Tuesday, October 11, 2011

500 Vines with Funky Names – Prospect Hill Winery Lebanon, Maine

Elvira, Edelwiess, Chancellor, Aurore, Sabrevois, Marechal Foch, Frontenac, St. Vincent, St. Croix, Landot Noir and Prairie Star. Some wine enthusiasts will recognize these as grape varieties and examples of those typically grown in cold and harsh climates like Maine. Others might think they were more likely foreign destinations or made up names. We’ll get back to the story of these grapes and the wines made from them in just a bit.

Richard and Anita Carle are the dynamic duo at the center of Prospect Hill Winery, but make no mistake; this is very much a family affair. Arriving to a full house on a warm mid-Autumn Sunday, Richard and Anita’s grandson John was my tour guide through the vineyards. I am jealous of John. I came to winemaking at 30 years of age, but John is just a teen and has been working around the vines and in the winery for more than 6 years already. By the time he comes of age to legally consume the products he has worked so hard to help create he is going to know so much! He is already passionate about his labors, professing his love for the spot where the vines are located; talking about them like his future children. We arrived the week following the completion of the harvest, which John said had come in great. As we headed back to the barn we ran into Nathan, Richard and Anita’s son. The busy day had pressed him into service giving tours and helping turnover the tasting room for new guests. He was smiling, and I suspect he knew that it would be a good day for the winery, and by extension his family. In the flurry of the tasting area Richard and Anita's daughters were hosting tastings and checking guests out.

Grapes were first planted on the property in 2002. I asked Richard how he came to grow vines and he responded with a classically funny quip that always renews my desire to dig into the stories behind the wines I enjoy. The land was originally used to pasture cows, which they slaughtered for the beef. Realizing they drank more wine than they ate beef the idea to switch to growing grapes was floated and took hold. I wonder what the cows thought of that conversation!

They started with Elvira and Edelweiss, both white grapes, and small plantings of St. Vincent and St. Croix for reds. In 2005 they established themselves commercially, producing what wine they could from the small number of mature vines. The first significant harvest was in 2007, from five red varieties in addition to the Elvira and Edelweiss. Fast forward to 2011 and there are now 500 vines in total, a number Richard says is what they feel they can manage and will work with for the time being. This brings up notable point about Richard, Anita and Prospect Hill. The operation is small in scale, but they are very clearly keeping it at the size it is by choice. It is obvious they are working on hard to make sure all the elements are in balance so they can produce a quality product and also provide a warm, friendly experience for guests. This pragmatism was refreshing to see. They could grow larger, and I bet they will in time, but they know what they have and how to make it work, something so many people wish for; and many never find.

I did some background research on a couple of the grape types to present the reasons why these types exist why they might be used in the climate found in places like Maine.

Edelweiss – Developed in 1980 at the University of Minnesota by Elmer Swenson. It is a winter-hardy variety cultivated to withstand the harsh Minnesota winters, which bear similarities to Maine. It is also strongly resistant to disease and fungus typical to grapes. It is a cross between the Minnesota 78 and Ontario grape varieties which includes Vitis labrusca parentage. This fact is significant because early, and under-ripe picking is recommended to reduce the labrusca character that many people find offensive in finished wines that exhibit it.

Marechal Foch – This grape is a hybrid developed in France in 20th century with an uncertain lineage. It is believed that it is a cross of Goldriesling, a Vitis vinifera variety, and another grape that could have both Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris parentage. What we do know is that it is an early ripener, cold-weather hardy and resistant to fungal diseases. With small berries the threat from birds is high. This variety does see a specific improvement and likeness with traditional red wine as the vines age.

All the wines at Prospect Hill are made from estate grown grapes. Richard makes the case for this being a local winery very plain, invoking the word terroir in the process. While wineries elsewhere do make other choices with regards to the source of fruit, keeping it hyper-local is something he is passionate about. We talked briefly about how the desire to grow and expand business into things like a restaurant, event facility, etc. can put pressure on wineries resulting in non-estate wines. This is something that is understood as a choice, but not one without concerns.

I tasted 8 wines during my visit.All the wines are dry and naturally acidic, which translates into healthy tartness. The whites are from the 2010 vintage and the reds, except for the last, were from the 2009 vintage.

