Many thanks must be given to that first person who realized that when you crushed grapes and let the juice sit, that juice could ferment into a delicious, literally intoxicating drink: wine. Brave may be the first person who cracked open a live oyster and ate it raw, but the mantle of certifiable genius must be bestowed upon the first winemaker.
Almost since the dawn of humanity, people have been harvesting grapes and fermenting them into wine. There’s evidence of winemaking going back to 6,000 B.C. in Georgia – the Asian republic, not the southern state – and there are traces of the very first winery in Armenia dating to 4,100 B.C. Many know that two of the world’s great culinary countries, France and Italy, have deep traditions in producing some of the best and most well known wines.
But what about the “New World?” Certainly all wine drinkers have had a wine from California and many have probably had a wine from Australia or Oregon, but what about right here in our backyard? Did you know that the oldest vineyard in New England is in Little Compton, or that one of the better sparkling wines in the United States comes from Westport or that Aquidneck Island has two vineyards within two miles of each other?
As with just about everything we consume, wine begins with farming, and the grape varieties that go into making wine have traditionally been some of the most difficult fruit to farm. Grapevines need the right soil to burrow their roots down deep into and pull out that essence of the land – terroir – into the fruit. The climate needs to be just right to ripen the grapes to the perfect point before picking and crushing. There are natural predators such as birds, deer and rodents, and there’s vine disease and so many other things that make farming grapes some of the most labor-intense agriculture in the world.
You might ask, what possesses people to do it? Well, wine possesses people! There are a handful of those possessed here in Rhode Island and neighboring coastal Massachusetts who have been growing and producing wine for decades, and while it may not get any easier, it’s constantly improving. As the vines get older they produce better fruit. Like with some wines, winemakers’ abilities improve with age. And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the climate change in our region has made it more viable to grow good varieties like Pinot Noir and Malbec in addition to the more commonly grown Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.
So who are a few of these possessed local wine producing pioneers? Let’s take a quick look at four of the East Bay’s top wineries, and then you should put the magazine down and take a visit to all four. Because of course, the best way to experience local wine is to taste it, and you are in for a treat as winemaking keeps getting better and better in southern New England.