op share viticultural resources and set their own benchmark for quality with a unique Jersey twist.

‘With our dry rosé, we love to say it’s an Italian variety made into a French Provençal style rosé made in the Garden State,’ says Donnini. ‘That’s New Jersey wine.’

image of winemaker in the cellar

Winemaker Mike Beneduce does punch-downs. Credit: Beneduce Vineyards


10 New Jersey wines to try

This selection of bottles covers wines from the styles and regions mentioned above.


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