I started with the Elvira. I found this wine to have a citrus driven nose, grapefruit was the predominant aroma I could identify. In the mouth I found tart apples and more citrus, this time lemon. This wine is very tart and crisp without being grapey.

The Edelweiss was next. The grape comes out in the wine, and its origin as a table grape is consistent with this. It is also citrus driven and again tart and crisp. This wine is very smooth despite the high level of acidity and tartness. I could see many summer days sipping on this wine being just right.

The next wine, Edelvira, is a blend of the first two grapes. It is again dry, crisp and tart with abundant citrus. The balance was a bit off, but after tasting the Edelweiss and liking it, I could have been biased.

We moved on to the reds. Frontenac was up first. I have had Frontenac quite a few times so the nose was easily recognizable to me. It's a bit wild with cherries. The cherry comes back in the mouth and with the generous acidity comes off as tart cherries without a doubt. There are hints of oak in the nose, but they don't linger into the palate. Richard explained that they use oak chips versus barrel aging for their red wines. I'm familiar with this from my own wine-making and know that it does give the winemaker fine grained control on the oak for small batches of wine. The tannins are a little coarse, but for a 2009 this is reasonable to expect.

The Prospect Hill Red is a blend of Frontenac & Foch. The Frontenac nose pops up again, but the difference in the mouth is easily noticeable. The fruits are darker in this one, including plum and blackberry. The tannins are a bit more smoother and the balance of this wine is in a good place.

Next up was the Foch by itself. It is a softer wine than the Frontenanc, something I prefer this grape for. Hints of cherry and dry soil in the nose and mouth. Despite the high acidity it is very smooth and seriously drinkable.

The Harvest Red is another blend, this time of St. Vincent and Frontenac. This time the Frontenac nose was amped up with more fruit and that translated to the mouth. Lots of cherry and berries. The tannins are noticeable in this wine, suggesting some aging time for softening would see an enhanced drinking experience.

The last wine was the 2008 Chancellor. The nose on this wine is huge, full of dark fruits like plum and blackberry. The fruit is a solid player right through the finish making it a true full bodied wine. I found it to be very smooth with an obvious drying and aging from the year of additional age compared to the other reds. The tannins are smooth and provide a noticeable structure to the wine. This was the winner of the day for me!

A little over a week ago Margot and I hosted an all New England wine tasting. Unfortunately Maine didn’t show very well, and I knew we needed to seek out additional wines to try to help us better contextualize what Maine could do. I met the Carle’s a few years ago at a trade event where they were pouring their Foch. It had grabbed me then and during my search for wines to include in the tasting I had checked on the availability of wine from Prospect Hill. Their wines are only available at the winery and they don’t ship. You have to visit to taste and to buy wines to bring home. For a small winery with a good story, this is really the way to go.

One of the best problems small businesses can have is seeing their product fly off the shelves. As I was finishing the tasting of the whites, with the Edelweiss being my favorite, it was determined that the last customer to leave had purchased the remaining bottle of Edelweiss, meaning there would be no more available until the spring next year. I was bummed, but so happy for Prospect Hill. Their size is manageable for them and they often sell out before they close up for the winter. The Edelweiss was added to list of wines sold out for the year that already included Prairie Star, Aurore and their Prospect Hill White.

We did take home two bottles of the 2008 Chancellor. The additional year of bottle aging had shown development of the structure and texture of the wine over the younger reds, and I felt it was the best of example of the potential in Maine wines I had yet come across.

This week is Regional Wine Week, a celebration of  lesser known wine regions and their wines. All week I will be sharing the wines of the New England region, my home base and my wine enthusiast playground.




KovasP said...

Good to hear you found a Maine rep to make up for the NE England tasting!

Gretchen said...

Do you think that the wine didn't show well because people weren't familiar with the varietals?

Jason Phelps said...

@Gretchen - the wines at the tasting that didn't show well were a Viognier and a Hard Cider so I'm not sure it was that. The wines from Prospect Hill that would be unusual to some would have shown better on quality alone. The Viognier was sweet and unbalanced and the cider felt to me like it was over the hill. Cider is something my crew is pretty familiar with since I make a good deal of it myself. Some folks liked it mixed with one of the red wines at the tasting, but that is kind of a cheat and doesn't speak to the cider in any way.

On the flip side, after two rounds of local seasonal beers Maine took 3 out of 4 of the top spots. There is something in that I think.

Thanks for stopping by!